Yesterday Steve in St. Paul mentioned (with characteristic modesty) that he won a photo contest organized by a group of camera enthusiasts who challenge each other to offer exceptional images that connect to a declared theme. In the case of Steve’s winning entry, the theme was the Japanese notion of wabi sabi. What is wabi sabi? Steve will explain it in a moment. But first, here’s the picture.

Steve says:

Wabi sabi is an oriental concept of aesthetics. It holds that things can be beautiful if they are worn, aged, broken or missing parts. In fact, not only can such things be beautiful, but there is an inner beauty to things that have served well and now look like they have served well. So a westerner trying to understand the concept might think that my photo was pretty “in spite of” the wear and tear on the Bible. To an oriental mind, that worn Bible is far lovelier than a new one could be. This aesthetic is one reason orientals tend to honor older people. It is the opposite of the western tendency to chase the young, the shiny, the perfect.

Well done, Steve. I think that’s a gorgeous photo. And the older I get, the more I appreciate the idea that there can be great beauty in things that are aged, worn, bald, bleary eyed, a little jowly, and in desperate need of a shave. Especially first thing in the morning.

The trick is getting everyone else to see that.

Steve is right about our fascination with the shiny and “perfect”. It would take a cultural shift for us to embrace the idea that there is a dignified beauty in a well-used object. Perhaps the slow disintegration of the baby boom will make gorgeous decrepitude the Next Big Thing, rather like the revived TV career of Betty White, but for everyone.

Right now, Wabi-Sabi in the USA is limited to 4 locations in California. I like the looks of the one in Rancho Cucamonga.

Do you have a favorite object that reflects this notion of wabi-sabi?

102 thoughts on “Wabi-Sabi”

  1. My house is full of examples. The first thing that comes to mind is the rolling pin I inherited from my mother, which has red paint almost worn off the handles. I also have an old blue chenille robe that’s getting a little threadbare. I could go on and on.

    If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes and shoddy furniture, let us be more ashamed of shabby ideas and shoddy philosophies.
    -Albert Einstein


  2. Rise and Shine Babooners:

    I hope to have the great pleasure of standing up straight while walking outside today. Most of the headache is gone. Yippee. Steve, what a lovely picture. The clarity is impressive. Congratulations on the award no matter how small.

    Today our question is easy for me to answer. I have a “Wabi-Sabi” in my living room — my coffee table. My dad’s ancestors were pioneers. Some we do not know much about, but those bearing my last name are well-documented. 2 brothers, Mark and Emmanuel, came to the Penn Quaker settlement hear what is now Philadelphia in 1702 from Stratford, England. They stayed in New Medford, New Jersey for 105 years, one of Mark’s sons, Daniel Stratton, fighting in the Revolutionary War and surviving. Then his son decided to move to the Ohio frontier. He built his own covered wagon. Farming and wagon building was the family biz. The box that hangs either on the back or under that wagon now sits in my living room after having made its way in many small moves to Nevada, Iowa sometime between 1840-1850. 1807, the year the migration began for our family is painted on the back.

    Once this box landed in Nevada, the log cabin residents used it as furniture, then it was consigned to a “wash house” for storage. My dad got it from his dad. Unfortunately, he got it after my grandma decided to clean it out. All the land deeds from the Western migration were in it. She burned them, then told my Mom, “I should not have done that. I saw something signed A Lincoln.” Sigh. Regret.

    I have a piece of glass on it to protect it. It holds my Christmas decorations and has Wabi-Sabi. Its battered appearance tells the story of “Westward-HO” for my family.
    I love every crack, chip, stain, and square nail.


