I’m stepping gently into the new year, not unlike the bird that left these prints in the fresh snow. The crossing paths seem like a metaphor about uncertainty, something that, by now, if we haven’t embraced, we might might be in for a bumpy ride.
I’m trying to see these uncertain times as if they’re a teacher. How do you forge ahead knowing that everything might come grinding to a halt? How do you stay focused on your path, and at the same time stay responsibly informed about various unfolding crises?
The answer is you can’t, at least not always. This brings me to the subject of wabi-sabi, a Japanese concept most often attributed to aesthetics that embraces impermanence, imperfection and incompleteness. Among other things, it invites you to seek the beauty in the aged, broken or otherwise seemingly ugly. Something doesn’t necessarily exist as wabi-sabi. Instead it asks you to seek it out the beauty in what might otherwise be overlooked. This is why many artists, as well as non-artists love a good rusted wall or peeling paint on a fence. There’s a sense of relief that something so mundane can embody beauty.
While we’re all getting a possibly unwelcome lesson in uncertainty, there’s a positive side. If outcomes aren’t certain, how and why we do what we do is. You can focus more on process when when you’ve been denied a predictable outcome.
And, like melting snow, death, the change of seasons and the like, the idea of impermanence is a gift as well. If good things don’t last, neither do bad things. I feel a little wistful when the last leaf falls off the big-leaf maple out my living room window, but the bare branches let the winter sun flood the room.
A recent snowfall in Portland proper—a sort of rare event—offered a chance to enjoy fleeting beauty. Snow and ice are the perfect expressions of wabi-sabi, always in a state of transformation. You can only enjoy the moment and then it’s gone.
Wabi-sabi is sometimes described as serene melancholy. We perceive melancholy as something to avoid but the Japanese have a more expansive definition. It’s about being present to the temporariness of beauty like this gradation of snow across cobblestones. Key to its beauty is that it won’t last.
Before it melted, it transformed even more, punctuated by the paw prints of two energetic little dogs.
I was happy to grow my photo archive of what I call accidental beauty, in this case calligraphy—a reward of simply venturing out, especially when you don’t feel like it…and keeping your eyes open. This kind of accidental beauty has the added value that the creator doesn’t know what magic they left behind. Stay tuned: It might end up on a future piece of jewelry.
One of my favorite artists, whose work is the full embodiment of wabi-sabi is Andy Goldsworthy. A maker of land art, much of his work is meant to be temporary. Nature makes up both his art supplies as well as their means of destruction—snow, leaves, ice, twigs, dirt. An intricate construction of delicate branches will meet its end with a gust of wind. And as soon as the the sun comes out, this design will disappear.
I circle back to Andy Goldsworthy when I work, reminding myself that at the same time I seek a level of mastery in whatever I’m making, I have to accept the proverbial wind gust. And maybe even celebrate it.
One risk of having hungry eyes is that you can find yourself coveting what you see, much like the feeling you have upon seeing an adorable puppy. That’s how I felt upon seeing these scattered black dots made from water dripping off the trees above as the day warmed up. I couldn’t make a more perfect array of dots if I tried. Instead I tried simply to appreciate that I was fortunate enough to be at that place at that time. In hours, or even minutes, it would be gone.
Another day, after the snow had melted, fascinating ice patterns formed next to the curbs where water had puddled. I had almost stayed inside as the cold was bracing, but I was rewarded for my minor efforts.
So as 2022 unfurls before us, I hope you’re rewarded with accidental beauties of your own, and that uncertainty and impermanence will be a good teachers to you.