Westmark’s Retsu Wabi-Sabi

I didn't realize until recently that I've been badly bruised if not broken, and have been running on fumes for several years, going through the motions of life in a sort of emotional coma. I stopped gardening, stopped winding clocks, and had begun sitting on the edge of a sofa or chair like a bird just ahead of a hungry cat. I ran in all sorts of directions, like a white mouse in a tiny box, racing to find a reward somewhere, or if not a reward, an escape hatch.

A few weeks ago, without knowing why or what process was at work,  I took several cheap, old-fashioned black and white composition books and a glue stick, and began sticking bits of colored paper, word phrases, cut-outs of photos — whatever pleased me in a seemingly random way — and I let the books become and then be simply themselves, with no "you are this" and "you must be this" talk.The simple act of using a child's tools: scissors, colored pencils, and glue, was strangely satisfying, and I began to breathe deeply once again.

Then, one day soon after,  I wandered around various rooms and wound up the clocks. Their beating heart sound was like a familiar echo from a former time.

I bought two small dracena plants to put on my desk.

Then I rescued a bedraggled purple African violet from one of those sad supermarket displays. It has already perked up. I smile every time I look at it, which is frequently, since it is almost at my elbow, like a grateful new shelter pet.

A few days later, I went out to the small oval area not too far from the side door near the kitchen and laundry room — the one I call "my weed patch"  — and looked at the messy tangle of junipers, several cedars, rosemary, marjoram and thyme interlaced with thick, strangling blackberry briars. Long shoots of grass were interspersed everywhere. I vaguely remembered this as a space where coriopsis, hydrangea and gardenia bloomed once, where a coral-colored bouganvillea trailed from a hanging basket, where ferns and a Christmas cactus harmoniously co-existed.

I looked at that space and saw myself. Why was I punishing life? When did it begin? There were events, of course, and several tragedies, but I had not fully appreciated the termite-like, chipping away, life-narrowing, cumulative nature of them: deaths — family and friends; the grim, hand-to-hand combat of struggling with a stock market that had once seemed like a fun game; and small, niggling health issues that put you on the couch when small bones fracture. Life. It's life.

I remember returning from a short trip that was not fun because we worked unproductively during the whole thing and cut it short to come home (totally uncharacteristic for Buck and me). This was the fall of 2008 and there had been a persistent drought, along with everything else. When we got home, I looked out at my "weed patch" (already in full neglect mode) and found that hungry deer had (for the first time and never again since) for some reason eaten the tops out of the formerly pretty miniature cedar trees. They were about 5 feet tall, and now were misshapen and ugly. Somehow, that was the last straw. A bleak melancholia settled coldly around my heart, and I vowed to never garden again.

Two days ago, I went out to the old red storage building and dug out my gardening tools. I bought my first-ever pair of Fiskar clippers. And I went to work.

Many things are happening all at once. When I walked into the pantry Saturday morning and saw tiny round black bugs perched comfortably on the white wire shelves, I woke up, joyfully indulged my inner obsessive-compulsive side, stripped the pantry of its contents, cleaned, polished, vacuumed, mopped and rearranged everything. It came out with the herbs and spices alphabetized, yes, but the whole is now playful in a way I have never seen before. I'd like to put in a lamp and a reading chair and just hang out in there, it's so friendly and fun. See?



The various chains are left-over from hanging light fixtures used when we built the house. I found them on an S-hook in a corner of the pantry, and just like the way they look draped around the shelves. 

In the July 9, 2010 issue of Canadian artist Robert Genn's thoughtful, exquisite on-line newsletter, The  Twice-Weekly Letter, he discusses the traditional Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi. The article title is Retsu Wabi-Sabi. I didn't get around to reading it until two days ago, but when I did, I read it several times, and felt certain tumblers click as I thought about our lives here at Longleaf, the changes we have seen and lived through, and changes that will come: the constant moving river of existence. 

Mr. Genn writes about his interest in systems that "refresh and reboot" creativity. One of those systems is Retsu Wabi-Sabi. He says, "This is how it works: Wabi-Sabi is a traditional Japanese idea based on the acceptance of transience. It also means seeing beauty in imperfection, impermanence, incompletion and decay."  He adds that "retsu" means "something that is collected, in a line, or added to."

Personal daybook-style blogs are a living caravan of our minds at work, our evolving spirits. We add to our memoirs picture by picture, line by line, in an open-hearted sharing of the human experience.

I walked the woods this past Tuesday, the last day of August. They are full of clues to  seasonal changes yet to be fully seen or felt. Summer's rampant growth has come to an end. The long stalks of purple blazing stars have begun to flower. My own heart is once again open, tender and vulnerable, yet unafraid.

Let's link our arms, take a deep, cleansing breath, and walk.





17 thoughts on “Westmark’s Retsu Wabi-Sabi

  1. Call me psychosomatic, but your affliction sounds familiar. I personally think it’s altitude deprivation for me…I need a mountain fix.
    Maybe a walk with the camera would rekindle some creativity, if the weather breaks.


  2. Yes, let’s!!!
    I’m coming away from this lovely post feeling the comfort that is found when another human being expresses herself so intimately and accurately that I sense a connection; it’s validating to read of emotions I’ve felt similarly.
    I’ll hold close these words describing Wabi-Sabi: It also means seeing beauty in imperfection, impermanence, incompletion and decay.
    If I can learn to see beauty in what I often shun, I will have you and this post to thank.
    I will write those words on paper and keep them close.
    Thank you, Beth.


  3. and sometimes Life just really gets in the way, and you have to STOP! Breath, and just BE for a while then get renewed, and become creative again.


  4. Yes, it’s possible for the spirit to wear thin like fabric grown threadbare from too many wearings. So glad ease is coming now. You deserve the peace.
    I’ve had times in my life of wearing thin too, and know that some periods require letting go in order to hold on until strength returns for reweaving.


  5. I love this post. But be careful. The next thing you know you will be embellishing your walls with all sorts of ephemera like your older sis. Happy playing. love you.


  6. This is such a beautiful post, on so many levels. The thoughts, the writing, the photographs, and the intent to reinvent yourself once again. Blessings on the journey back to yourself and into the life around you. I am making the same journey, as you know, and it is wonderful to reemerge.


  7. Thank you for the walk in the woods.
    I’m still sloshing through the swamp,
    in search of the fresh air produced
    by the trees, grasses and plants of
    the higher ground.
    If you need help sprucing up that
    garden, I just happen to have some
    terrific reference books……..
    Love you.


  8. Pain, pressure, frustration. These things can weigh. Tip the scales.
    But the beauty is always there. Life is always there. As I read your post, I felt happy for you. Focus on what gives you joy.


  9. All said above. But ‘systems that “refresh and reboot”‘ and ‘seeing beauty in imperfection, impermanence, incompletion and decay’ – yes, yes! An inspirational post, Beth. Thank you.


  10. I just love it when you go Japanese on us…wabi sabi…it’s so much a part of the people’s DNA here that sometimes it gets forgotten in the hustle and bustle of daily life. Thanks for the reminder…I will pass it on to all my Japanese friends and neighbors! (having lived here so long, I guess it’s rubbed off on me, too…^-^)


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