    1. great story jacque,
      glad your headache is fading. the story of the wago box/coffee table is a great example of wabi sabi.
      send dale a picture. lets put him to work posting today


  3. great photo steve. you nailed it!

    i don’t know how to cut and paste either (which is how we got hee today isn’t it) the old witch tree on the north shore of lake superior comes to mind. the photos on facebook tel the story that goes along with the picture

    The Witch Tree as it is commonly known, also called Manido Giizhigance, or Little Cedar Spirit Tree by the Ojibwa Indian tribe is an ancient Thuja occidentalis growing on the shore of Lake Superior in Cook County, Minnesota. The earliest written records of the tree by Europeans in the Americas are by French explorer Sieur de la Verendrye in 1731, who commented on the tree as a mature tree at that time, making it at least 300 years old today. The tree is held sacred by the Ojibwe, who traditionally leave offerings of tobacco to ensure a safe journey on Lake Superior. Due to its sacred nature and vandalism problems in the past, the tree is considered off limits to visitors unless accompanied by a local Ojibwe band member.

    The tree is small for a mature conifer, as it is growing out of bare rock on the shoreline. Its gnarled, stunted, and twisting branches have been the subject of many photographs


    1. Fascinating story tim! Just think, 300 years. I think that is about the max for any tree in our part of the world. When Europeans settled Minnesota in the 19th century and cut down all those “virgin” white pines (don’t you suppose a few of them fooled around?) the pines were all about 200 years old, having grown up after the Little Ice Age passed.

      If the camera forum folks had understood Wabi sabi as well as you guys, I wouldn’t have won. The best that gang could do was to imagine that something might be beautiful in spite of being dinged up, scarred and shopworn. But to the Oriental mind, those marks of faithful service make something more beautiful.


      1. There’s also a companion Japanese concept, mottai, that Wikipedia defines as the intrinsic dignity or sacredness of a material entity. Mottainai is when that entity is wasted or not utilized properly. It seems more widespread in Asia, but even here there are those who resist joining the throwaway society,


      2. the self portrait was meant to refer to the beauty despite being dinged up and scarred and worn when i hit enter i found it lined up behind lindas post of wasted entity vs intrinsic dignity, linda’s mottai – mottainai is a little deeper than i intended a 8 am but then again, maybe it is time to reflect a little. if i could cut back on wasted entity life would indeed be better all around.


      3. Equivoque The person who taught me about this aesthetic concept is a sculptor and gifted artist. She loves buying broken cameras on Craigslist and then reassembling them as working cameras. It is odd. Her camera collection contains a lot of ancient cameras that work perfectly, but although they seem unbelievably old, they only date back seven or eight years in many cases.


      4. I confess to owning 4 sewing machines, if you don’t count the overlock but do count the treadle head I found in the alley and squirrelled away in the basement against the day I can look it over and get it fixed.


      5. Don’t apologize for 4 sewing machines. I have 5 dog kennels. Only 2 dogs. Have never had more than 2 dogs — but you never know!


  4. I suppose the dearest example of wabi sabi we have in our home would be my son’s little beanie-type pig, named, creatively enough, Piggy. He has been on many adventures (including sitting on a hot stove-ouch!) and having his trotters resoled at Dr. Mom’s Animal Hospital.

    At one point, my mom, noting Piggy’s bedraggled condition suggested perhaps it was time to replace the pig. She does not get wabi sabi. That pig is an icon of my son’s childhood, which can never be replaced.


      1. I think Joanne very eloquently has the explanation for my mom’s view of things-born in the Depression, raised during the war with rationing, younger by 11 years than her next oldest sibling and father dying when she was 12, I suspect starting married life with a newly minted college degree in the bright and shiney 50s was a real thrill for her.

        Doesn’t stop her from loving her old quilt, I have noticed.


  5. Greetings! Lovely photo, Steve and such great stories, everyone! Having grown up wearing hand-me downs, using worn out furniture, recycled and fixed up stuff — I confess to really preferring shiny and new. Although I certainly appreciate the qualities and inherent beauty of wabi-sabi.

    After my parents passed away, I got some of their furniture — a lovely, fairly new plum leather couch and oak rolltop desk. But I especially cherish having my Dad’s old leather wingback chair. It’s a little worn and you can see the oil stain where his head lay while relaxing or napping. Plus, it’s a comfy chair and sitting in it is like still having Dad with me.


      1. In college in a semantics course I learned about the “that’s no lady” language/thinking effect. (Comes form the joke “that was no lady; that was my wife.”) We jump quickly to either/or thinking. If wabi sabi is true, then “new and shinny” is bad. But of course beauty is found in both and in all ranges of things, isn’t it?


