My Wabi-Sabi Soul

I cut up an old sweatshirt to mend the collar on my jean jacket and used a tie-dyed facemask to patch the pocket. My hand sewing would make my grandmother cringe, irregular stitches screaming asymmetry in a contrasting color, like child’s play, not the perfectly measured dashes punctuating straight lines the way I was taught, the way she tried to teach me, the way I refused to learn. I just don’t have the mental stamina for consistency. When I’m repairing my jean jacket, I think of sewing as painting. A splash of color and a jagged line intrigue me, where my grandmother’s Morse code gives me the urge to spill something. My jean jacket is wabi-sabi style in the Japanese aesthetic tradition of appreciating flawed beauty, the imperfect, the impermanent, and the incomplete. Thirty years ago when I bought it, the denim was brilliant, the seams were tight, and the collar was stiff. Now we’re both worn, soft and saggy, and frayed around the edges. But it’s still my favorite jacket. I’d like to wear it on my funeral pyre when the time comes. In that conflagration of style and spirit, let my wabi-sabi soul be carried aloft in the spiraling particulates of my wabi-sabi jacket.

Billie Best writes about wabi-sari.

I only recently discovered wabi-sabi and it’s a good philosophical fit for me. When I was a young adult “perfection, permanence and completion” was my motto. I thought I would become a finished product like Mt. Rushmore, set in stone. My work was carving my future to perfection. I imagined a time when my life would stop changing and all my accomplishments would be neatly lined up around me like matching wine glasses. Wealth and comfort would carry me in a plush tour bus with thoughtful interpreters and culturally appropriate meals sailing through life on a forever vacation. 

I went to Rome and Athens to see the ruins of those European glory days, to revel in ancient history, architecture and art. The beauty of broken stone is very wabi-sabi. But I was too young to see the underlying message. Standing before the Colosseum, I wasn’t thinking about the fall of the empire, the fragility of the human condition, the people’s neglect of their institutions, their unwillingness to repair their infrastructure or the mismanagement of their investments in treasure and muscle. I didn’t see the symbolism of ruins. I saw art. Now I wonder, are those beautiful broken stones a monument to success or failure? Wabi-sabi.

It took too long for me to realize that there is no forever vacation in which dust does not fall on my stuff, food does not rot in the fridge and futures don’t disappear. Rich or poor, things are disintegrating all the time. My beliefs are shaken by random events. I lose trust. I have healthcare issues. Someone in my family is sick. I become a caregiver. Someone dies. My hormones play truth or dare with my emotions until my most intimate self becomes unrecognizable. My life is a Lilliputian empire in a snow globe shaken by time, imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. My task is to find the beauty in it, the arrangement of ideas that gives me purpose, the mission that gives me hope. These are my thoughts as I sit here patching my jean jacket pierced by love for the flawed beauty of my wabi-sabi soul. 

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7 thoughts on “My Wabi-Sabi Soul

  1. Going through my Mother’s things after she passed – I found a few letters and cards you had sent over the years. Rushing through boxes of paper, deciding what to keep and what to toss – I found these hidden gems and was blown away by your use of form, style, and content.

    We share a grandmother and I do “have the mental stamina for consistency” that you mention in your opening paragraph – for what it’s worth. However, I have a higher opinion of artistry.

    1. What a cool surprise to get these thoughts from you.Your mother was a huge influence on me with her gentle rebellion and quiet subversiveness. So pretty and so smart and so willing to go unnoticed. And what sons she raised, all three of you with your willfulness and brains. Proud to share your gene pool. xoxo

  2. Ah the hoped for wisdom of time gone by. Or at least the understanding that wisdom is ultimately in rare supply. I read in the Obama book about him being alone in an Egyptian tomb. there was an ancient image of a man on the wall that looked so much like Barack, at least to himself, that he felt, even deeply, the impermanence of a life. How, ultimately, little we matter. A page in a giant book, torn and floating to the ground. But fuck all that, I like to pretend I’ve learned at least a couple of things. Hard lessons. Whatever, You’re awesome, Bil.
    ml
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  3. Billie, I look forward to seeing your name in my inbox every week. You don’t know it, but you have become one of my wisest, most articulate girlfriends and you give me hope with every email. Thank you!

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