Friday, July 13, 2018


As I write and read more about wabi-sabi, my aspiration to complete a larger piece -- I'll admit it, a book -- incites its own inner dialogue. Much of what I have read on wabi-sabi stops short to settle on wabi-sabi's potential influence on interior design - earthier materials, flaws for the sake of flaws and a litany that morphs into a white-noise yadda-yadda-yadda that prompts a snarky tone on my part that does not do the topic justice. (See?) In recent months there has also been a certain faddishness surrounding the wabi-sabi which has misrepresented it. I have wanted to take a certain defensive position to clarify what it really is but ultimately find it quixotic.

The thing that I've wanted to articulate about wabi-sabi is that, beyond merely being a visual
aesthetic, it is a moral one, a call for a commitment to integrity and an acknowledgement of truth. In the current political environment, the need for morality, sincerity and humility in the face of the current bluster has never been more pronounced and discouraging. The wisdom we need is so close at hand, but our collective laziness and our individual despairs have muted and immobilized far too many of us. Donald Trump is the very walking antithesis of wabi-sabi and he casts a tangential shadow on so many thoughts, no matter how hard we try to stay positive, but there continue to be people asserting their discomfort and an odd sloth of intellect and deed to keep us on the bleakest path.

We do not work to change things as much as we work to keep things the same.

On a night when I wonder if writing about my obsession with this particular aesthetic, admittedly self-conscious about the possibility that I am appropriating it for myself to make a pointed argument against things I don't like because... because they just aren't right or they simply piss me off, is going to make any difference for me or for anyone who would deign to read this.

There is every possibility that I would better use my time tonight by sewing buttons back on shorts that I've been unable to wear, communing (even at a distance) with a trusted friend, reading a book or zoning out in front of the television I will attempt to drift away from the snark and frustration and plead the wabi-sabi case.

Earlier this week, I came across the following quote from Richard R. Powell's Wabi Sabi Simple, "we do not work to change things as much as we work to keep things the same." (p. 26) His book is one of the more in-depth and wide-ranging discussions of wabi-sabi and there may be the slightest chance that he has dented my literary ambitions this week, or at least help divert them.

It is true, though. Populist politicians have been put in power to turn the clock back, regardless of the massive paroxysms they may prompt as dubious supremacies prevail over diversity, inclusion and equality. It leaves me with the feeling that the pendulum has not only swung too far, but that it has broken as well. Technology may have amplified hatred a little to well, a deft tweaking of algorithm has provided a solid foundation for the regression that is being so willingly sought.

I could rail and rail about the absence of integrity, the willful blindness and hypocrisy of those who simply want their way at the expense of a remote possibility of being right about the facts or the fundamental ways that people ought to treat one another. It takes a lot of energy to summon up a perspective on this that would bend an ear or change a mind.

But there is so much that we have lost in the name of the delusion of control.

Just think of the seasons. We have done so much to defy the challenges they pose. Whether it is central heating or air conditioning or the elaborate extents we go to ensure that food supplies are as diverse as possible year-round. I am fond of my furnace in the winter and I'm not sure what accommodations I would make to get through a cold winter without one. Part of me knows that the adjustments we have made to ease our way through the winter have allowed us to escape the nuances of the season. Perhaps it is a time to curl up with your family a little more intimately, to slow down with a stack of books and reflect on what has passed and what is on offer in the year ahead. It could be a time to truly set the table to commit to resolutions and prepare for the challenge of keeping them. Or is it the heat of summer that brings the lethargy to stop with a pile of books. Probably not, there are things to be done to get us through the winter.

There is an affluence that has freed us from these cycles and it is not just financial one technological as well. We have been able to assume we are less dependent on one another or our environment and the notions of community coming together are rare, quaint and less practiced than they were during past generations. We heed the most poignant or urgent calls to support one another, but we are not as mindful of the people around us. We are responsive to one another only when the need is made most explicitly clear and, granted, may be that has always been the case.