      2. not either or simply or. not that new and shiner is bad but you can revere the old not in spite of but because of the dings and wear is my take.


  6. I got this pix from Steve yesterday and made it my wall paper for now because my wife and I are updating funeral plans, wills and insurance, for which it is the perfect background. Later today I will go back to sunset over Grand Marais harbor as wall paper.
    I have given a couple of sermons on how cheaply we define beauty today, that beauty is earned. By that Tasha Tudor is about as beautiful a woman as walks the earth. (Is she still alive?) Edmund Spenser near to 600 years ago wrote a poem saying that what makes a rose beautiful is that the deterioration starts on the edges before the flower is fully open.
    tim, thanks for the BMB advice.


    1. Clyde raises a fascinating issue for me, namely the way wabi sabi applies to notions of human beauty. As much as I enthusiastically embrace this concept, I’m brought up short when I hear that Japanese men think Madeline Albright is hot. Man, that is wabi sabi pushed farther than my eyes will go!

      But I can give you two men who were goony and ugly as young men, when most guys look as good as they ever will. Both men lived long enough and virtuously enough to earn faces of incredible beauty, if you accept wabi sabi. I’m thinking of Abraham Lincoln and Fred Astaire.

      Oh . . . another example would probably be many “Indian” leaders. Although we don’t have images of them as young men, in their later years they have wonderful faces.


      1. I am separating hormonal response from aesthetics here, which ate two different issues in this discussion. One philosophical definition of God is that he/she is all pure truth, goodness and beauty (at the ten year anniversary of MPR the president of St. Johns said thry had been at the start of MPR for exactly that reason). That is the kind of beauty I mean.
        I used to go crazy working on the Navaho reservation because “The People,” as they call themselves (Dene) are so beautiful and I wanted to try to draw them all.


      2. Madeleine Albright is kinda hot…in a sturdily built, really smart woman kinda way. But maybe it’s just me hoping that someone else might find sturdily built and well educated “hot.”


      3. Thinking, too, about some of the faces of Native Americans and all the lines and creases you see in the aging faces that were often very angular and full of fabulous planes to being with – there is something just breath-taking about a face like that. It’s hard not to stare. Way more powerful and beautiful than the starlets from Hollywood, I think.


  7. Oh, it’s going to be fun reading today! Thanks for the great photo and leaping-off-point for discussion Steve. I love that gnarled hand resting so quietly – it speaks to so much that must have happened.

    Also love the remembrances of family items like the now-coffee-table and the rolling pin and Dad’s stain on the chair. All lovely.

    When my grandmother passed away, the grandkids took turns picking things we wanted from her apartment. We all wanted different things, so it worked well. I nabbed a photo of my great aunt in her WWII army uniform, a foot stool with rosemaling (sp?) on it, and a blonded dresser. When we were all done, the five grandkids found that we had all taken one piece of furniture that my grandfather had blonded in a fit of blonding anything he could get his hands on in the 50s (including the sideboard and woodwork in the house). Someone outside the family might try to strip and re-stain these pieces, but my cousins and I would never do such a thing. They’re worn and a little patina-ed with age, and we love them.


      1. Indeed it is. We couldn’t keep the new owners of my grandparents house from stripping the blonded woodwork or pulling up the faded blue carpet (I’m sure had it not been my grandparents house I would have done the same – it was a great house in good shape by Powderhorn), and when it went up for sale again I couldn’t even bring myself to go visit during an open house. But keeping one piece of that blonded wood is like a direct line back to me at 7 or 8, hunting for foil-covered chocolate eggs at Easter, watching fireworks from their front porch and playing in the huge double lot with my cousins.


  8. I’m not sure if it’s a Western thing, but most of us seem to be coming up with examples of things that were inherited or have a family history. Do we need a reason to admit the worn and aged object into our home – an excuse for the way it looks?

    I’ll throw out another example, maybe a better one for me. The chair I’m sitting on as I type this is an old wooden chair with a “dished” seat, and has many nicks and gouges on the arm. I find it very lovely. It isn’t a family heirloom, though – I pulled it out of a dumpster.


