Thursday, December 7, 2023

Wabi Sabi

I was fighting a cold yesterday.  Tennessee was coming down with it after a trip I cannot explain or describe, but he hadn't slept in days.  

"Stay the fuck away from me," I told him, but he couldn't.  I tried to keep six feet between us, but he kept stepping in close to tell me "secrets" he didn't want the room to hear.  

Yesterday was not a gym day for me, and I did not have a therapy session, so early on I was out the door with my cameras.  The light was stunning. But I had a couple things to take care of first.  I went to the FedEx store and had my Liberator camera packed and shipped to its maker to be adjusted.  Then I went to the bank to cash the rent check.  From there, I went to the AT&T store to see about upgrading my mother's and my phones.  The news was too good to be true.  I am certain that when I go back they will say, "Who told you that?"  But, it seems, both my mother and I will be getting the best of the new iPhones.  

From there, I was off to Koala Camera to see my repair guy.  I was trying to buy some Leica gear that it turned out he didn't have.  As always, though, I got caught up in the slow motion pace and conversation of the place.  A woman walked in.  I was introduced, then the repair guy turned his attention to showing her some things.  I waved goodbye, my time there having been pleasant but unproductive.  When I got in my car, though, the woman's car was blocking the exit.  O.K.  What the hell.  I sat in the car and patiently waited.  When she finally walked out of the shop, the camera repair guy followed.  

"Oh, man. . . sorry. . . I didn't realize she was blocking the drive.  Thanks for being so patient."

I asked him what the three story derelict building was behind him.  He said that it was an old school that developers had bought years ago and that was eventually going to be torn down.  

"Oh.  I was thinking how great it would be to have a studio in there."

"Wouldn't it?"

"What about the back room of your other place.  Couldn't you turn that into a studio?"

"Megan is doing that.  She is making a ton of money doing portraits.  She not shooting children or toddlers even, but infants.  She is swamped with clientele."

I told him that I had recently learned how much these portrait photographers are making and that I had been asked to do some family portraits lately.  

"It's a lot of money for half an hour's shoot.  And all the photos look the same, smiley people dressed as for church in a park or in front of a lake, all bright with sun and color."

"Yea," he grinned.  "That woman who just left here makes her living doing that."

"I could do it, you know, but I couldn't.  It would be too embarrassing.  I wouldn't want anyone to see me do it." 

"Don't do it." 

When I pulled out into the street, I thought about going to Gotham.  It was chilly.  It was early still, but I wanted a bowl of ramen soup.  I knew a place I liked.  I sat outside, the only customer.  Nobody was on the sidewalk.  The soup was horrible.  When I had finished half the bowl, I paid up and took a walk.  I had my new Leica, but I wasn't making any good pictures.  I got in my car and drove around to see if I would find inspiration.  I didn't, and I wasn't feeling very well.  

I went home and took a nap.  

I learned some things later that tied into my day.  David Bailey, the famous British fashion and portrait photographer, said in an interview, "I don't photograph people the way they want to look.  I photograph them the way I want them to look."  There.  Boom.  That nails it.  Those family portraits are lousy because they are photographed the way the family wants to look--which is pretty much like everyone else.  Even for money, I couldn't do it.  I realized that I often can't take photographs of people I know for the same reason.  They want to be flattered.  

Later on in the day, I watched a short documentary on Wabi Sabi.  The show was a simple, elegant look at where Wabi Sabi came from.  The ideas were elements of old Japanese writing in ideograms.  


Ideograms represent concepts rather than distinct words, so there are many interpretations.  I'd heard of Wabi Sabi, before, of course, as it became a fashionable notion in home decor.  There are lots of glossy books on how to make your space Wabi Sabi.  It was hip.  It was "the thing."

But the original meaning of the words were what intrigued me.  Wabi originally referred to an acceptance of loneliness or isolation and melancholy.  Sabi referred to things that were withered of flawed.  The two figures, when combined, referred to an aesthetic appreciation of living in a flawed or imperfect world.  It was the acceptance of impermanence in nature and a human's own flawed transience as well.  It came to mean "flawed beauty" or the acceptance of the imperfect quality of a thing.  

Well fuck yea! I've been living Wabi Sabi forever. There is a zen quality to it and a stoicism as well. I thought immediately of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Crack Up.

I must hold in balance the sense of the futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle; the conviction of the inevitability of failure and still the determination to 'succeed'-and, more than these, the contradiction between the dead hand of the past and the high intentions of the future.

The cracked plate, he says, is still useful for a late night snack, to hold cheese and crackers. . . something like that.  A flawed thing can still be beautiful.   

All my things are flawed.  They are chipped and stained and cracked and old, and I am old and broken, too.  Still, there is an aesthetic quality to all of it.  I live an old and broken and beautiful house.  It is drafty right now as I write in the darkness before dawn, the weather having turned cold in the night.  I like imperfect things, though.  Like the photo above.  It is flawed.  Something went wrong in development.  A client would probably not accept a portrait such as that, but I am happy with it.  The imperfections make it interesting to me.  I am happy with it and would want more like that.  Indeed, many of my favorite photographs are flawed by camera shake or motion blur or light leaks or by just being plain out of focus.  A flawed aesthetic or an aesthetic of flaws?  

As for me?  I've been run over and broken into pieces.  I'm getting fat.  I limp.  I prefer baggy pants and loose shirts and eclectic things.  I've never combed my hair.  Sometimes I shave.  Most times I don't.  My skin is getting old.  I am transient.  I am impermanent.  I have fought that part of things, but it is part of Wabi Sabi, too.  Like all things.  I'm going to quit fighting that.  I just am.  

I remembered being shocked to learn that there were Buddhist armies.  How could a Buddhist kill?  They did it without anger or hatred or passion.  They fought with acceptance and a knowledge of the impermanence of things.  To fight without hatred is a different thing.  

Travis and his wife are flying to Boston today to go to a museum with a John Singer Sergeant exhibit, then stepping across the street to another one.  They fly up in the morning and back that night.  I am envious.  But at present, I don't think I would do a thing like that alone.  Doing that with your own true love is different.  There is an inimitable luxury and warmth to it.  There is comfort.  

I am not ashamed now of taking comfort here at home.  I have felt an oppressive guilt for my lack of travel these days, but I find solo travel difficult just now.  But there is such beauty so close to home.  And, as I say, I am more than a little broken.  

But a woman told me some things yesterday that touched me deeply.  She told me that I was a good man at giving, that I was tender and took care of stray cats and dogs and people, that I took care of my mother and cooked and cared for others as well, that I gave her what she needed when she needed it and that I was loved at work for the same reasons.  Sometimes, you know, you think it is all taken for granted and that nobody notices.  She said that the marvelous thing was that I never asked for anything back.  

I told her that would be foolish.  Gifts are given freely.  Otherwise they are not gifts, they are calculated negotiations.  

My eyes were as full as my heart.  

I need to be generous to myself now.  I need to begin to accept those things I have struggled with.  I am Wabi.  I'll make Sabi. 

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