Imperfectly Acceptable: The Lessons of a Wabi-Sabi Garden

Image Credit: Maven MamaImage Credit: Maven Mama"According to Japanese legend, a young man named Sen no Rikyu sought to learn the elaborate set of customs known as the Way of Tea. He went to tea-master Takeeno Joo, who tested the younger man by asking him to tend the garden. Rikyu cleaned up debris and raked the ground until it was perfect, then scrutinized the immaculate garden. Before presenting his work to the master, he shook a cherry tree, causing a few flowers to spill randomly onto the ground. To this day, the Japanese revere Rikyu as one who understood to his very core a deep cultural thread known as wabi-sabi... the art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in earthiness, of revering authenticity above all."
- Robin Griggs Lawrence, Utne Reader, May/June 2001

In my home vegetable garden, a few fallen cherry blossoms would never be noticed among the chaos that has erupted there. The lettuce and arugula have grown as tall and leggy as Rockettes. The cucumber plants have transformed into Elastigirl from The Incredibles, and their long, stretchy arms are trying to strangle my precious tomato plants. The sole pumpkin, (planted to appease our young daughter who found a seed on the floor at school,) is spreading exponentially, every week practically doubling in size; it’s like some Transylvanian laboratory experiment gone awry. (I fear it will soon detach from its roots and attack the town of Wayzata.) The anarchy of the vegetable garden has even spread to the perennial beds, the trees, the lawn, the pond.

Plants are outgrowing their capacity to stay upright; trees are sending up suckers faster than I can trim them; clover and chickweed are overtaking the grass in the lawn; and the pond is resplendently green with a healthy crop of duck weed. Is there a lesson to be learned among the messiness of a landscape run amok? Every so often, I come across an article about wabi-sabi (rhymes with “knobby-knobby”), the Japanese aesthetic that promotes the beauty of a rusted gate, a chipped saucer, a bowed tree branch, probably even a row of leggy lettuce. Wabi-sabi teaches that imperfection is part of life’s perfect plan; that authenticity is more essential than appearances; and that the effects of time are to be embraced, not shunned.

Leggy Lettuce image from Champion of My Heart 

This last point is particularly relevant to me these days; I just turned 50. By 50, the human face has begun its slow slide south, creating the folds, wrinkles and loose skin that move it further and further away from society’s accepted notion of beauty. But a 50-year-old face is also a summary of how the first half of life has been lived – what has been realized, discovered and experienced.

Singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile captures this in “The Story,” her hit from the TV show Grey’s Anatomy: All of these lines across my face Tell you the story of who I am So many stories of where I've been And how I got to where I am... I love the stories told by my husband’s face, too, as he travels through his 53rd year. His thick head of hair is now gray, his eyes are surrounded by smile lines, and his skin is marked by the small scars that come from, as Prince wrote, “this thing called life.” But these so-called flaws, rather than detract from his physical appearance, add profoundness and character to his lovable mug. In his bright, blue eyes, I still recognize the man I fell in love with 15 years ago, but each day, someone more interesting, more capable, more passionate, more devoted, more alive! continues to reveal himself in the old, familiar features.

As I come to understand wabi-sabi, I also realize that learning to accept a messy garden or an aging face also softens my reactions to more bothersome imperfections. It’s easy to love, for instance, the gap-toothed smiles, skinned knees, dirty toenails, and paint-stained hands of my eight-year-old twin daughters. But it takes a great deal more wisdom to accept – even honor – their bickering, back-talking, lally-gagging, and boundary-testing. And, yet, it is their so-called less desirable qualities that most urgently remind me to respect who they are – right now, in this moment – and not who I may wish them to be. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, writes about this in his book Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting:  

"Each child comes into this world with his or her own attributes, temperament, and genius. As parents, we are called to recognize who each of them uniquely is, and to honor them by making room for them as they are, not by trying to change them, hard as that sometimes is for us. Since they are already always changing as part of their own nature, it may be that this kind of awareness on our part is precisely what is called for to make room for them to grow and change in those very ways that are best for them and that we cannot impose through our will."

Perhaps this is the most important application of wabi-sabi in my daily life: by learning to tamp down my will, relinquish control, and just let things go, I can also find the room to let myself grow and change in ways that are best for me, as well as my family, my community and my world. And yet surrendering control seems counter-intuitive in a society that espouses climate-control houses, portion-control diets, firmness-control mattresses, emotion-control pharmaceuticals.

Smart retailers know the value of control in their customers’ lives: Starbucks, McDonalds, and The Gap, to name a few, offer it in the safety of sameness and predictability. And authenticity, or rather, the appearance of authenticity, is often just a carefully managed merchandising tool that helps to sell distressed jeans, newly dented furniture, and “vintage” jewelry, all in a market-researched, user-tested, numbers-crunched environment.

Perhaps our need for control increases as we feel more and more out of control. In his best-selling book, A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle suggests that control is the fixation of an overly active mind, which prevents us from perceiving the “hidden harmony” in the world:  

"When we go into a forest that has not been interfered with by man, our thinking mind will see only disorder and chaos all around us. It won't even be able to differentiate between life (good) and death (bad) anymore since everywhere new life grows out of rotting and decaying matter. Only if we are still enough inside and the noise of thinking subsides can we become aware that there is a hidden harmony here, a sacredness, a higher order in which everything has its perfect place and could not be other than what it is and the way it is. The mind is more comfortable in a landscaped park because it has been planned through thought; it has not grown organically. There is an order here that the mind can understand. In the forest, there is an incomprehensible order that to the mind looks like chaos. It is beyond the mental categories of good and bad. You cannot understand it through thought, but you can sense it when you let go of thought, become still and alert, and don’t try to understand or explain… As soon as you sense that hidden harmony, that sacredness, you realize you are not separate from it, and when you realize that, you become a conscious participant in it."

So the botanical bedlam erupting in my garden is harmonious and sacred – as are the droopy perennials, creeping crabgrass, and floating duckweed. I know this is true, so I must stop obsessing about the growing messiness and just be grateful for the growing. Fifty years into my life, I am reminded, once again, to put aside the need for control and the pursuit of perfection. The past is gone forever and the future is beyond my reach, so I can only live in the present, this moment, and celebrate whatever it holds: happiness and sorrow, growth and decay, health and sickness, life and death are all opposite but equal points along life's continuum. Turning 50, hopefully, puts me comfortably near the middle.

Driving home from Minneapolis/St. Paul airport last week, I noticed a solitary sunflower growing in the medial strip of 494, a six-lane highway that carries airport passengers, Mall of America shoppers, and harried commuters. It would have been suicidal to stop the car and take a photo, so I can only retain its image in my mind. It was almost defiant, the way it stood straight up, unfazed by the noise and movement swaying around it. It wore its bright color proudly among the drabness of concrete, steel and grit. And its message, like that of my Rockette arugula, my Elastigirl cucumbers, and my Frankenstein pumpkin, was a rebellious reminder that life isn’t perfect, but it sure is beautiful.



Shari Manolas Danielson is a Minneapolis writer, editor, information designer, wife, mother, educator, coach, trainer, and friend. Her Writing Blindly blog is terrific, thought-provoking, and inspiring.