I was watching a program last night when a commercial interrupted the flow, my cue to press “mute” on the remote and fetch a glass of water or read another few paragraphs from a current novel. As always, I glanced up periodically to see if the ad had ended. I rarely pay attention to commercials, but this time my focus was captured by the actress in the ad, who portrayed a woman suffering from an apparent and unfortunate skin disease that kept her indoors while vacationing, until she discovered the featured product and could then join her friends outside, in a gorgeous natural setting. (Mountains, lake: fun times denied, then realized through the miracle of pharmaceuticals.)
What I noticed was that the actress was a “normal-looking” woman in her 50’s. She looked like a person who might be smart and funny and kind: someone you’d want for a friend; ironically, she looked comfortable in her own skin. In one of the closing scenes, she sat contentedly outside at the end of a dock, swinging her legs over the water, and just…well, being. She wore a nondescript sundress, exactly like I would, was average-sized (in itself a jolting visual occurrence on American television); wrinkles and un-toned muscles were evident…and she had clearly danced in gravity’s embrace for quite a few years. When the camera panned around and behind her, we saw her peacefully seated on the dock. (I think the sun was setting now, to signal the happy resolution advertising provides.) It was lovely to see “someone who looks like me” in an ad and it led me to reflect on how little our culture truly values people, objects, places, and relationships that wear a bit of patina.
I imagined how the ad fiction could continue: the woman’s husband or friends would look at her from the cabin and love this person-as-she-is, utterly. They would be happy her skin has healed, of course, but wouldn’t consider rejecting her if it hadn’t been.
I thought about the ways we grow old, with friends and longtime companions, and how we wear away over time and in each other’s eyes, to pure spirit, kind of like the Velveteen Rabbit. I guess “grow” is the operative word and it implies choice; we evolve, picking up interests, loves, beliefs and pursuits, and then we discard bits and pieces and choose others. We revert, convert, progress, fill and empty. We’re clearly not the people we once were, and we’re still becoming. But I think that there’s an essence to us that we can come to name and that those who truly love us can identify with us. Clearly, Phillip can’t look at me and see, physically, the young woman he met and married, but I think he sees, and knows, and loves her spirit, and the physical changes don’t mask that…if we’re blessed in our partnership. To me, he becomes dearer as our lives accrue shared experiences and evolutions; I see them all when I look at him, along with those dimples that were the initial attractant. We affirm each other’s singular journeys and discoveries; we serve as mirrors for the other’s self-reflection, in the truest sense, and I hope we do this for family and friends, too.
You may be familiar with the Japanese philosophical orientation and aesthetic stance called “wabi sabi,” which recognizes beauty in simplicity, honors the authenticity a given subject reveals through its age and use, and notices the interrelationship between the subject and the space it occupies, taking negative space into account. What isn’t there and what remains are both valued. The design, or artwork, or person, or relationship has been worn away to its essence; time is respected as an artistic participant in the creation of the uniqueness that is now revealed.
“Wabi” points to the flaws that make us uniquely “perfect” rather than achieving a false, manufactured perfection that conforms to some promoted or popular ideological standard, and the “sabi” portion of the aesthetic values the distinctive—and earned—patina that only comes with time’s passage.
Wabi sabi honors the beauty that can happen and be sensually perceived when years of crucial connections to honesty, integrity and humility are maintained, as in the furniture and architecture of the Shakers, the handworn elegance of our grandfathers’ tools or grandmothers’ needlework. Or our faces as they age and our relationships as they simplify, and deepen. As we become more fully our true nature, as we live more fully into and from our giftedness, we become more uniquely beautiful.
I think it takes conscious awareness of our journeys, and intentional choices that favor simplicity and honesty for the aesthetic of wabi sabi to animate our lives. How closely are we living to the heart of who we are? How true are we to the gifts we came to share? How genuine is our dance in the world? How well do we love our shadows?
When the world tells us that imitative is better than original so it can sell us a new, improved, and well-trod path and everything we need to travel it…can we still hear the song our life is singing, and set out in the direction our spirit yearns to explore?
Fundamentally, it takes relationship to initiate and sustain an aesthetic of wabi sabi; both artist and aficionado (aficionar: to inspire affection) co-create the beauty: it is a mutual undertaking in choosing to be honest and authentic and then supporting that in others and appreciating the beauty they are and are becoming. Symbiotically, we each become more fully ourselves.
And happily, it’s never too late to come home to ourselves and live from an honest, spare, and beautiful spirit of authenticity. Not perfect, just uniquely real.
We’ve almost finished watching all of the excellent Northern Exposure series, thanks to Netflix. We just enjoyed an episode that connects to these ideas. Dr. Joel’s parents travel from Queens to visit Alaska. His mother, Nadine, reveals herself as a loving, competent woman and an anxious, non-stop talker. The doctor’s secretary, a Tlingit Native named Marilyn Whirlwind, gently tells Nadine, “You have an eagle spirit,” and Nadine beams and confesses that yes; she’s always felt “connected” to eagles.
Then Marilyn tells the eagle’s story, and events unfold that lead Nadine home, to her true self. Her husband and son are confused by the change, but clearly love her and it seems, will in time either adjust to this homecoming or not, a risk we must always take in relationship. Two other subplots featured other characters exploring their natures and true identities as well and indicated the risks involved in claiming our natures and living authentically. All of the characters had to answer their own questions, which required stillness, but each one also required relationship and support to fully bloom.
Ram Dass said, “We’re all just walking each other home,” which I initially understood as “back to pure Spirit,” but now perceive as “home to our true selves,” as well.
Use your gifts and be who you are: flawed, unique and beautiful. Recognize the other as a work of art as well.
The eagle wasn’t always the eagle. The eagle, before he became the eagle, was Ukatangi, the talker.
Ukatangi talked and talked. He talked so much, he could only hear himself. Not the river, not the wind, not even the wolf.
The raven came and said, “The wolf is hungry. If you stop talking, you will hear him. The wind, too. And when you hear the wind, you will fly.”
So Ukatangi stopped talking, and soon he heard the wind rushing by. In the quiet, he could hear the directions of its currents, swiftly lifting and falling. The music of the wind changed Ukatangi, and he became the eagle; he became his nature.
The eagle soared, and its flight said all it needed to say.
(This is close to the version I heard in the Northern Exposure episode. I found it here: http://aaanativearts.redbubble.com)