The wabi-sabi of junky living

Monday, January 7, 2013

Mired deeply in my own personal deficit spending system with two kids in college, buying anything that isn't a friggin' $230 textbook is pretty much out of the question.

And that's okay. I'm a pretty simple guy with pretty simple needs. If you're creative, a box of rice, a pound of hamburger and a cucumber is a week's worth of meals. If you don't buy trendy clothes to begin with, then your clothes don't go out of style. (I admit one error in judgement, the powder blue lesisure suit from high school, which I still keep hanging in the closet, for the same reason that ranchers hang coyote carcasses from the fence. Good warning to watch one's step in the future.)

My one spending weakness is junk. Old junk. Not hotsy-totsy high-priced rare antiques old, just junky old.

I had a conversation with a friend about his early 1970s Honda beater bike, which he bought cheap and rode long. I had one just like it, back in the day.

"Not sure if I should sell it or keep it," Mike says.

"Keep it."

But it's pretty old and I could use the space. I should sell it."

"Keep it."



Indeed, the old bike is beautiful in its utilitarian simplicity. It will run forever with a bit of care and tinkering. It is no museum piece, but it was never intended to be. It is meant to use.

I love to look at the new bikes - they are a thousand times faster and fancier. But cool takes some time to happen. And I daresay that this fat-tanked old timer will outlast its share of brand new crotch-rockets.

For years I lusted after new sports cars, with their leather and electronic wonders. But these days, I would give my eye teeth to get back the quirkly old junkers I had in high school and college - a Mach 1 Mustang with no oil pressure that I got for $500, a bulletproof old Nova, an MG that threatened to barrel-roll in every turn, a battle-worn Camaro that I painted rust colored to, well, match the rust.

In fact, most everything I have these days or would like to have is old junk. My choices have mostly been out of necessity, but more and more, I find that I actually prefer it that way.

I've gotten past any ego I might have had, and a little peeling paint or frayed upholstery doesn't phase me any more. If you don't like it, don't sit on it. I've learned to look past dust and mold to appreciate what is underneath. (And it's getting to the point, dear readers, where you will need to do the same when looking at your editor.)

Often, things of the past speak to a person more than do the more elaborate new versions.

I wouldn't trade you the beat-up, stinky, faded old trunk that brought my great-grandparents as a young couple from Norway looking to make their way in a new world, not for a house full of the finest furniture made today. Value? In money, next to nothing. But if it could talk, the stories it could tell.

The high-tech Breitling watches I see in the magazines are gorgeous, but give me a vintage watch find from a flea market that may run five minutes slow, but make up for it in character.

A massive modern house may be impressive, but it doesn't make you want to sit and draw it, the way an simple old mountain cabin can.

My kids seem to have inherited a bit of this mindset. Our travels these days seem to take in an auction or a second-hand store just about everywhere we go. The son likes old sports memorabilia, and the daughter old costume jewelry and vintage hats, while I prowl for old books.

For Christmas last year the kids gave me a very old beat-up, out of date camera. Most people would wonder "what the heck?" but to me it is a treasure and a perfect choice. I love it.

The Japanese have a term for this odd condition, "wabi-sabi." No western translation to this exists, but think of it as something like "beauty in imperfection." It is an appreciation of earthiness, and that feel that old, spare, basic things give off that my grandmother would have called "lived in." You either get it or you don't.

Those who are addicted to the shows like "American Pickers" or "Antique Road Show" probably know what I'm babbling about here.

Maybe for you it's old chairs with peeling paint, old Coke signs, tearing apart old outboard boat motors.

Wabi-sabi is everything that today's sleek, mass-produced, technology-saturated culture isn't. It's found in junky antique shops, not fancy fashion malls, and it smells a little bit musty and experienced. If today's goods are a cab ride amid the flashing lights of Times Square, the stuff we like is a stroll in the woods on a gunmetal gray January evening.

This sensibility celebrates cracks and crevices and rust and everything that is left behind on all that endures. It gets its metaphorical hands dirty.

Wabi-sabi reminds us that we are all transient on our planet. Nature's cycles of growth, decay, and erosion are embodied in the design of frayed edges, rust, and in liver spots.

We are aging just as the things around us are, and if we are very lucky, we find a little timeless grace in accepting and enduring, ourselves.

Our wabi-sabi can't really be bought; it is a state of mind. Of being at peace with yourself and your surroundings.

If an old bicycle can be a piece of art, or a modest old duck decoy can be inspiring; if a fancy garden left to go to seed a bit can be more interesting than a perfect one, perhaps there is hope for less-than-ideal selves - that the passing of time can in fact be a glorious experience.