Distinct seasons, that we are not insulated from, made us wiser and more attuned with nature and with one another and our senses. Whether it is the sharper tang of seasonal, local strawberries, the cooler tones of autumnal light that, or the song of birds that come to our attention as the months drift by. Beyond those seasons are those of life and the efforts we make to hide those. The elixirs to ensure that hair remains on our scalps or thwarts the passage of time with one tone or another. These indicate how we are compelled by the flattening of the seasons and the denial of time's passing to hurry ourselves in the name of keeping up, getting ahead or some other unattainable goal. What's it all worth though if we are not ourselves, truly our authentic, comfortable-in-our-own-skins selves?

A pause in the name of our own authenticity, to ensure we have our bearings, to breath, to laugh, to cry, to share, to bond and to accommodate a bit more reality will slow us down, and perhaps recalibrate the pendulum to a slower, more moderate cycle. Rather than striving to conform to some unattainable, foul-tasting normal we would be better served by enlightening ourselves with expectations of our own. They could be expectations that come from a strong sense of integrity accompanied by a deep self-knowledge. That honest would be freeing despite the abandon we might assume with a lack of integrity. There could also be the expectations that come with an expansion of our understanding. We could become more adept at marking the passing of the seasons each year or in our lives. There is a possibility for harmony with the pause we make to listen within and beyond.

I have to tend to my buttons.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Wabi-Sabi of the Strawberry

All too often we define our ideals in terms of what is convenient or cheap. The lowest common denominator fills our culture and our shelves with it and while the convenience appeals to us, we are often left detached and disinterested rather than engaged by the things we use or the things we eat. In my own case, the modern strawberry has become an object of flavourless disdain. 

The finger-staining red softness of childhood memories have been replaced. Strawberries come from afar in plastic clam shell containers that can be stacked and shipped like a more durable good. There was a time when they came in flats with 12 wooden baskets. The thin wood of those baskets would be stained red and pink with the passage of time and regular use and the berries were treated with a degree of honour and delicacy granted to the seasonal. Those basketed berries were not to be laid into the bottom of a shopping cart while the haul from the rest of the rounds was stacked atop them without concern for their fragility. There was a need, a commitment to ensuring that they were well cared for. If they were picked up at the start of the grocery rounds, it was acknowledgement that berries were only in season for a few weeks and that everybody else would want them. In that instance, the berries would ascend the mounting pile of groceries, or better yet, have the child seat of the shopping cart reserved for them.

Of late, however, strawberries have grown larger and taken on the solidity of styrofoam. There is no longer a yield of pliant flesh to the first bite and a jammy, juicy sweetness. For that, we would have to open a jar complemented with ample doses of sugar to get. There is a white solidity and an absence of flavour that does not provide sufficient experience to grasp a philosophical discussion about the intensity and impact of a first taste of something. In this day of strawberries refined to ensure a consistency of (external) colour, a resistance to blight, and an ability to withstand the demands of a transcontinental shipment. These are what we actually purchase when we pluck one of those plastic containers of strawberries out of the produce section and take it home. We have purchased that combination of conveniences in a little — well, actually, larger than anticipated — red bundle that is an artifact rather than a eating experience.

I do not have the most refined palate, but I do recall real strawberries well enough to be disappointed with the absence of flavour of these "perfected" strawberries. Despite my attachment to them during childhood, modern strawberries have been drifted into the lower ranks of my comfort foods. There is little about modern strawberries and the adaptations that have been made to their monocultural approaches to growth — it is so tempting to reset to the word “manufacture” — and the sacrifice of purity and flavour in favour of the resistances to time and bugs and mold and whatever else may inconvenience farmers, shippers. Perhaps there has been an addiction to “one more improvement,” or an infatuation with technology’s wiles that resulted in a trade off between that last bit of flavour for the resistance to a blight that, in a rare season, might render the berries unappealing to consumers at that very moment when their appearance has to be pristine enough to close the sale. 

Flavour be damned.