    1. Most of my furniture is like your chair-some I’ve “rescued” , but a lot was stuff I got from my grandparents house. My grandmother had 17 grandchildren to seat at Christmas, so she bought chairs whenever she saw them at farm sales. Not being “heirlooms” as such, I got to haul away as many as I wanted.

      I’ve got a lot of old books and sewing implements I like having around because I like the way they look and feel.

      I will say it adds to my enjoyment of such things if I know the story behind the scars and dings.


  9. My daughter’s violin probably meets this definition. It is about 100 years old. It’s varnish is dull (typical of violins made in France, we are told) and there are some cracks that have been fixed but are still quite noticeable. It looks beat up, but it’s sound is sweet and gorgeous and pure, and my daughter really loves playing it. One of her string teachers told her that violinists need to remember that they won’t be the last people who play their instruments and they need to treat them with respect and care.


    1. Excellent, Renee. One of my favorite examples of that (if you don’t mind a big step sideways into country music) is Willie Nelson’s guitar (which is missing a large part of its body near the pick guard). Of course, Willie himself is pretty darn wabi sabi. The guitar is so famous that when Willie travels he has a big goon whose only job is to stand by that guitar and protect it from the rest of the world.


      1. I just wish we knew the story of her violin-Who was the luthier who made it, who played it first, how long did it remain in France, how did it get to the Christian Eggert violin shop in Fargo?


  10. Good morning and good reflections,

    Very interesting concept and very good picture. Thanks for sharing, Steve, and thank you, Dale, for putting together the picture and message from Steve.

    I recently read an article by David Cavagnaro on saving flower seeds. To save these seeds you have let the flowers mature and you will have seed stalks in your garden which are normally consider to be unattractive and are cut off discarded by most gardeners. David said that the seed heads are the mature part of the plant and we should learn to see beauty in mature things. He made a comparison to people, saying that there is beauty to be found in older people that is sometimes over looked. I think David’s message, about finding beauty in older things, fits in well with the wabi sabi concept.

    I like to leave some seed stalks standing in my garden through the winter. I think the dried seed stalks add to the winter landscape. Well, some of those old seed stalks proably are there only because I didn’t get around to cleaning them up. Some balance is needed between not discarding everything that is old and getting rid of old things that do need to be discarded.


    1. any way to pull it up again clyde. i can not find it on dales rhyme wave.it may have been before that began. i remember liking that poem very much.


      1. I used this in a sermon Sunday. Barb in Blackhoof told me when I first posted this that her mother in her nursing home still has hers. Many peoplrf at ther church had their stick or their mother’s stick.
        My Motherโ€™s Washing Stick
        Boiled to pudding ivory, broken spindle from a chair,
        On the back, back porch used Mondays out of mind.
        Lost through time. Why do I unexpectedly care?

        The clothes of the family, always needing to be clean,
        Most pre-soaked, all sweaty, stained, and grimed.
        Dumped load-by-load in the wringer washing machine.

        Into water boiled by wood we cut and stored,
        Larded with soap rendered from animals we had known,
        Water toted from well and into stove-top boiler poured.

        Not by a simple step or two, but by labor of us all,
        Clean clothes were earned, not from a dryer pulled.
        But out of all of this yesterday I did recall,

        Her precious washing stick, long worn to fit her hand.
        For hours with it into the wringer she would guide
        Hot heavy clothes into cold rinse water on its stand.

        Tediously she cleaned them all load by load.
        Twice or more the rollers would wring out water.
        Water, soap, and bluing on her hands showed.

        Why suddenly unbidden flashed her washing stick into my mind?
        Mrs. Stewartโ€™s Bluing always there on the back porch windowsill?
        Smell of soap, slightly rancid, the home-made kind?

        Not any demon of guilt in me rose its head,
        Nor any blame from me of how I was raised,
        But to something, some thing my heart was being led.

        Two Germans of the soil, by them I was raised.
        Two years ago she died, years before that my father,
        Rarely to speak of love, and only seldom praised.

        Sometimes I know the wringers caught her fingers.
        Love said in hard work, and everyday small risks.
        Little of this in my memory had lingered.

