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.

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Beauty is but a vain and doubtful good

When I was a child and began discovering myself in a mirror, I wondered about my nose. I thought it different from my friends -different from Teddy’s at any rate. He was my best friend and we went everywhere together. We had the same kind of jeans, and shared a similar taste in ice cream. We even rode the same kind of bikes to school. But he had a small, straight nose, and mine was fatter and had a little hook in it. Teddy didn’t think much about it -but that was because there was nothing wrong with his. Mine was ugly.

Only later did I begin to understand that it wasn’t ugliness I had been noticing, it was difference. And that looking the same as someone else wasn’t really a sign of beauty, any more than looking different was something shameful or unfair. But that awareness requires some maturity, I think, a Weltanschauung born of more experience than we can expect of a child.

And yet, what is beauty? Can one define it in isolation from what it is not, or must one be forever trapped on a Mobius strip of perspective? And where, on a Bell Curve, does beauty start -or ugliness begin? Short of a Goldilockean definition of ‘just-right-baby-bear’, is beauty actually amenable to definition? Or is it dependent on culture? Historical epoch?

Humanity has struggled with this at least since records have been kept. And the beauty/ugly antipodes have survived largely as antagonists, dependent on each other as contrast -each is what the other cannot be

At any rate, always alert to the nuances of the struggle, I was pleased to come across an essay on the history of ugliness in the online Aeon magazine, written by Gretchen Henderson, a teacher at Georgetown University and a Hodson Trust-JCB Fellow at Brown University: https://aeon.co/ideas/the-history-of-ugliness-shows-that-there-is-no-such-thing

‘This word [ugly] has medieval Norse roots meaning ‘to be feared or dreaded … Ugliness has long posed a challenge to aesthetics and taste, and complicated what it means to be beautiful and valued. Western traditions often set ugliness in opposition to beauty, but the concept carries positive meanings in different cultural contexts. The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi values imperfection and impermanence, qualities that might be deemed ‘ugly’ in another culture.’

‘‘Ugly’ is usually meant to slander, but in recent decades, aesthetic categories have been treated with growing suspicion. ‘We cannot see beauty as innocent,’ writes the philosopher Kathleen Marie Higgins, when ‘the sublime splendor of the mushroom cloud accompanies moral evil.’’

As Henderson says, ‘When we call something ugly, we say something about ourselves – and what we fear or dread.’

I have to say, I am very attracted to the concept embodied by the Koine Greek word for beautiful: horaios­—etymologically related to hora, or ‘hour’. In other words, beauty means being in one’s hour. Wikipedia gives an example: ‘a ripe fruit (of its time) was considered beautiful, whereas a young woman trying to appear older or an older woman trying to appear younger would not be considered beautiful.’

So, can a nose be ugly? And what would that mean, exactly? To Teddy, it seemed a non-issue, and my constant reference to it bothered him.

“You talk about ugly,” he finally yelled over his shoulder at me as we were racing our bikes to school one morning. “Just look at Cindy, eh?”

“What’s wrong with Cindy?” I shouted back in little grunts, as I tried to catch up with him. Cindy was a girl that sat a few seats in front of me in class. I kind of thought she was cute, although I was much to shy to tell her.

“Ever look at her ears?”

I hadn’t, actually. But she had long brown hair that hung down to her shoulders in big, wavy curls, so the only thing that showed on her head was her face. I didn’t need to see her ears. And anyway, if you couldn’t see something, then it didn’t seem fair to call it ugly.

It made me glance up at Teddy’s ears as I finally caught up to him on a corner near the school, though; I hadn’t noticed them before. They were kind of weird -especially the way the little skin lobes hung down and danced around like earrings when he pedalled.

I checked my ears in the big mirror in the boy’s room when I got to school. Mine were normal, at least. Actually, if you ignored the nose, my face wasn’t too bad either. Everything seemed to match, and as far as I could tell, was in the right place. It was reassuring that I wasn’t a total mess.

That day, as I daydreamed in class, I glanced at the kids around me. Jacob’s chin was kind of long for his face, but Brian’s was almost not there -his neck seemed to join his face with only a little bump just below his lips. I hadn’t noticed that before. Janna had greasy hair, but of course that was no surprise -she also had red marks all over her cheeks, like she was infected, or something.

I could only see Cindy’s back from where I sat, of course, but it was wonderful enough to see her hair dancing over her shoulders as she moved around trying to find something on her desk. It was perfect hair -even Teddy couldn’t deny that. And I was pretty sure that it would smell like roses, or whatever. Beautiful girls were like that.

I think she could feel me staring at her, because just before the class ended she suddenly turned her head and glared at me. He face was tight with… well, with anger, I think, and she screwed her face up into a really horrid scowl. I’d never seen her like that before, and for a moment, I wondered if I’d misjudged her. Without warning, her beauty disappeared, and her eyes ripped into me like knives. Fury is really scary when you don’t expect it. Then, seeing that she had succeeded in punishing me, her face relaxed again and she turned away -whether back to beauty, though, I couldn’t tell.

And yet I suppose we are all different people at different times, aren’t we? Looking back at that memory after all these years, it seems obvious to me that the way we see the world is dependent on factors that are often out of our immediate control. Even our appearance in the mirror is contingent… although I’m used to my nose now.