I love travelling by Internet: no packing, no airport delays, and no breathing the same recycled air as hundreds of other people.
This past week I traveled from how to fold origami cranes to the difference between washi and chiri-gami paper, to traditional Japanese paper making, to the difference between the tame-zuki and nagashi-zuki methods of paper making, to tracking down and checking out from the local library a copy of the classic Washi: The World of Japanese Paper. (Sukey Hughes, 1978) If you’re interested in hand-made paper, there is a short bio and some photographs of Sukey Hughes’ art here.
In that book is her essay on The Simplest of Substances containing her thoughts about how washi (Japanese paper) connects to nature, tradition, beauty, and the language of beauty.
I do not pretend to have more than a surface acquaintance with Japanese culture or aesthetics, much less of translating those ideas into English, but four key words in that essay stuck with me. The reason they stuck with me is that, collectively, they come closer to defining the transcendence of writing than anything I’ve found.
A quality that moves perpetually in its stillness. To encircle our life with beauty until finally beauty enters and rests within us.
This is what I call flow, or Zen, or being in the zone. Distractions stop; boundaries expand; I am alone with ideas converting themselves into words.
Restraint and calm, the beauty of inner implications that hold both the beauty of nature and health in high regard.
In other words, balanced. Knowing that I what I write at this moment has a deeper meaning, and that I’m getting as close as I can to conveying that meaning, even if I don’t quite understand it myself.
The pleasure of discovering something that is ripe, deep, approachable, mellowed with age and use, faded, traditional, quiet, and settled.
There are only X number of plots. The chance that I’m writing a story that has never been told before is zero.
Sabi is writing a story that has been told before, but telling it in such a way that it shines. This isn’t a bling shine; it isn’t neon lights; it isn’t a trumpet fanfare.
In fact, it is the exact opposite. I love the Japanese image that Ms. Hughes described to represent sabi: it is snow falling into a bowl of oxidized silver. It would be wonderful if my writing was that quiet and that powerful.
That which is poor to the point of being in want. This bothered me at first because I saw it as an excuse for homelessness, hunger, and the other wants of the world. I had to get my head around the difference between being in need and being in want.
Living hungry on the streets is being in need. That is not wabi.
Wabi is being satisfied with imperfect, imbalanced conditions; finding beauty in roughness and extreme simplicity.
If where I live keeps the rain out and me from dying of either heat stroke or hypothermia, that is enough. If I have simple food to eat on a regular basis, that is enough. If I have have honest work to do, honest stories that are my own stories to tell that is enough.
One can not know sabi and wabi without experience. Maybe that is one of the pleasures of being an older writer.
And, oh yes, in the process of all of this, I did learn to fold cranes.
Sabi is the quality of being seasoned enough to appear tranquil, serene, antique, and graceful.
~ Shin’ichi Hisamatsu (1889 – 1980), philosopher, professor, Zen Buddhist scholar, and Japanese tea ceremony master.