Wabi-sabi: Letting go, living in the present

by Sheri McGregor

What seems like eons ago, in a junior high sewing class, a teacher we’ll call Mrs. Horne instructed with an air of rigid perfection. She was tall and thin, and wore her creamy blonde hair in a flawless French roll secured with a tortoise comb. She made all of her clothes: polyester pantsuits with sleeves hemmed to highlight French cuffs with pearl buttons, and leg lengths just right to show off polished ivory pumps.

Letting go, staying mindful of the present, embracing the process. . . . These bring balance and joy.

Mrs. Horne’s apparel with its perfectly aligned buttonholes and even top-stitching in complimentary hues was nothing like my own home-sewn garments. Her clothes looked factory-made, where each piece is the responsibility of a single skilled person who works with practiced precision.

Having learned to sew at age 12 on an old treadle machine that was once my grandmother’s, my sewing creations had never been so perfect. Like many youngsters, it wasn’t about the perfection. It was the doing, the learning, the creating of the moment that brought me joy. I loved those imperfectly handsewn clothes anyway, and loved the process.

My mother taught by example not to waste, so when a garment came out too big, I took it in. When the sides of a frustrating zipper didn’t close evenly at the top, I trimmed down one side of the band, or wore a shirt out to cover the flaw. An accidental hole was incorporated into the design by using a homemade patch in the shape of a heart or flower. For me, sewing was an expression, a joy, a useful way to fill my time. That’s why my less-than-perfect classroom grade didn’t bother me. 

Many years later in an art class, I learned about Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, of embracing mistakes, and I realized I’d been practicing the art all along. For instance, my garden is a lovely tumble of imperfection. Some parts of the happy family home I’ve worked at for more than two and a half decades are a mesh of mistakes, but beautiful anyway. Wabi-sabi is the art of embracing life as it comes, and creating beauty with the happenstance.

In Japan, pottery cracks may be mended with seams of gold, generating strength and making use of the broken. Here in my American life, I might interpret wabi-sabi as looking for the silver lining in a bad situation. Or finding strength in my weakest moments – – and transforming loss. I might slather more butter on a too-dry slice of home baked bread, or decide that even weeds look pretty when in bloom. And there are plenty of weeds. They also attract beneficial insects.

Mrs. Horne could have used a little wabi-sabi. One day, she singled out a student who had joined our class mid-term. She called attention to the “dull blue blouse” the girl wore each day, and the “dirt-caked jeans” Mrs. Horne figured she never washed.

The bell rang, and as we all got up to go, I looked back and saw the girl still sitting at the long table close to the front of the room. Her limp dark hair parted over slumped shoulders. Was she crying?

By the end of the day, we all knew the student’s story. That blouse and jeans were the girl’s only clothes. That’s why she had joined the sewing class in the first place. Amid her circumstances, she was attempting to learn and grow.

I imagined Mrs. Horne discovering her mistake. I saw her brushing back a tuft of corn silk hair that had fallen loose during her outburst. The feathery tendril softened the sharp planes of her face. As the story around my school went, Mrs. Horne had used the machines in the home economics department to launder the girl’s clothes during lunch. She told that student she could stay after school to wash her clothing anytime.

I don’t know for sure, but I like to believe that teacher helped the girl even more that year, maybe sewing her some new clothes from the scraps of fabric and full bolts of cloth she kept in the classroom storage closet. Maybe she dragged out students’ old tries at sewing that they’d left behind. Taught her to fix a zipper here, take in a waistband there. Nips and tucks that made those discarded garments the girl’s very own. We saw the student around school with a widening wardrobe.

Purpose from loss

And as the years passed, I like to imagine that Mrs. Horne looked for other students that might need her help. If she embraced her mistake, learned from it, and became a better person, then she practiced wabi-sabi. And through the student’s attempt to transform loss and make the best of her situation, she helped Mrs. Horne find more meaning and derive a deeper purpose from her profession.

Even a seemingly perfect teacher without a single hair out of place could learn from her mistakes, set aside her ready judgment and look past the surface to what might exist beneath. I like to think that young girl taught her something. That student was attempting to transform loss. She had lost her parents, and was living with relatives who didn’t have much. So, she was learning to sew.

We can all use a little wabi-sabi attitude, and learn to appreciate the unexpected accidents, frustrations, and grief of life. When it comes to dark periods and daily problems, we can choose to grow brittle and bitter, and be as ready as Mrs. Horne was to find others’ faults. Or, we can embrace the happenstance, let our negative experiences benefit us and those around us, transform loss, and make ourselves more useful. A little wabi-sabi sweetens the flavor of life’s accidents and mistakes, helps us recognize the growth in grief, and softens the palate to find what’s right in the wrong.

Stuck? More like sitting pretty

Not long ago, my husband and I were stuck in a traffic jam in an unfamiliar area. Although we tried to find side streets, the roads all led back to the bottleneck.

I’m not always so sensible, but on that day, I made a good choice. “Well, at least I’m with you,” I said, letting go of the annoyance of being stuck, and relishing the isolated time with my best friend instead.

He settled back into the soft seat, and flipped a CD to an old song that always makes us smile.

What accidents or irritations can you embrace? With a new perspective, can you turn to gold or silver the stuff that happens? With an open mind and a willing attitude, even in the worst of life’s challenges, we can find beauty and value, and give life as it is a hug.

When you do that, you’ll be practicing the ancient art of wabi-sabi.

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4 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I love all of this, Sheri. What a wonderful piece and something I needed to hear today. I will be using this term from now on. Funny, I never heard of it before and my son is married to a Japanese woman and they live in the Gifu prefecture. I’ll be asking about it. 😉

  2. Thanks, Sarah. We all have “those” days! Glad this could help.

    I had never heard of the area you mentioned (Gifu prefecture) so looked it up and saw some quaint homes, lovely bodies of water, greenery and mountains. It looks serene in the photos, and I imagine everyone just going on their way … happy. Thanks for sharing the name and information..

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