Words by Louisa Thomsen Brits Photograph by Parker Fitzgerald
Late summer is an ideal time to amble down the path of wabi-sabi, the Japanese concept of appreciation and acceptance of imperfection and impermanence. Louisa Thomsen Brits acts as our guide.
We step across the doorstep washed by summer rain and into the cool, spare kitchen. The room smells of wood soap and freshly baked cake. On the tabletop, a peony droops its heavy head over the rim of a milk bottle. A single white petal has fallen to the floor. Three small ceramic cups wait on a wooden tray.
“These are the last three I have left—I’ve drunk my tea from them for almost 50 years,” says our neighbor as he smiles and lifts the teapot to pour for us. One end of the wooden handle has uncurled where it meets the smooth curve of the lid. His hands are veined and mottled brown from many morning hours spent tending the community garden. Time stands still and expands as each cup is filled. Steam rises. A distant car door slams. A crow calls.
Like rests between musical notes, there is space here between each moment, each object. On the windowsill is a row of small treasures: a hag stone, a carved wooden box, a tiny rat vertebra, a blue-gray flint, a slender candlestick. Folded linen tea towels hang above the oven to dry.
My son climbs onto my lap. We have come here to slow down, to let go of the disappointments of a scraped knee, a lost toy, an unwieldy tool, an insurmountable task. The door is left open to friendship, sidling cats and evening air.
These are the bittersweet moments we savor: our old friend’s open invitation, his warmth and restraint, a welcome at the gate, the cobbled path, the stillness of late afternoon, the presence of lengthening shadows and the knowledge that nothing lasts forever.
I feel the pith and pitch of life, its intangible essence, its fleeting loveliness and acknowledge its inevitable passing like the shadow that slides slowly across the kitchen wall, cast by the evening sun.
We cradle the clay cups and pause, conscious of their rough, worn surface, of the many conversations they have heard. I feel the touch of the potter’s hands. Each cup is different, alive with history and imperfection. In each one, we hold a subtle charge and know the gift of wabi-sabi like a kiss that endows everything with spirit.
Wabi-sabi is everywhere in this modest, peaceful home where all the inessentials have been pared away. Grass, ivy and the inexhaustible variety of life run right up to the wooden porch. Inside, there is natural harmony, simplicity, order and ease. This is a place of muted tones, texture, mystery, shadow and intangible charm. A rich life is lived here, a life of nuance and flow. The open windows frame a walnut tree that stands alone in the garden. We find ourselves touched by a kind of serene melancholy that comforts and inspires us to look within and gaze beyond. We hear bicycles and bright laughter on the street outside. Our neighbor lights a candle. In a low bowl, there’s a handful of unearthed potatoes and fresh dill, picked for the evening meal.
On this small patch of our busy street, each passing season, each cycle of growth and decay and each one of us is welcome. We know that here our flaws are as celebrated as our achievements. Our fragility and our capacity for joy is the thread that ties all our disparate lives together. At this table, we don’t have to shine brilliantly, compete or pretend. We are offered both context and freedom—and another piece of date and walnut cake. It’s still warm. A small hand reaches for the last slice.
Somewhere, between my child’s appetite and joie de vivre and this elderly man’s generosity and stillness, is the path of wabi-sabi. It comes with the gift of time and the patina of age to lead us to celebration of imperfection and impermanence. Wabi-sabi reveals the value of the humble, worn and treasured. It teaches us to strip away excess and embrace the unaffected beauty of the moment. It’s an invitation to consider a life free from the pursuit of perfection, from the fear of losing the gloss of youth, of not having enough.
When we come here, we learn to weave wabi-sabi into the fabric of our everyday life. We shed self in favor of openness, modesty and authenticity. We remember that enjoying a cup of tea together is a step toward peace and that grace arrives to inhabit the space that we keep swept and clear. Wabi-sabi holds moments of longing and connection, harnesses them to simple objects and everyday activities, infusing them with spirit and illuminating their natural integrity.
Wabi-sabi is this place that’s free of greed. It’s this man who sees the beauty of rust and peeling paint, who understands the wisdom of rocks, beeswax polish, driftwood and beetles. He shows us that wabi-sabi is a way of seeing, a way of being in the world. It is dry leaves, wooden spoons, washing hung to dry in the wind, worn leather, wild flowers, cotton and careful attention.
Through wabi-sabi, we can find a way to live in harmony with nature and trust the natural order of things. We can let go of unrestrained materialism, live lightly on the earth and learn how to inhabit our homes with care and treat each other with equanimity.
Our friend carefully brushes the cake crumbs onto a slate for the birds and washes each plate. My son hops about from one leg to the other, offering to help. A cup slips to the floor and shatters.
“Ah well,” the old man says, stooping to pick up a piece and put it on the windowsill. “Don’t worry. Nothing lasts forever. And it has been such a pleasure to have your company this evening.”
He moves slowly to collect the broom that props open the kitchen door. For a moment, he seems to be simply a part of the flux of dust and light that flow in and out of this house every day. We cherish him and the beauty that exists in that brief time between the coming and going of life.
Louisa Thomsen Brits is a writer, mother of four, tribal belly-dance teacher and novice coffee roaster. She lives in rural East Sussex, United Kingdom.
Endnotes: Robyn Griggs Lawrence, The Wabi-Sabi House: The Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty (New York: Clarkson Potter, 2004)
Andrew Juniper, Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence (Tuttle Publishing, 2003)
Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, translated by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker (Leete’s Island Books, 1977)