“…but my dear friend who took our wedding pictures, she forgot her glasses at home on the day of the ceremony. She is the sweetest person and one who loathes to draw attention to herself, you know, so she didn’t tell us. Instead, she tried to take the photos all the same. When we received them, all the pictures were out of focus, Little Star,” she said sweetly, referring to me by her pet name for me, “but I like to think of them as art and evocative of her grace in choosing to let us relish in our day without disappointment,” she added with an insouciant laugh.
“Now THAT’s Wabi-Sabi!” I declared to her.
We had been walking the hallowed halls of the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute exhibition, Manus x Machina on the afternoon of my 31st birthday, when my dear friend shared the above anecdote with me. Not long before her story, I had mentioned to her my recent and on-going reflection of the Japanese concept, Wabi-Sabi. A nebulous idea when first introduced, her ensuing vignette gave me a chance to ascribe true meaning to those four syllables for her. “Thank you for giving me a word to describe what those photos are to me,” she gasped.
Indeed, the Japanese language (much like German) is rich with terms that capture the poetry of existence with far better accuracy then our pauce anglo tongue. Words like komorebi (木漏れ日; sunshine filtering through the leaves of trees), and kawaakari (かわあかり; the gleam of light on a river’s surface at dusk, and this one that I’m guilty of, tsondoku (積ん読; the acquiring of books and letting them pile up without reading them).
What is Wabi-Sabi? Wabi-Sabi is starting a story in medias res. Wabi-Sabi is out-of-focus photographs that captured both a transient moment and human being’s gift of thoughtfulness. Wabi-Sabi is Rihanna’s Alexandre Vauthier 2016 VMA dress, a juxtaposition of hard-edges of urban wear and the voluminousness of romanticism, rendered in zen minimalistic lines and monochramatic gold hue. Wabi-Sabi is what much of modern dance aspires to with its penchant flexed feet and unorthodox torso placement. Wabi-Sabi is the Japanese art of Kintsukiroi (金繕い, defined as “to repair with gold”) in which fractured pottery is made whole again by pouring lacquer mixed or dusted with gold into the fissures, forming tributaries en or which encapsulate the philosophy that breakage and repair are part and parcel of the history of an object, a reality to be highlighted rather than something to be cached.
“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”- Jellaludin Rumi
Technically speaking, Wabi-Sabi is the Japanese aesthetic school— and manner of being—that celebrates the beauty of austerity, of transience and impermanence, of imperfection as perfection. Things in bud or things in decay are inherently more evocative of Wabi-Sabi than things in full bloom as they are emblematic of form-shifting and transience. Wabi-Sabi hence espouses mono no aware (物の哀れ; a Japanese idea that translates literally to “the pathos of things”: a sensitivity to the transience of existence and impermanence). That is to say that things that are Wabi-Sabi engender mindfulness in our nature for once we realize that everything is has a life-span; we understand the need to savour what is for the time that is is. The seven aspects of Wabi Sabi as an aesthetic are:
不均整 (Fukinsei) : asymmetry, irregularity
簡素 (Kanso) : simplicity; elimination of clutter
渋味 (Shibumi) (and Koko): Austerity (and weathered nature)
自然 (Shizen): without pretense, natural
幽玄 (Yugen) : subtly profound grace, not obvious
脱俗 (Datsuzoku) : unbounded by convention, free
静寂 (Seijaku) : stillness; tranquility.
I started to ponder the notion of Wabi-Sabi several days ahead of my birthday when, quite simply, I got lost. Getting lost in Manhattan can be a magnificent thing if you keep your eyes open: so much is in flux. (“Not all who wander are lost” indeed). My wrong-directional walking that day led me past the Issey Miyake Pleats Please store in Soho. A neon dress (not pictured; coming soon) caught my eye through the window and arrested my steps. I heeded intuition and went in to try on this electric masterpiece. I found myself entranced by the dress’ complexity and elimentariness: shaped simply like a tear drop, it drips on the wearer with the ease of liquid, bounces playfully with every sublte displacement of the body and yet holds such an intriguing three-dimensionality always. Ever the lover of good paradox, I vowed to come back for the dress and wear it on my birthday. But more importantly, having left the Japanese designer’s New York outpost, the words Wabi-Sabi popped into my mind, as if by intuition once again, as I walked, now in the right direction, from the store to the train.
The terminology had first been introduced to me by my dear friend, interior designer, Tim Hobby, who often incorporates the ethos of Wabi-Sabi into his design of spaces. I’d never thought about it again until that moment. And I sensed it was just as much a weltanschauung as it is an aesthetic principle. So, what does all this Wabi and Sabi mean as a way of living; a manner of seeing the world, particularly as the pleats under my eyes grow more visible and my hips are as intransigent as ever with passing time? In thinking of Wabi-Sabi in the weeks leading up to my 31st birthday, not only did it become clear that it has been that sort of trip around for me– a difficult one made wondrous by striving and surviving against the odds and by all the opportunities that were borne of the losses I suffered– but I also began to see unforgiving marks of time’s inexorable passage as a thing of beauty. It has been a beautiful tumult of a year of transition, characterized by transience (hello sublease dramaS), imperfection, simplifying and growing closer to the essence of my own nature.
