The Pleasure of Impermanence

Don’t you sometimes think things are changing too fast? Moving past you so rapidly it’s all a blur? Even mistakes are corrected with other mistakes so quickly it’s hard to know whether it’s all a game. It’s hard to know which is supposed to be the pentimento. And, perhaps more to the point, does it really matter?

When I was a child, I remember being intrigued by a set of bone china dishes that we only used on special occasions, and then only after dire warnings to be careful with our knives and forks on the plates for fear of cracking them in the headlong rush to dissect and ingest our dinners. I don’t know how many different patterns of Royal Crown Derby there are, but ours were decorated with Japanese figures in garden settings, all in rich blue colours. Even the mention of its construction out of bone china made my brother and I sit up straighter at the table -it sounded so fragile and expensive we were both on our best behaviour.

And yet, using sterling silver dinnerware, carried a special risk -cutting with the unusually heavy knives on such a fragile surface often led to excessive force on my part. Then, one Christmas when I was about seven or eight years old, the unthinkable happened: I cracked one of the dinner plates holding an unexpectedly tough piece of turkey. I was mortified and immediately ran from the table in tears.

My mother, far from being angry, followed me up to my room where I intended to hide for ever, and sat on my bed. “It’s okay, sweetheart,” I still remember her saying. “It’s only a plate. Things happen sometimes…” She kissed me on the cheek, led me back downstairs to the table, and carried on as if nothing had happened. And my dinner reappeared, undiminished, on another plate.

That same night, when I saw the broken plate that she was going to throw away, I asked if I could keep it. I spent most of the next day trying to glue it together without success, and only the following summer did my father help me to find the correct glue and cobble together a patch.

And every Christmas for years to come, it became a family tradition that I was served my dinner on that mended plate. It felt special: it was my plate.

Well, unless we rest for a while along its bank, we may never even see the river that is sweeping us all along. We may never appreciate the ‘transient and imperfect beauty’ of something like the fleeting splendour of the cherry blossom in our desperate journey along the shore. The Japanese have an expression for this ability to appreciate impermanence and imperfection: wabi-sabi.

Although I’ve touched upon the concept before in an essay entitled Words, Like the Wind (https://musingsonretirementblog.com/2017/10/15/words-like-the-wind/) I was captivated by an article in the BBC on travel where it was treated more thoroughly: http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20181021-japans-unusual-way-to-view-the-world

‘Originating in Taoism during China’s Song dynasty (960-1279) before being passed onto Zen Buddhism, wabi-sabi was originally seen as an austere, restrained form of appreciation. Today it encapsulates a more relaxed acceptance of transience, nature and melancholy, favouring the imperfect and incomplete in everything, from architecture to pottery to flower arranging. Wabi, which roughly means ‘the elegant beauty of humble simplicity’, and sabi, which means ‘the passing of time and subsequent deterioration’

‘As to why they sought imperfect, rustic pieces, Prof Otabe [professor at Tokyo University’s Institute of Aesthetics] explained that “wabi-sabi leaves something unfinished or incomplete for the play of imagination”. This opportunity to actively engage with something considered to be wabi-sabi achieves three things: an awareness of the natural forces involved in the creation of the piece; an acceptance of the power of nature; and an abandonment of dualism – the belief that we are separate from our surroundings.

‘Combined, these experiences allow the viewer to see themselves as part of the natural world, no longer separated by societal constructs and instead at the mercy of natural timelines. Rather than seeing dents or uneven shapes as mistakes, they are viewed as a creation of nature – much as moss would grow on an uneven wall or a tree would curve in the wind… Rather than casting nature solely as a dangerous and destructive force, it helps frame it as a source of beauty, to be appreciated on the smallest of levels. It becomes a provider of colours, designs and patterns, a source of inspiration, and a force to work alongside, rather than against… Alone, natural patterns are merely pretty, but in understanding their context as transient items that highlight our own awareness of impermanence and death, they become profound.’

As my adult Christmases wore on through the years, I wasn’t always able to spend them with my parents, but the mended plate was a story I told every year to my children, and then to my grandchild.

At first they would ask me if I was being punished each year by having to use the broken plate.

“But I’d fixed the plate,” I would explain as part of the story. “So it wasn’t broken anymore was it? Just special.”

They would look at each other and then at me. “But…”

It was difficult for them to understand when they were really young. They knew I wouldn’t serve them with a broken plate, or a cracked cup, so why would my mother do that? As they got older, though, they merely accepted the story as one of the tapestries every family weaves around special occasions, and their questions dwindled to patient grins and shared winks as I began to recite the story for yet another year.

It was only when I told it to my grandchild, Kaz, one Christmas, that the magic rekindled itself. By then, I was in possession of the family Royal Crown Derby set, although because of its increasing fragility, had decided to keep the mended plate separate from the other dishes on the table.

It was the first family dinner together since my grandchild had been born four or five years before. They’d all lived in a different city from me, and I was pretty sure my son hadn’t told his child about it -it was my plate, after all. It was for me to weave the chiaroscuro on the family quilt.

We were all seated at the table, and just before we started to eat, I smiled at my son to let him know I was about to tell the story. He nodded with a delighted smile on his face and nudged Kaz to make sure he was listening.

I told the story in the by then traditional fashion, but I didn’t think it had made any impression on Kaz. I saw him occasionally moving the food around on his plate, maybe to see if his was broken, and then looking somewhat disappointed when he couldn’t see the crack. He was also paying close attention to my own plate with saucer-sized eyes that followed my knife through every cut.

When I explained that the plate was now just too fragile to use after all these years, he smiled and nodded, wise beyond his years.

“You don’t want to have to fix it again, do you grandpa?” He stared at me for a moment, his eyes reading the wrinkles on my face. “It wouldn’t be the same beautiful old plate then, would it?”

Sometimes adults think they have a monopoly on wisdom, but maybe we merely enable something the children already possess. Wabi-sabi may be like that, I think.

Advertisements