This plate of berries sit next to me as I type this. The aftertaste of the first one I’ve eaten is still lingering and there is no need to eat one after another. The first one was a vibrant red, the surface after my bite a soft blur of surrender rather than a precise, white capture of my dental records. On the white plate, I also notice a sprinkling of the bristles of the strawberries that have fallen and recall how these would cluster on the surface of the milk what I had them in a bowl with cream and sugar. I wonder if these bristles have been bred out of the modern, efficient version that now prevails. I’ll have to look for this the next time I come across the dry, high-tech imitation of the berry.

We settle too easily for appearance alone. At the height of the space age, we anticipated foods that would be efficient and convenient. I formed my own image of freeze-dried forms that would contain the required nutrition in a format that, today, is best embodied by the power bars and other sports fuels that people consume on the go rather than when we sit down to a meal. Today, the reality is that the foods we do eat are just as much an assembly of technologies that have only emerged in the last few decades. They look for the most part the way they did 30-40 years ago, but it is a product of mechanical and technological inputs rather than the ecology that they came from. The appearance might be appealing but there is a sad lack of flavour and some might even argue nutrition.

These strawberries, locally grown and bought in a little cardboard panier with a handle across the top are a thing to behold. (I must admit the handle is plastic but the result is a reminder of the basket Little Red Riding Hood took to her grandmother’s or that Ontario peaches once came in.) Of the berries remaining, the next one I eat is bruised. It is not soft and browning yet. There are a few patches where the surface has yellowed from rough contact and I am happy to assure it of my approval. Gulp. There are a few long stems on the remaining berries and one has an amusing posterior cleft. The reds are not that uniform among them. One is a blood crimson but the others are somewhat closer to one another in tone. With each berry eaten those bristles rain down on the keyboard of my lap top and I sweep them aside. No, these bristles don’t appear quite so abundantly on modern berries.

And so I pause over these last seven berries, their naturalness far more enchanting, absorbing and wondrous than the efficiencies that are settled for. My taste buds are proudly rallying to say they still have some value and sensitivity. As June winds down, I take comfort in this reminder that the seasons are meant to pass and be savoured, like these berries, rather than defied by imports from California or Chile. There is a plain beauty to these berries that distinguishes them from the super model beauty of the consistent dimensions of the imported, flavourless imitators. Beyond the humble, unrefined randomness of size and shape and colour, not to mention the flourishes of bristles they rain down, there is flavour and with that a depth that awakens me to much more than the superficial and the technological.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

A Perfect Meal

In many articles and podcasts about wabi-sabi the lede has been its status as imperfectly perfect or as a cure for perfection. Some writers even use it as an excuse to leave errors in their work rather than edit sufficiently when that option is available to them. That starting point is visited too often to really take a discussion of wabi-sabi as deep as it could go, but an examination of perfection or the perfect can illustrate how perfection, when it is achieved or, worse yet, imitated, can be inferior to things that embody the qualities of wabi-sabi.

We use the word "perfect" quite freely for a word that captures something we often regard as unattainable. There are times when it is the most apt word for what we want to laud. A perfect spouse. Perfect timing. A perfect touchdown. A perfect moment. On most occasions, "perfect" is uttered upon a careful, often silent, setting of parameters to ensure that its meaning is given heed. Otherwise, without those cautious parameters set, the user risks being hyperbolic.

So what is happening when something is called perfect? A perfect meal would be defined within subjective parameters. It could be the conversation, the company, the pleasing of the palette, the atmosphere, the appeasement of the fussy six-year-old or, if the pleasing combination of all of these. Once you have this perfect meal, though, what can you do with it? Replicating that perfect meal would be elusive. It would not work the next time you tried to bring the same combination together. There are intangibles to the perfect meal that resist replication. Conversation relies on too many elements that contribute to its flow and engagement. The briefest moment of inattention in the kitchen and a meal could go off the rails. The six-year-old could be fussy, lacking sleep or lured by a craving for chicken fingers to go another direction during the meal.

A key problem with the perfect is the temptation to replicate it or to strive for a predetermined definition of it. 

