Wabi-sabi is a Japanese term made up of two characters. Pinning down the meaning of either words separately or the two combined is a task that escapes the grasp of those who desire clean, nuance-free translations. At best, and fittingly, the pursuit of an complete definition will be frustrated by flexibility of each term and the history they share.
Still, it is worth getting in the ballpark and letting imaginations wander with the interpretations that may be molded by our experiences. The definition of wabi has evolved to conjure up notions of rusticity, simplicity or artlessness, though it was originally associate with the misery of loneliness. Sabi has come to refer to a beauty or serenity that has come with the passing of time. Though I lived for eight years in Japan, I never grasped the terms or concept on my own and have come to rely on a number of books, most notable Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers by Leonard Koren.
In total, the term wabi-sabi is an aesthetic that finds a poignant rather than monolithic beauty in acknowledging the imperfection, the impermanence and incomplete of the things that surround us. The term and its ideals are most apparent in art and design and have served as a source of expression and inspiration for designers, poets and home decorators to mention a few. For me it has also provided an invaluable touchstone or perhaps even Rosetta stone for analyzing and assessing other things in the way we organize our world or surroundings. I've developed an allergy to the formulaic or the over-veneered and regard either of these as an attempt to render inert and impermeable something the ought to evolve and respond to surroundings. There is a simplicity, essnetialism and authenticity about things that embody wabi-sabi that artifice and technological solutions lack. I'll dig into examples of that in future posts but for now an experience that helps me define wabi-sabi and its beauty.
During an early spring day in Japan, the dandelions were already going through the life cycle that marks the beginning of the season when a dusting of snow muted the colours of spring for a few hours one March morning. Among the sights I saw on this morning were the dandelions, in that late stage of their cycle when their spores form that geodesic structure that awaits the wind or a child's breath. The dusting of snow crowned that form. I did not have my camera at the moment, otherwise that dandelion would accompany this post rather than the one above. I went on my way, but the thought of that fragile balance that held the soft snowflakes in position until they melted and dissolved that structure has stuck with me. Ever-conscious of that untaken image, wabi-sabi is:
and beyond that, seasonal
in the moment and perhaps the very briefest of moments
acknowledges the passage of time