Wabi-Sabi Little Boxes

by Christine Adams Beckett

There is a concept in Japanese culture which represents an aestheticism that transcends the beauty of imperfection: wabi-sabi.  Reminiscent of the Buddhist ideal of the yin and the yang, the philosophical principle of happiness being unappreciated until true despair is understood, “wabi sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” (From Wabi-Sabi simple, by Richard R Powell, Andrews McMeel Publishing).

A friend of mine just bought a new Porsche, which suffered its first ding from an over zealous door-opening friend, who is described as “not quite sure of her location in space”.  Our collective response was that she deserved great thanks.  The first dent perhaps inflicts great initial pain, but only then can we truly appreciate the true purpose of the vehicle and use it with less inhibition.  More, there is a story behind the small ding in  the right front quarter panel, otherwise sleek and shiny with factory fresh glittery paint.  It spins a simple tale of this wonderful person in the driver’s life who has zeal as well as an uncoordinated gait, which adds to her appeal and lovability.  Perhaps her lack of agility is a wabi-sabi trait in its own, the flaw she wears without hiding, a quirk that puts others at ease about their own foibles.

Antiques are objects often preferred to decorate a house.  Unlike mass-produced pieces that clutter every other house on a suburban street, old tables have stories hidden behind scratches and wear.  Older objects offer an invitation to use them as they are intended to be.  They remind us of their real purpose: to serve dinner to beloved friends, to offer a chair to an exhausted friend, to invite a set of feet to rest after a bone-wearying day without worrying about the flawless couch cushions.

I attended my 20th college reunion over the weekend, and took the 4-hour trek there in a well-dented car with a dear friend.  We shared what she called our “shit sandwiches” with each other, the challenges of life that are inevitable in some form for us all: regret, death, divorce, infertility, among others.  We mused that we were headed down to sit amongst the seemingly perfect people, who have hidden their own shit sandwiches well from view in Malvina Reynold’s proverbial little boxes, a song ironically shared by another friend over dinner — of over-cooked chicken — that same weekend.

Refreshingly, it seems as though our classmates have reached a well-developed level of wabi-sabi aesthetic of their own lives.  Unlike the last reunion I attended, I presume it was our 5th, we middle-aged crowd turned away from trying to impress one another with our accomplishments and our material gains and turned instead to the real goal of life.  In our more advanced stage of development, we have focused more on the only meaningful end: that of connection with one another.  Love is the basic human need of any being, as nice as new Porsches may be.  Photographs of children and stories of their indiscretions, peppered with tales of caring for aging parents were the topics of any overheard conversation.  Interestingly enough, many were open to share their own stories of challenge and even better, their survival.

It made me love them stronger than ever, my family of classmates with whom I shared great hope 20 years ago.  We ignorantly thought that the informational interview with Time Magazine at age 22 would produce a bi-line but it didn’t.  Ignorance has been replaced with self-consciousness and struggle,  resulting in deeper self-knowledge.  There are dings in the paint and there are shit sandwiches being served in Malvina’s little boxes, and somehow that has put us all at ease and free to connect with something that is real for us all.  We have imperfections, and we are learning to try to correct them the best way we know how.  That youthful feeling of hope has been replaced with a delicious wabi-sabi, yin-yang developing package of understanding.  It is the struggle and imperfections that make the boxes, showing wear and peeling paint, more appealing than ever.

“One word frees us from all the weight and pain of life: That word is love.” -Sophocles