The other day, the family business got itself in a bit of a pickle. Our snowcat fell into a ditch while my father was setting trail. After a few hours of trying to get out, I was called upon to sally forth with cookies and bottles of water and relieve the starving troops.
We hauled around a chain, a spare snowcat, a flurry of shovels in an attempt to right our fallen machine. It was hardly an unpleasant task – all the participants were hopeful, and progress was slow but steady. But very slow. The view was terrific.
So, there I was, standing on hard-packed snow, watching the snowcat churn up brown and white as it struggled to get up the make-shift ramp of snow borrowed from the hillside beyond. It wasn’t like I had a lot to do, so introspection and philosophizing was the order of the day.
On that note, I’d like to talk about how struggling snowcats are the opposite of minimalism and as much as the former is dismal, this incident brought me to believe the latter is not as useful as I should like to think not to mention how Japanese aesthetics fit into the picture. Minimalism is about removing the clutter from life, about living cleanly and without things you don’t need (living with less than 100 things, to be precise).
Wabi-sabi, on the other hand, is based on the acceptance of transience and imperfection of things. Wikipedia states, “The words wabi and sabi do not translate easily. Wabi originally referred to the loneliness of living in nature, remote from society; sabi meant “chill”, “lean” or “withered”. Around the 14th century, these meanings began to change, taking on more positive connotations. Wabi now connotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects, or understated elegance.”
While wabi-sabi is greatly appealing to me, particularly as a craftswoman, chef, and artist – such professions demand a respect of materials in order to create the best of whatever it is they are creating. There are elements of minimalism in the Japanese aesthetic, but wabi-sabi is a far healthier view, to my mind.
Wabi-sabi is dealing with a stuck snowcat. Wabi-sabi doesn’t ignore the past, it doesn’t try to sugar-coat the past. It turns it into something useful. Wabi-sabi takes a knot of wood and showcases it in a table instead of cutting it off or hiding it on the underside.
Minimalism says: take the extra and throw it out!
Wabi-sabi says: life is imperfect, accept it but make it beautiful.
Or, in the case of a stuck snowcat, mired in banks and banks of dirty snow… make it useful. The very snow sticking that cat down was the thing that would get it out. We moved snow down into the hole so the snowcat could churn it under the tracks, build itself a ramp, and climb back on track.
In life, we are often tempted to wipe our mistakes from the map, pretend they didn’t happen, and live differently. While that advice can be helpful, I think that we not best served by ignoring our past, our mistakes. We are built on flaws and holes, of dirty snow and bad decisions. Sometimes the only way to climb out of the holes we fall into is to build ourselves back up with the knowledge and experience we have gained along the way.
Minimalism might be appealing, but pretending our mistakes didn’t happen won’t help. I like to think of life through more wabi-sabi-colored lenses: every so often, our broken bits make us more beautiful – shattered glass glitters more brightly and our knots just might make us more interesting. If we build on who we are, if we use our problems instead of throwing them away or pretending they don’t exist, then perhaps we might just crawl out of our respective holes and get ourselves back on track.