Striving to do a specific thing to achieve a preconceived notion of perfection can actually -- as counterintuitive as it sounds -- limit potential and possibility.  When aiming for perfection, we tend to tilt things in our favour when setting the standards or parameters.  Those concepts of perfection are bite-sized rather than ambitious achievements. Sometimes we may merely meet a superficial standard of perfection rather than an integral or deep standard.  Beyond that, is the likelihood that we have become more biased toward technological or efficient biases in defining perfection. A checklist of the obvious aspects of that perfect meal diverts our attention from the subtleties that made the occasion prompt us to call the occasion "perfect."

Pursuing the perfect and settling for the most superficial or obvious path toward it effectively takes options off the table. Asking people to replicate what they have done before, and devoting time and resources to the assumption that the rare, isolated convergence of possibilities and luck that contributed to a perfect meal is actually a prototype that we can duplicate is quixotic. The effort to replicate is one where the incidental and magical is broken down for the sake of mechanizing it.

As futile as it sounds int he context of trying to recreate a perfect meal, there is a prevailing tendency to slot countless products, solutions and interactions into mechanized or formulaic approaches. Institutions and businesses look to slot clients and customers into systems that are "perfectly" efficient, but lacking personal touches. There are management and self-help solutions that are simplified to multi-prong procedures or paradigms but very often they are zero-sum scenarios that only work for the first ones in the door or for the alpha-male who strives to exploit others. 

These mechanized approaches that elevate a single prototype to widespread use, with little regard for individual desires for autonomy or identity.  These are the consequences of a quest for perfection or a  one-size-fits-all solution. The focus on perfection starts to regard the most varied element in a formula - humans - as a cog rather than a unique element that deserves his or her right to be themselves at a given moment. The advantage of wabi-sabi, with its recognition that nothing is complete, everything is transient and nothing is perfect, is that a mindset that appreciates imperfection will also appreciate the perfect moment when it comes along and do so without deifying it at the expense of those who contributed to it.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

The Comfort Zone and Decay

I have not given it as much thought as I ought to, but one of my favorite films is a one-minute animated piece from the (Canadian) National Film Board titled The Egg.  Throughout my childhood it was one of those staples of commercial break filler on the CBC.  In the film, an egg does all it can to keep itself from cracking open. A failing adhesive bandage prompts escalation to paste then hammer, nails and board and so on. The irony of the arms being able to freely morph out of the egg to fight off fate, not to mention the threat of the nails being driven back through the shell all lost on the agent trying to close itself off and thwart inevitable growth. As more and more cracks appear, the efforts to ensure the egg's integrity are quixotic and, as a pan of the camera reveals, all-too-common. There several interpretations of the film, but it does illustrate how the attachment to or seclusion within a "comfort zone" can turn obsessive and perhaps even unhealthy as energy is poured into sustaining something that ought to be allowed to decay, not only out of deference to the passage of time, but for well-being.

The comfort zone is an ephemeral cocktail of the comforts, touchstones, opinions, habits and preoccupations that reassure us, provide us certainty and, supposedly, provide the launch pad from which to achieve and perhaps have a sense of control. It is by turns a sanctuary, a source of energy, a place of renewal or a hiding place when the world get too hairy or uncertain to bear.  It must, however, be allowed to morph or dissolve as time and growth mark the course ahead. New roles, opposing opinions, dynamics in our personal lives or in our communities peck away at the surface of the comfort zone. The breaches are a call to grow and it must be heeded rather than fended off or buttressed against.

The term "comfort zone" is relatively new. It increasingly came into use in the early 1990s, perhaps it is a concept or space that distinguishes Gen Xers from boomers. The possible connection to one generation or another is not as significant as the questions of whether or not we allow a comfort zone to stretch and dissolve or if we strive to shore it up and maintain it against the changes that are inevitably going to breach its walls. Is the comfort zone, beyond merely being a new term, a construct that allows us to close ourselves off from the world and inhabit the exclusive island of like-minded that so many express a desire for and even manage to place themselves within.

