One of the things I love most about reading is discovering in another’s words something about myself that I had never realized or articulated in quite that way. Even more rewarding is finding this coming in a serendipitous way, as happened this morning.
I was searching for the poem “Joy Ride” by a blogger called “Wabi Sabi”, a poem I had read recently but failed to save. In my search I came across other blogs featuring the practice of wabi sabi and stumbled upon a book called “Wabi Sabi for Writers” by Richard R. Powell. I was struck by how he seemed to describe my writing practice in a way I had not yet realized.
Now I had long been fascinated by the idea of wabi sabi, the perfection of imperfect things, how the little seeming flaws in things add character and beauty and depth. But I hadn’t realized how much it influenced my writing.
On my shelf is the book “Wabi Sabi –The Japanese Art of Impermanence” by Andrew Juniper, which I took out again to revisit. He writes of how difficult it is to define the term: “Wabi Sabi is an aesthetic philosophy so intangible and so shrouded in centuries of mystery that even the most ambitious Japanese scholars would give it a wide berth . . . talking about it only in the most poetic terms.” He goes on to say that it “seeks beauty in the imperfections found as all things, in a constant state of flux, evolve from nothing and devolve back to nothing.”This description struck a chord with me. It is an idea that I return to often in my writing, what I was trying to capture in my post on fog and mist when I wrote:
“I think photos of mist and fog speak to me because they ring true. They reveal in stark and dreamy notes how ephemeral it all is, this life we live, the forms and forces of nature. All in flux, in constant motion, emerging and dissolving over and over, without end.
For what could be more constant and eternal than the fleeting? Or that which emerges, fragile and half-formed, from the fertile wombs of earth and stars, seas and seeds, dreams and desires and the lusts of ages that brought us all to the brink of being.”
The post on “Birthing and Rebirthing” attempts this as well. I wrote:
“We live in a universe of relationships in which everything is connected to and influenced by its surroundings. We are all tumbling together in the wash of time and space, breaking against and polishing each other. Shedding what we were in becoming what we will be.
What if all we are is a constantly becoming with no end in sight, with endless sights and sounds and relationships and experiences to sculpt and renew us? Birthing and rebirthing each other, over and over, ad infinitum, en potentia.”
Juniper also tells the story of the monk caught between two hungry tigers who reaches for a wild strawberry and savors its sweetness, right there while facing his own impending death. He claims wabi sabi is like this tale, “an expression of the beauty that lies in the brief transition between the coming and going of life, both the joy and melancholy that make up our lot as humans.”
Without remembering where I first heard this tale, I wrote about it in my post “A Deer’s Scream, My Mother’s Eyes, and a Ripe Strawberry.” I end the post with this:
“Perhaps at the very end, when there finally is no escape from death, like that deer, like my mother, and that awful inevitable conclusion chasing us down grabs hold, and there truly is no escaping, something unimaginable happens. Some unseen hand plucks us like a ripe strawberry from the jaws of death and swallows us whole, savoring all the sweetness of our brief lives, and reaffirming with a sigh, “Oh, so delicious!”
In his introduction to the book “Wabi Sabi for Writers” Powell writes about how a “heightened awareness of both beauty and suffering leads some people to despair,” and how to move beyond that.
One way to understand Sabi is to see it as a step beyond sensitivity to things, to see it as a deep awareness of the poetry at the heart of all things. The curious magic of this literary awareness is that while you are focused on the poetry in each object of attachment, your ego is quieted. To have a sabi mind you allow ego to rest in this un-voiced poetry. This new understanding of Sabi as an antidote to despair was Basho’s most important discovery. Sabi, he realized, was central to the Way of Elegance.
The Way of Elegance encourages a creative response to challenge and difficulty and produces eccentricity, pluckiness, fortitude, and resourcefulness. Yet sabi by itself can be overdone. The depth and character that comes from this clear-minded approach to life can make you feel mature, seasoned, and even superior. This is where wabi comes in. Wabi is the humbling factor, the stabilizing reality of the vastness and complexity of nature and our own place in it. When the two are balanced, they produce a lightness in a writer’s work which Basho called “karumi.”
Finding that balance between the beauty and fragility of things without falling through the gap into despair, is something that I strive for, in life as well as in my writing. But it’s not always easy, as I write in “Saving, and Savoring, the World.”
“The unbearable lightness of being,” is how I think of it. I’ve always loved Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” but I fell in love with the title long before I ever read the book. The word “unbearable” can mean something so heavy and burdensome that we can barely bear up beneath it. But it can also mean something so ineffably sweet that we can barely contain our joy. It’s the second meaning that resonates with me.
It is this quality that made me fall in love with the poem “Joy Ride” by Wabi Sabi.
I finally found the link so you can read it here. The poem is all about the “impossible joy-ride” we embark upon at our “naked, gasping birth.” Here’s a few of my favorite lines to entice you:
. . . how a river of pleasure runs through your nose
when a rose shrugs off its holy fragrance
feel how your heart pumped as you jumped on your bike
willing your eight year old legs to ride forever
how you soared, when you stopped on the road to Yosemite, awed
and had to lie on the hood of the car to keep from falling into the stars . . . .
Emily Dickinson once wrote that “life is a spell so exquisite everything conspires to break it.” So exquisite. This unbearable lightness of Being.