That such a life ethos can be drawn from an aesthetic ideation ossifies, in my mind, the position that there is no such thing as superficiality. If beauty is the ecstasy and altered consciousness aroused by the encountering of a thing (or if beauty is the characteristic of the thing that draws out such emotion), whether that thing be the overture of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, the heights of Machu Picchu, or a dress, who is to say that one is more meaningful than the other? Perhaps the question is less one of the inherent superficiality of a thing, and more so about the profundity of one’s engagement with things.
The encounter with the neon dress led me to excavate Miyake’s Pleats Please collection further, unearthing the gem of “dress” known as Madam T. It is merely an expanse of pleated cloth with an off-center hole cut into it. The beauty of this sheath lives in the impermanence of its form and the infinite permutations and possibilities in thusly holds within its singular existence. Tie it one way and it is a top (as I did with the black incarnation), let it hang loose it is exists as a kaftan of sorts (and an inspiration for boundless movement as the gold version was), knot it another way and it transforms into kimono-inspired dress (bonus points if it is crimson: the color of the root chakra and a deliberate choice for me on birthdays).
This mutability of material s not unlike the fabric of our personhood, which, once we realize it, is entirely moldable to our desire, despite limitations of length and breath (sic). Just as the dress changes with our imagination, one’s life can do the same. An imperfection retagged– a fold where one usually “shouldn’t” be, a lack of symmetry, or cracks in worn leather– transfigures into a thing of beauty because of the shifting of one’s perspective.
I wore the red iteration of Madam T to a Zashiki style dinner with friends at En Japanese Brasserie with a mindful accessory: Charlton & Lola‘s gemstone-studded Japa ring. Japa is the sanskrit word for meditation. “As you turn the ring and feel each stone, you repeat your mantra to yourself,” says designer Lisa Owusu of the ring. I paired it with her Light-wave ring to retain simplicity while achieving asymmetry.
From the desire to practice more mindfulness in my life conjured by my contemplation of Wabi-Sabi, I began the project of writing a haiku everyday leading to my birthday. Haiku are inherently Wabi-Sabi as they often extol and distill fleeting moments and, given the limited syllabic real-estate demanded by the form (3 lines, 5 syllables in the first, 7 in the second and 5 in the last), are rarely neat nuggets of grammatical/syntactical perfection. Each day, searching for an impetus in my surroundings for the short poem, I found myself more attuned to my outer world and how it impacted my inner world, I challenged myself to write daily and with brevity (which, case in point, is not my forte), and I found freedom through the dictates of confinement. Everyday, I looked for magnificence in the mundane and I look forward to sharing these brief reveries with you soon.
“Being in contact with life in the present moment, we observe deeply what is. Then we are able to see the impermanent and selfless nature of all that is. Impermanence and selfless are not negative aspects of life but the very foundations on which life is built. Impermanence is the constant transformation of things. Without impermanence there can be no life…Looking over Vulture Peak, at the town of Vesali, at a field of ripe, golden rice, the Buddha saw [the] beauty [of a sunset, a cereus cactus flowering by night and a falling star] and told Ananda so. Seeing deeply the impermanent nature of those beautiful things, their transformation and disappearance, the Buddha did not suffer or despair. We too, by observing deeply and seeing impermanence and selflessness in all that is…can experience the preciousness of the miracles of everyday life—a glass of clear water, a cool breeze, a step taken in ease and freedom. All these are wonderful things, all though they are impermanent ” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Pleats are made by folding, contorting as it were. They are sealed in through the application of immense heat. From compression, fabric is imbued with poetic buoyancy. It has been that sort of year for me indeed. I have been pressed through some intense situations and the mercury has risen from fierce heat of living. Accordingly, I find myself ever-more adaptable to struggles and sorrows, but also ever-more aware of the the agency I posses to carve my reality both in the light and in the shadow; to carve light out of the shadow. Nothing lasts forever, neither intoxicating joy nor debilitating pain. Impermanence is the only permanence of our tenure here on earth. That everything is always changing is something to celebrate, both in decay and that the more decorous moments. The ripples in the fabric of life are what make this being alive thing a beautiful journey.
What I Wore: Issey Miyake “Madam T” scarf in red, black, and gold, custom-made velvet skirt, Christian Louboutin “Iriza” pumps, Charlton & Lola rose gold and diamond “Light Wave” ring and “Japa” ring, Yves Saint-Laurent “Arty” ring, Alexis Bittar “Golden Studded Dangling Clip” earring
Photography by Colby Blount