The vagueness and uniqueness of the comfort zone is what we choose it to be. It, in turn, defines us as we select the risks that we wish to avoid or deign to expose ourselves to. There is a symbiosis between ourselves and this space we essentially cocoon ourselves within. Adjustments of comfort zones, while possibly a response to legitimate threats to our safety more likely reveal an arbitrariness that ought to be reflected upon.

Does a comfort zone assure us and provide refuge in between exchanges with the unwelcome realities of the world we dare to engage with, or does it control and filter what we hear, see and deal with? The efforts people make to ensure the integrity of their comfort zones indicates that their intention is to create and maintain the latter and that engaging with the more taxing or unsavoury realities of our world are avoided regardless of the cost.

We wear ourselves down when we are unwilling to accept life's rhythm, rather than embracing what grows and awakens...
Agneta Nyholm Winquist
Wabi Sabi Timeless Wisdom for a Stress-Free Life

Children begin unaware of the risks that they might be exposing themselves to and one of the steps they take toward establishing autonomy or independence is to take it upon themselves to define their comfort zones rather than have them imposed upon us. My son's fondness for dogs, even at their most ornery, is evidence of this. One of my favorite stories of his indifference to canine ire is of him laughing right in the face of a friend's black lab as it did its most vociferous bark to mark territory. Totally undaunted, he clutched his hand in front of his chest and laughed as dog saliva came his way. Childhood is defined by an openness and even a voracity for experiences. The comfort zone is permeable as a child aims to not only expand experiences but the senses as well. The neuroplasticity of children is well-documented and each opportunity to build pathways is seized. The opposition to a comfort zone imposed by adults is regularly apparent.

With time and hard knocks, the comfort zone becomes more solid or adults become more timid.  Adjustments to the comfort zone favour establishing a reassuring rigidity rather than maintaining the permeability known in childhood. While there are legitimate threats to our comfort, many adjustments to the comfort zone result from knee-jerk, unconscious responses aimed at asserting control and shoring up this intangible structure. The openness of childhood is replaced with an intolerance that may not become apparent in all of the adjustments we make to our comfort zone. There is some rationality to this, but when the comfort zone changes arbitrarily to keep possibilities out, there is a certainty that we are sacrificing our growth and vitality in the name of maintaining a stagnating self. Either that or we are making an inordinate effort to stabilize an artificial and arbitrary realm that is cultivated to limit our experiences.

People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. They prefer suffering that is familiar to the unknown.
— Thích Nhat Hanh

Too often, we reinforce our comfort zone instead of letting it yield to the things that can improve our lives: new ideas, experiences, relationships, and opinions are all opportunities for growth and reflection. We cannot let our way of looking at the world ossify, especially if it provides us a lens that frames the world as we like to see it. We must remain open to the paradoxes and ambiguities and the discomforts that will stir rather than sedate us.  Stirred, we will become more engaged in the world and perhaps we will be more inclined, to listen, to reflect, to accept and ultimately be present enough to adapt to the dialogues, debates and realities that are presented to us.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Permitting Wabi-Sabi

When you see an aging building or a rusted bridge, you are seeing nature and man working together. If you paint over a building, there is no more magic to that building. But if it is allowed to age, then man has built it and nature has added into it -- it's so organic.

But often people wouldn't think to permit that...

David Lynch, from Catching the Big Fish

I lived in Japan for eight years. It would be easy for me to cultivate the assumption that my interest in wabi-sabi resulted from long study there and regular, intentional exposure to things that embodied its qualities. The reality is I only came across the term wabi-sabi after leaving Japan. An internet article about PowerPoint presentations cited the aesthetic as one to deploy for the sake of avoiding "death by PowerPoint." In that article, wabi-sabi was a coherent aesthetic that stood in sharp contrast to the modern, the modernist or the out-of-the-box framework and yawn induction of a Microsoft product. In the effort to extend the metaphor of wabi-sabi to as unusual a topic as PowerPoint, the article took a much deeper look at the subject and its application than many articles about design and interior decoration. Once a point about appreciating the flawed or old or textured is made, the discussion of wabi-sabi is truncated before its depth is plumbed. The thing about wabi-sabi that seems overlooked within the design perspective is that wabi-sabi has to be permitted or perhaps cultivated rather than added in, even if it is after a visit to a garage sale.

