Months ago I sat on the floor between rows of wooden shelves in Powell’s Books. I had found The Wabi-Sabi House by Robyn Griggs Lawrence and couldn’t wait to walk the block or so back to Stumptown for my morning coffee before I opened it. Its pages looked a bit dated and glossy, the black and white pictures mildly disappointing, but I had found a gift of a book – a second hand copy that smelled of wood, dust and laminated paper. It holds a warm, accessible invitation to embrace the ancient Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, the art of accepting and celebrating transience and imperfect beauty.

 

The book’s message is about slowing down, taking time to, ‘find beauty in what seems ordinary – and to turn the ‘ordinary’ into something beautiful’, the value of shedding materialism, of authenticity, of living simply, of the hand made, well loved, worn and flawed. It’s about an appreciation of three simple realities: ‘nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.’ And the value of learning to consider others before ourselves.

It feels relevant. And almost accessible.

 

Wabi-sabi is not the self-conscious simplicity and nostalgic collecting of thrifted and lovely things to photograph and share with each other on Instagram.

 

Like hygge, wabi-sabi is about being not having.

 

I still have an awful lot to learn. For months, I’ve been staring at my avarice, emptying our drawers and sheds and buying less.

I can see beauty in a curved stem, a cobbled street, a patched rug. But I am still wanting, in so many ways. Lacking. And still convincing myself that I need more.

I’m embarrassed by my greed, by the piles of magazines, books and trinkets. There is so little space in my life to move quietly, to exhale, to grow things, to be creative, to think because of what it takes to manage the stuff of my life.

When I sat down to write about wabi-sabi for Kinfolk, I realized that it would be coarse to attempt to define a way of being that the even the Japanese are reluctant to articulate.

 

Just before my deadline, I skulked about on the internet, re-read The Wabi-Sabi House and procrastinated by walking the dogs and visiting my elderly neighbour for coffee.

It was in her quiet, ordered, simple home that I found wabi-sabi – in the stillness of her wooden kitchen, in the texture of her morning and the shape of her favourite ceramic cups, in her honesty and grace.

And I found it in my admiration of another dear friend who has the beauty of a San bushman and lives like an artistic shaman in a tiny coastal settlement on the west coast of South Africa. He walks barefoot, quietly sweeps his home every morning and evening, folds, mends and makes. And often stands still to smoke and think.

So, I wrote a piece that attempted to capture but not define the intangible spirit of wabi-sabi. It’s an acknowledgment, I suppose, of both friends and my hope that when I grow up (I’m forty five), I’ll learn to live wabi-sabi in the same generous, unselfconscious way.

 

wabi-sabi

wabi-sabi
Posted by Louisa Thomsen Brits on 19 June 2013

“Be strong, serve patiently, love generously, live simply. Enjoy fellowship. eat and drink modestly, celebrate the festivals. Breathe deeply, sing and make music, walk often, cycle and recycle. Be thrifty, prefer cash-flow to possession, give good measure. Let your work be your prayer.”

(An extract from Towards a True Balance by John P. Rogers)

 

Towards balance
Posted by Louisa Thomsen Brits on 5 October 2012

Behind a wrought iron gate, just beyond glossily renovated King’s Cross, is a small nature reserve.  On a mound of grass, looking down on low wooden buildings and the canal, The School of Life had laid out green and white tablecloths beneath a blue bell-shaped canopy. We were meeting to enjoy, ‘rich conversations about things that really matter in life’ inspired by the ideas of Henry David Thoreau and led by Neil Ansell – author of Deep Country.  Like Neil, our evening was unpretentious and memorable.

For five years, Neil Ansell lived in an isolated hillside cottage in Wales to learn how to be alone and find out just how little he needed in order to lead a fulfilling life. Neil’s experience of solitude and the natural world that he shares in Deep Country didn’t breed the kind of introspective thought that Thoreau shared over 150 years ago.  Alone, Neil found no need for identity or for self-definition. The thread of his own story became so subtly woven into the countryside around him that it almost disappeared.

