Tuesday, January 3, 2012


Wabi-Sabi is a Japanese term that embodies finding, and appreciating beauty in a naturally imperfect world. This concept has a number of meanings in my world - one that I discuss on my clock website has to do with the feel of tools in my hand. So much of the equipment I use in my clock hobby is older than I am. Tools that have been held and used for many years develop a feel that makes them comfortable in the hand. Actually, I find that tools from years ago often were designed to fit the hand, while modern tools seem more focused on function. To the point that I bought a very nice pair of Swiss bent-nose needle-nose pliers, figuring they would be better than the pair I had been using which had to be 50 years old. And, while the new pliers have nice sharp edges for picking up small objects, they still live in the drawer because I find the old ones more comfortable to use.

Wabi Sabi is an ancient aesthetic philosophy rooted in Zen Buddhism, and particularly in the tea ceremony. Masters prized hand-made bowls that were handmade, irregularly shaped, with uneven glazes, cracks, but still a beauty in their deliberate imperfections.

Wabi can be translated as “Simplicity”, whether elegant or rustic. Sabi refers to the beauty of age and wear.

Another way of thinking of Wabi-Sabi is that it is the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, the antithesis of our classical Western notion of Beauty as something perfect, enduring, and monumental.

I find my appreciation of wabi-sabi grows as I age. One example is the feeling I get every time I crawl into my 1970 Jag XKE. And, yes, crawling is one way to describe getting over the wide sill and settling into the contoured seat. This is a car that looks quite good from 30 feet, but begins to look a little shabby at 5 feet. The feelings it engenders are akin to the feelings I get when I put on my current pair of well-worn leather work gloves - everything feels like it belongs where it is, my hand knows where to find each switch, knows the feel of the gas pedal, and just how far to let the clutch out for it to begin to engage. On a recent drive through some wonderfully twisty mountain roads (I always thought C.W. McCall’s description of such roads was most apt: “It was hairpin county and switchback city. One of 'em looked like a can full'a worms; another one looked like malaria germs.”) I rediscovered how much I love the response of that car - and its feel. Perhaps in another 30 years I will develop the same appreciation for my BMW Z3 - but somehow I doubt it will be quite the same - BMW’s really are just too perfect - while an old Jag pretty much embodies the concept of wabi-sabi.

Wabi-sabi - crows feet around your grandmothers eyes, the frayed legs of a favorite pair of jeans, the scars on an old pair of boots. When I see photo’s of models with their overly made up faces, showing only the perfection of a peach, I kind of feel sad - because I truly believe there is beauty below the plastered on layers of color and texture. You won’t find wabi-sabi in Botox, glass-and-steel skyscrapers, smart phones or the relentless drive for self improvement. But you will find it in the simplicity that reveals itself through the daily work of living.

For me, another aspect of my appreciation of wabi-sabi are the tools I inherited from my dad. Don’t have much from him, a lot was lost in a fire. But, there’s the 30's vintage floor jack that I found buried in the mud outside his shop. It had a broken cylinder, but I found a magical machinist that could braze the cast iron and re-bore the cylinder, and I was then able to rebuild it. I also have two screw drivers, a pair of needle nose pliers and a pair of wire cutters that were his. My hand gravitates to them, even though I have nicer, more expensive, better tools, these are the ones my hand wants to use.

Where is all this going? Good question. I suppose one direction is the satisfaction I get when I see myself in a mirror at the gym. Not perfect, ok, not even close. Will never have 6-pack abs, but the definition I have managed to develop please me more than any body-builders physique. Or perhaps it is the letting go of the need for everything to be perfect - to accept that which we can not change.

Accepting the world as imperfect, unfinished, and transient, and then going deeper and celebrating that reality: This is something like freedom. Life - scratches, scars, laugh lines - is itself perfectly imperfect, and I can find and embrace the beauty in that.

In writing this post I drew inspiration and phrases from a lovely article in “Whole Living”. And, if interested, the lyrics to C.W. McCalls song “Wolf Creek Pass” can be found here: Wolf Creek Pass

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