After reading that article, there was no retroactive bolt from the blue that left me reminiscing, "THAT was wabi-sabi" and "That so wabi-sabi as well," and "That too!" There was some careful reflection on my experiences in Japan what what aspects of my life there could inform my reflections on it. At the time I struck upon it, I was more inclined to examine things that were close at had to determine where they fit into a discussion of the differences between wabi-sabi and the modern.

Examining my surroundings through a wabi-sabi lens did not prompt me to conclude that there was a particularly Japanese quality in, for example, the worn leather hat that I received from my grandfather or the 20-year-old T-shirt that was serving its regular turn in my wardrobe. Instead, given the challenge of translating the term directly into English, I borrowed the word as a shorthand while I determined if my attachment to wabi-sabi was about the aesthetics than a nostalgic or sentimental impulse.

The quote from David Lynch, above, is significant because it briefly embodies a great deal about wabi-sabi and it comes from a western perspective. We appreciate things that have been weathered by the passage of time: listing barns, rusting bridges, life-softened Levi's and the well-worn hand-tools of a carpenter. Lynch confirms that this appreciation is not uniquely Japanese. He talks about a harmonic partnership between man and nature and it could be added that the relationship extends to what man can do with nature as well. Creations made from natural materials show what people can accomplish when they accept the natural materials available to them and work within the limits that are imposed. We form attachments to things that have done their duty and we appreciate the skill and wisdom that ensured they were made well and with appealing materials.

These attachment are often quite personal. There are probably lots of old things that we are less indulgent about seeing: the 1977 Ford Wagon on cinder blocks in the neighbour's front yard. Beyond that eyesore, there are things that as a society we would not be opposed to seeing come to an end. We can so easily be induced by efficiency or purported savings to see buildings, artifacts, processes and jobs fall by the wayside because these are modern times and we live in a modern community. In the end though, efficiency and technology do not lead to simplicity though they may strive to simplify. It may actually be better in the long run to tolerate the quaint snags of slower, more human or more organic processes and hang onto them along with the resilience and flexibility that we might have if we retain things that are more closely aligned with our senses and our needs.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Decay Reveals What Technology Amplifies

Yesterday, I walked passed a fence made of synthetic materials rather than wood. It was constructed to look life the post and rail combination we would see at a large property rather than the pointed picket fence one would associate with the suburbs. A piece of the fence had been repaired with screws to restore part of the recycled plastic in place. The effort to pass off this plastic construct as the equivalent to a wooden fence was blemished by the realities we face when a modern "solution" fails.  The reminder that these materials are synthetic rather than natural disappoints. The composite has been installed instead of real wood for reasons including price, ease of maintenance, ostensible durability, quick installation or construction, and pre-cut pieces. Corners are cut, efficiency is achieved, but the product is the technology that created that modern convenience rather than the fence.

When the plastic fence begins to decay or gets damaged, its shortcoming - namely that it is not wood and does not age or weather as wood does - presents us with an eyesore. The screws fastening the plastic back together are no aesthetic match for repaired or replaced wood. The look is provisional and makes it easy to picture a handyman's helpless shrug while saying, "This is the best I can do with this stuff. You know how much it costs to replace this?!" In another situation where plastic attempts to feign the elegance of wood we have an imitation Adirondack chair that eventually goes flaccid under the long term penetration of UV rays. It may look good, but it may not be as reliable as appearances suggest.

Whether the possible precision of screws or multipurpose assault with duct tape, the quick patch-up of a modern solution is an unattractive sight when we are more familiar with natural materials. Beyond the unsightliness, the patch-up of the synthetic - whether this plastic fence, vinyl-siding or a botched Botox job - reveals the delusion and hubris behind the creation of technologies or  decorations that propose to surpass the natural or organic.

