Monday, August 5, 2013


Wabi-sabi is a term that I heard for the first time in a Japanese art class in college. All art history majors had to take at least one class in non-Western art: West African masks, Chinese painting, Islamic manuscript illumination. Things Japanese were trendy in academia at the time, and it was the least alien-seeming choice.

Yet I felt an immediate resistance to Japanese art, almost an antipathy. My textbook had a blackened, lumpen tea service on the cover that I thought was hideous. Shouldn’t a tea service be bone-white and smooth and painted with colorful hummingbirds?

The hideous tea service was beautiful, I was told, because it embodied wabi-sabi.

Wabi-sabi is the characteristic feature of traditional Japanese beauty, occupying roughly the same position in Japanese aesthetic values as the Greek ideals that I was already steeped in and which were so much easier for me to appreciate. The wabi-sabi aesthetic is grounded in an acceptance of transience and imperfection: no Colosseum, in other words. No David. The art and architecture of wabi-sabi is asymmetrical, rough or irregular, simple, economical, austere, and modest.

Inside my textbook were photographs of gardens made of rocks, tables of unfinished wood, Tadao Ando houses that appeared to me to be mere concrete boxes. Wabi-sabi came to occupy the place in my mind where I kept Catherine MacKinnon and Daniel Deronda and how to read a plan and elevation: I appreciated having been exposed to them, but ugh.


Then I moved to Portland. Everything here is broken, old and repurposed. Rotting hiking boots used as flowerpots. Rainbow chard growing in buckets on the front porch. A rusted bicycle ridden across a weedy lawn by a topiary man. Purple and blue and pink wood frame houses, Victorian and Craftsman-style, with peeling paint and rotting steps.

The Louisville neighborhood where I grew up was the opposite. The houses were neo-everything and tastefully neutral in color and design. The yards were monocultures swathed in fertilizer, the landscaping corporate in its banality and utility. No one dare hang a Tibetan prayer flag, or paint their house cobalt blue, or dig up the lawn and put in Ohio Valley-appropriate plantings. Presumably there were codes against that sort of thing. At my house everything was in perfect repair, and preferably new. Everything was clean, and in its proper place.

That environment oppressed me, but it wasn’t until I lived in Portland that I began to see what, exactly, bothered me. Isn’t that Neo-Colonial just a little too symmetrical? I found myself thinking. Isn’t that Meissen just a little too pretty? Isn’t it all just kind of slick and heavy-handed and obvious?

Portland’s wabi-sabi aesthetic has to do, in part, with the weather. The constant rain and the fact that the housing stock is made of wood means that it is virtually impossible to keep things up to a Midwestern standard. Partly it's economic. People are chronically underemployed and no one has the money to paint every other year, or hire a landscaper, or fix those steps.

It is also the culture, in good ways and in bad. People in Portland have creativity to burn: on one block you can spot a handmade mosaic-tiled birdfeeder, an intersection where the asphalt is painted with a giant mandala, and a chicken coop that looks like a cathedral.  In general, though, Portlanders do not demonstrate Type A perfectionist characteristics. I, for one, am a type B lazy slob who would always, always rather be reading than mopping the kitchen floor.

If you do scrape together the money to paint your steps it’s likely to be a half-assed job using the wrong paint, performed by a sexy bearded Turkish guy perpetually drunk on red wine. Or so I’ve heard.

Discovering that my eye had changed, or that maybe my values had always been different than I had thought, reminded me of high school, when I made a big deal about hating the Replacements, only to belatedly discover, to my embarrassment, that I secretly loved them; had, in fact, loved them all along.


Wabi-sabi is meant to evoke a feeling of serene melancholy and spiritual longing. The feeling arises from the acknowledgement of these realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. It’s counterintuitive, even downright un-American. But very Balthazar. Wabi-sabi is about transience and imperfection.

Of course we are all transient. But we can kind of put that in a dark closet most of the time because life usually goes on for quite a few years and if all you did was meditate on your impending death how would you ever pay the cable bill? A baby who dies before he is born is the essence of transience. He is a moth, a soap bubble, a scent of honeysuckle drifting through the garden.

The first night I went to the grief group I briefly attended after Balthazar died, the father of one stillborn baby passed around a professionally-made photo album he and his wife had created of their dead daughter, including glamour shots of her in different outfits, posed with them and with their older child. As I flipped through the pages I felt a wave of protectiveness wash over me.

The truth that became apparent as I met more parents of stillborn babies was that Balthazar was not an especially good-looking stillborn baby, even by our generous, grief-stricken standards. None of us could pretend that our babies were “perfect,” of course, despite what the OB said at Balthazar’s delivery, because to be perfect they would have to have been alive. But somehow there was still a competition going on for…what? Most resemblance to a marble cherub on a funerary monument? The dead baby beauty pageant awards no prizes.

Some of the other babies really did look as if they were asleep. Balthazar did not look asleep. There was a crust of blood at his mouth and his vernix pallor was unnerving. He looked very, very dead, and there was nothing lovely about that.

Right after Balthazar died Jasper asked me which one of them I loved more. Even with his brother gone, or maybe because he was gone, it was very important to him that I say that if Balthazar had lived I would have loved them the same, but since I never got to know Balthazar and I had known Jasper for seven years already, I loved him the most.

Jasper has the look of the Kritios boy: classically formed, strong and perfect. He is the boy holding the snake in Gèrôme; he is Donatello’s David.

Balthazar is a lumpy tea service, a cup shattered in the kiln. Transient, imperfect, beautiful.