Sunday, December 6, 2009

Wabi Sabi and the idyll of inner-city living

Originally written March 21, 2008.

I've spent my Good Friday writing an essay about Japanese ceramics. Amongst all the talk of clay, there is one theme that repeatedly comes up: Wabi. Wabi is a Japanese word, a concept. It means such things as the beauty of poverty, the feeling of being alone in a crowd, poetic nostalgia for emptiness, seclusion, the approach of death, the love of simplicity. It goes on. It is apparently impossible to comprehend Wabi properly unless you are Japanese, or have at least lived in Japan for a long time. It's often coupled with the word 'Sabi', which means rustic, or the patina of age, the appearance of being worn down by time. What I find interesting about these ideas is that we have no English equivalent - these feelings are completely incongruous to our daily life. Whilst I spent many hours rubbing my bare feet over the worn down bluestone in the hallway when I lived in Fitzroy, trying to get a sense of the lives that had walked across it in its 140 years of existence, I didn't have a word for that feeling. To others, it was just me being vague, distant. To me, that stone held some sort of phenomena, it had seen so much. It was smooth in the middle, and had formed itself into a valley shape.

Today was cold and quiet, autumnal and conducive of reading and studying. My family gathered together and ate, we picked on each other and laughed and made each other angry. We hugged a lot. The door to my room fell off when I got up. My Dad spent the day digging in the garden and found an old spoon drain, possibly a hundred years old. My Mum found a photographic slide - we looked at it and thought it was me. It was only on close inspection that we found that it was in fact her, the clue being her brother sitting in the distance beside her. They were young teenagers. We looked so similar - even our expressions are the same. Spending the day together I thought would leave me with an exuberant feeling - rather I feel slightly lonely and still, like someone is pouring cold water through my blood.

Riding my bike to work, whole families are getting around together. Bicycles built for two, tricycles, kids getting to school on roller-skates. I go by bike track, it's leafy, everyone gives way to everyone else. People smile at each other. At work, everyone laughs and chats and gets things done. Boring tasks like filing are ameliorated by cups of fragrant tea and encouraging words by benevolent managers. Books are read at lunch time, someone shares some left over cookies.

At home, something delicious is cooked, the house smells of onion. We chat, discuss the news. We are anti-racist, anti-war, pro-love, pro-academia. We talk about our latest efforts. We are peaceful - talkative, but reserved. There are always books, talk of books. If we have problems, we believe a book might solve it. We look at each other with the respect that only knowing someone too well can bring, to be able to predict their jokes and put up with their terrible puns. Friends come and there is more laughter.

There must be some name for this feeling - that you are living in some sort of idyll, a beautiful but temporary state. You know that everything around you is falling apart; there is economics and greed, war, racism, boredom, exploitation, starvation, ennui. To be quietly peaceful is to be ignorant. You are patriotic in loving your surroundings, but commit treason in hating your government.

If I could find a word to express all this, it would be my own Wabi Sabi. The feeling of being completely happy and completely sad at the same time.

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