These technologies strive to facilitate convenience or to offer a false promise of beauty, perfection, youth, defiance of gravity or time. These new technologies, however, amplify the values that informed their creation and when they are damaged or begin to decay, the sight is nowhere near as pleasing as a more natural decline. The peeling of paint from a wooden fence desiccated by years and decades of exposure to the elements fosters a fondness and perhaps a temptation to add to the sensual experience. You know you want to touch that dry wood despite the threat of a splinter. With a plastic fence, you just want to look away.

The regular celebration of the new, the high-tech and the state of the art -- whether a new composite or a self-help guru's pitch of a new way to improve yourself or the way your organization can do things -- belies the likelihood that these modern, technological interventions may prove to be futile or worse still, damaging. A wooden version of that damaged fence would certainly be more expensive and require more maintenance or a more expert hand to maintain it, but it would remain a more pleasant sight. It might even prove to be something that can be maintained - a sharp contrast to the hidden surprises cloaked in the maintenance-free promise associated with the synthetic.

The realization that we must stop hiding from is that there are similar modern, technological or in approaches to relationships and the way we engage with one another int he public forum that are influenced by the promise of something that is easier and more efficient than older, less technological more merely more quaint approaches to engaging with one another. Of late, it has becoming increasingly evident that the detached, technological approaches that we take to our relationships and the way we organize the work we do and the people that we do it with are starting to have negative consequences because we have become less adept or less inclined to interact in a more coherent, personal and natural manner.

As relationships, public discourse and organizational function are threatened by the inability to communicate effectively with one another and parse out the meaning of everything that one might say int he context they are speaking in, there is concern that this vital aspect of communicating and relating is being devastatingly undermined by modern "solutions" to the way we engage with one another.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Meditation Beneath a Tin Ceiling

Writing about wabi-sabi is an exercise in nuance, one that coaxes self-doubts to become especially active about fine lines and clarity of terms. From my perspective there have always been concerns about the possibility of appropriating it for my own purposes and possibly even abusing its vocabulary to clad my opinions in the ethos or wisdom of Buddhist contemplation or eastern religion to add an unmerited gravitas to my expressions of my tastes. There is the risk of being misinterpreted. I could be accused of settling, considered pessimistic or unduly nostalgic in light of my passion for wabi-sabi. Beyond that there is the possibility of being indifferent or even averse to the ways that we can express or achieve the maximum potential and efficiency that technology can afford us.

One thing that is tolerated within a discussion of wabi-sabi is paradox, so I write to you from a Starbucks that has been leased in a renovated space that affords me a view of a century-old hammered tin ceiling. Beneath that ceiling is contemporary halogen track-lighting that has been strategically placed and the exposed duct work for the HVAC. The duct work and ceiling are the same gun-metal grey. There are patches in the tin ceiling where the surface is peeling or scarred by the passing of time. The ceiling positions itself in contrast with the uniformity of the porcelain mugs, which the baristas need two reminders to use instead of the paper or plastic. Despite the diversity of beverages that could be generated from the combinations at hand, there is a uniformity to look, product and background music that assures you that there is next to nothing that would vary from the experience you would get in any other Starbucks.

Hence, the slight consternation that I'm writing about wabi-sabi from a Starbucks rather than a local tea shop that is inclined toward quirky touches that add character or make an experience more memorable. Perhaps it is an array of mismatched furniture, or other touches that add to the sensual experience - elements that make you more aware of your surroundings and the experience you are having. In the case of this restaurant, it is that ceiling that is prompting my curiosity about the age of this building and impact that the passage of time has had on this building, this corner and the lives that have passed through it. Main street merchants, their customers, landlords and tenants have breathed ongoing life into this room and building and the ceiling that has overseen it invites me contemplate them.