His book flows from one moment to another. Like the hawks he quietly observes, it soars, circles and rests with an easy, natural rhythm.

His days were spent outside, led by the seasons and the inevitable cycles of nature and not the, ‘requirements and expectations of others’.  He invited us to imagine taking time out of life to slow down enough to reach a state of attentiveness, ‘a state of being free of thought’.

In Deep Country he says, “My attention was constantly focused away from myself and on to the natural world around me. And my nights were spent sitting in front of the log fire, aimlessly turning a log from time to time and staring at the flickering flames. I would not be thinking of the day just gone; the day was done. And I would not be planning tomorrow; tomorrow would take care of itself. The silence outside was reflected by a growing silence within. Any interior monologue quietened to a whisper, then faded away entirely.”

His message and his stillness were a contrast to our sociable chatter.  But our evening was about both exploring solitude and sharing our thoughts. The School of Life is adept at creating the kind of casual intimacy that makes it possible for complete strangers to gather in a tiny pocket of wildness at the heart of a buzzing city to celebrate each other, the determined, delicate presence of nature and the delicate bonds that bind us all together.

With a glass or two of wine, we began to lose our inhibitions. A black cat sidled about. People cycled past on the towpath. The sun went down. Candles were lit in old jars. Neil read from his book. We leaned towards him to listen.

I think we all felt enriched by the evening we spent together; enlivened by the enthusiasms we reflected in each other and by the possibility of retreat from our busy lives.

I began to think about my long train ride home.

When it was time for Neil to return to conventional life, he carried a core of peace with him and the knowledge that he would, “always value those brief snatched moments of calm that can be found in any life if you look hard enough for them”.

 

The School of Life: http://www.theschooloflife.com

Neil Ansell’s Deep Country: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Deep-Country-Years-Welsh-Hills/dp/0241145007

Simplicity
Posted by Louisa Thomsen Brits on 20 August 2012

A narrow path lined with vetch, thistle, yarrow, salad burnet and low scrub led us to the beach at Cuckmere Haven. On one side was the rise and curve of The Downs. On the other, our usual route, the low, wide bed of the meandering Cuckmere River.

We arrived at an encampment of delicate white tents.  The evening sun kissed a soft blush on the white cliffs of the Seven Sisters. Dusk fell and we sat beside the sea eating dark chocolate and raspberries as each tent began to softly glow and murmur.

 

This was the same field where a company of Canadian airmen put up their marquees and bell tents in 1940.  As the sun rose, bombs fell on the South coast of England and they were killed. We remembered them as we wandered through the site listening to a haunting soundscape of love poetry, spoken fragments, folk songs, pipes, slow breath and snippets of the shipping forecast. Forties. Cromarty. Forth. Tyne. Dogger. Fisher. German Bight.

 

There was something respectful about the delicacy of the installation. This companionable cluster of delicate pods glowed orange and white on the gentle slope down to the beach. At seven other remote coastal locations on the British coast thousands of glowing tents huddled on windy shores and cliff tops, pitched to celebrate the Olympic Truce.

 

It was a gentle offering, a place that gave pause for reflection, invited quietude and connection. Silhouettes milled silently in between the tents stopping in front of one or another as if it might tell them a different story. But it was a single breathy incantation that filled the air. Listening and wandering in the dark, each one of us became part of the landscape – our breath, our quiet conversations, our stillness, holding hands and sleepy children.

When the sound subsided, we could hear the sea pulling the pebbles of the beach into the dark water. Rolling in again and again.

We left the beautiful glow to follow the path back to the car, turning around occasionally to catch a last glimpse of the small encampment murmuring out there in the night. Each one of us carrying a deeper peace and searching for the frayed corners of poems we half remembered.

 

Peace
Posted by Louisa Thomsen Brits on 24 July 2012
Older