“Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.
It is the beauty of things modest and humble.
It is the beauty of things unconventional.”
–Nancy Walkup, from Japanese Aesthetics, Wabi-Sabi, and the Tea Ceremony
My son, Kieran, has a wabi-sabi heart. As a child with HLHS (hypoplastic left heart syndrome), his heart is covered in stitches from multiple operations. Arteries have been disconnected and rejoined, material has been added in the form of patches and shunts (you can watch a diagram of how the heart is reconstructed in Stage 1 here–it really is amazing!). Even after 3 stages of surgical repair, Kieran’s heart is still missing his entire left ventricle–it is incomplete, it is imperfect, and it is utterly unconventional.
Like the kintsugi tea cup you see above, my son’s heart has been worked on by a skilled master, and he carries the marks of repair–we call them scars–both inside and out. Kintsugi is the art of repairing broken ceramics with a gold alloy, yet far from being an isolated artform, it is also a highly-prized representation of the wabi-sabi view of the world.
You see, kintsugi pieces are prized precisely because they have been broken. They are said to be more beautiful, more unique, and “stronger at the broken places” (to quote Ernest Hemingway) than they were in their original form. The gold alloy you see in these pieces is merely symbolic of their real value–a representation of how the broken lines are so beautiful, and so valuable, that they are rejoined with gold instead of glue.
In our busy modern lives, we often try to repair our broken places with glue. We quietly work to piece our lives back together after life-changing events, hoping that if we do a good enough job, the cracks won’t be readily visible. But how strongly does a glue hold the pieces of a life, or even a teacup, together?
Sooner or later, we all carry scars, whether they be internal, external, or both. We will all break in different places, and in different ways. Kieran’s sternal scar, running from the base of his neck to the top of his belly, looks more like kintsugi than glue–shiny, smooth, hard-fought, and as if something of great value and detail was invested there. We can see this value in our own lives, and in each other’s, and appreciate how this process can transform us into something more beautiful and special than we ever realized.
Embracing and accepting the beauty of our scars can put us at odds with a culture that attempts to sell us perfection, youth, and improvement in the guise of shiny new things. But these things, despite their market price, come off a factory assembly line, and their value might literally be a dime a dozen. Maybe the real value is in our treasures that have been fixed and patched and healed with the gold of experience, wisdom, love, and kindness.
My husband has had a long-standing admiration for Japanese art and cuisine that was catching–early on in our dating relationship, he inspired me to start reading Japanese novels and opened up a new facet of literature I had never considered before. Little did I know, however, that years later, I would find so much comfort and healing in the notion of wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi has permeated Japanese culture in the arts of gardening, flower arranging (ikebana), tea ceremonies, and fashion. However, wabi-sabi is not confined to visual art, spatial arrangement, or a style of dress. It is an outlook on life, a way of seeing the world, and a reconsideration of all things beautiful and imperfect. It suggests that the most beautiful things in life–the most unique, the most fascinating, and the most miraculous–are those that have become more perfect through imperfection, and more valuable by being broken.
Margaret King is a stay at home mom who loves spending time with her family, avidly reading, community gardening, traveling, and exploring the outdoors. She is currently working on a young adult fiction series and enjoys flash fiction and science fiction writing as well. Margaret has worked in the past teaching English abroad in Nepal and Mongolia, which she counts among the best experiences of her life, along with her heart family journey which she is so happy to share with our readers.