The ceiling alone is not wabi-sabi and neither is my inclination to be reflective or mildly sentimental about it. There is something naive in me, or anyone, saying, "That is wabi-sabi," full-stop. Japanese people struggle to define the term and the translation into English is an uneasy one as well. Recently in discussions about wabi-sabi as an approach to design the tolerates flaws. Well... not... quite. It is not meant to be an excuse to give second-life to stuff that was made carelessly. The other thread of a discussion of wabi-sabi design is that there is a fondness for old stuff or stuff that is worn out. There is a line to be drawn when that is contemplated. A 1988 Yugo automobile, for example, embodies wabi-sabi as badly as a paper soft drink cup. Age and rust will not spark the appreciation and foster the connection of something made with care and expertise.

There is little nostalgia for things that are made with an eye to disposability. It is hard to get fond of a Bic pen or a paper cup since there is little about them that could be unique. These things will decay easily and quickly enough, they are made, it seems, with decay a key component of their character and manufacture. The question that wabi-sabi answers is, "What kind of decay is appealing?" The warmer feelings are expressed toward the decay of things that are authentic or made from unrefined materials. It would be easy to install a dropped ceiling of acoustic tiles between me and the tin above me but it is easy to anticipate and even cringe at the gradual disintegration of the reprocessed material that would comprise those tiles. We gravitate toward the grains of desiccated wood over the disintegration of concrete that reveals rusted rebar. The gold kintsugi seams in broken, reassembled pottery enchants with not just the new visual but the tangibly expressed appreciation of the original pottery and the two rounds of artisanship that has kept it alive.

The appreciation of imperfection that is central to wabi-sabi is not intended to accommodate the repurposing of the shoddy but to acknowledge that untapped potential that remains when we make the best of what we have rather than settle for the perfected mass product version. Consider the Corning Corelleware dishes that were considered state of the art and ideal in the 1970s. Wabi-sabi has been eliminated in the pursuit of this ideal of convenience. There might be nostalgia but I have yet to see enough to promote a significant revival. The product is not only inert and impermeable to the elements, but perhaps sentiment and deep human attachment as well. It remains, however, an expression of fully conceived convenience, but as a consequence it lacks potential for more. If this broke, it probably would not accommodate a kintsugi patch-up. There are too many others like it, it doesn't foster any attachment and it may not even work well with gold. This material, however is the pursuit of an ideal to its ultimate end, be it convenience, uniformity or something else that is defined by or achieved through a voracity for the next technological achievement.

A preference for the hand-made and the imperfect over what is readily available to us through the technological means that are being identified, focus-grouped and perfected seems vaguely cultish and perhaps dubious, something akin to an aversion to medical intervention among certain sects. Ultimately, there are two distinct visions of possibility that are expressed through the manufactured retail item and the crafted commitment of artisans or individuals who take the time to assemble a deliberate and carefully-crafted product, service or response.

As wabi-sabi is authentically embodied in objects that we can possess, things that are made with a care and precision that distinguishes them and communicates to us the care, attention and expertise of the person who has made or repaired something for us. Or, alternatively, there is a strong appeal in having and relating to something that requires our ongoing attention and care despite the inconvenience that may be posed by something like a 1966 Chevrolet Corvette. I believe, and a close reading of wabi-sabi writing such as Leonard Koren's work on the subject would reinforce the argument, that wabi-sabi need not be limited to discussions of design and decoration but much more.

Wabi-sabi is an informative and expanding lens in favour of a more sensitive and careful examination of the services and responses that we generate to the problems and opportunities that our world poses to us. Careful, engaged and hand-crafted approaches to the way people interact with one another would foster greater authenticity in our actions and in the responses we craft to the problems that we face. Solutions that are more conscious of our and our planet's diversity and potential rather than the pursuit of the efficiencies and rationalizations that have resulted in purportedly high-efficiency, high-tech initiatives that have resulted in various monocultural pursuits that have diminished our diversity our potential and our engagement with one another, the ideas we possess, the languages we speak and the range of insights that we possess. From where I sit, there is far more potential in ensuring those dialogues can occur than there is in mainstreaming toward a low resistance banality. It is not pessimistic or resigned to believe that there is great potential in a conversation than there is in a formula. In an age of crowded isolation and material ennui, the potential that we collectively possess needs to be cultivated once again and it begins with a pursuit of the imperfect, the inefficient and the hand-crafted.