        Until I did envision, without thought, her worn out washing stick.
        She too was eventually boiled to soft pudding white.
        After close to ninety years even her mind was worn sick.

        From age to age we think the common things alter.
        New rules are written for how a family works,
        So many are sure their parents did falter.

        But for us three those two did provide,
        A sense of place in time, a will do to what needs being done,
        An inner voice that is almost always a guide.

        Her washing stick was not meant to be a measure
        But by it I can chart out what is often forgotten,
        What it took to make our lives of greater leisure.


  11. My dad built a redwood-strip canoe in 1966 using plans from the Minnesota Canoe Association, back when homemade canoes were all the rage (partly due to the creation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW)in 1964. Being 10 years old at the time, I ‘helped’ as much as a disinterested kid could help- ‘hold this, hand me that tool, put more staples in the staple gun, etc.’

    When it was finished and we had taken it on numerous canoe trips in the BWCA, as well as some of the wild rivers in the area-Upper St. Croix, Namakagan, Snake, Sunrise-I had a chance to see other woodstrip canoes and compare them to ours. To this day, for whatever reason, I still think Dad’s canoe was the most beautiful of them all. It had a sleeker line, a way cool pattern of light and dark wood in the bottom center of the hull, and the deep red of the redwood set it apart from the browns of the cedar strippers.

    44 years later, that canoe has been bumped, bruised, scraped, dropped, dinged, scratched, patched, and refinished too many times to count. It can be likened to a favorite sweater that has been patched on the elbows, is frayed around the collar, threadbare in other spots, and has food and beverage stains on it. It doesn’t look brand new, but still keeps the wearer warm and cozy.

    My canoe still has the sleek line of its construction, and most of the wood is original, but the patches and scratches show its age, like the old, ragged sweater. Yet, it still gets me where I want to go on a body of water safely and efficiently. I’ve literally trusted my life to that canoe on more than one occasion, and it has never failed me. Most importantly, I’ll forever be buoyed by all the wonderful memories I’ve experienced in that canoe with family, friends, and especially my wife.

    Nowdays, I can’t honestly say it’s the most beautiful canoe out there, because it can’t compete with the new fiberglass and kevlar models, or with the brand new woodstrip canoes, but I still get comments and compliments on the canoe when I encounter fellow canoeists. When I share the history of the old girl with them, their eyes light up with appreciation and respect for its longevity and durability.

    As the physical beauty of my canoe fades with every bump and scrape, it is replaced by the emotional beauty of the journeys it has taken me on, the adventures and memories I’ve shared and created with friends and family, and the spiritual rejuvenation I’ve gained from floating on wild, pristine bodies of water, participating in one of the oldest forms of transportation known to man.

    That’s what I call wabi sabi.



    1. Nicely done, Chris. When my dad was bored one winter, he built a kayak that I enjoyed the most at our cabin. It may not have been high quality, but MY Dad made it. My brother-in-law had an old Towne Craft or Old Towne(??) wooden canoe — it was huge and a beautiful canoe. Back when I was a teenager in Green Bay, they had a re-enactment of the Voyageurs trip. When they arrived in Green Bay, several men including my Dad and my b-i-law were part of an official welcome using that old canoe. There’s a picture from the paper, of them portaging the canoe down the street with my b-i-l in lead, looking all jaunty in flannel shirt and French beret with canoe on his shoulder. Dad’s legs are sticking out underneath the canoe in the back. I think my brother has that canoe — not sure, but it’s not in good shape. But it’s still a very cool canoe.


    1. i couldn’t find the printed words or a clip showing the old man reciting it before he died but this guy does it justice. tennesee williams was good


  12. Greetings, all. I certainly picked the right day to emerge from my overly busy schedule to have a look at the blog.

    What a great photo, Steve. Congratulations.

    I think there is actually a lot of appreciation for diverse expressions of beauty in the American aesthetic, including an appreciation for what is old. Perhaps not in the pop culture. I like to photograph old people, in any case. People whose features digress from conformist beauty are more interesting as subjects, in my opinion.

    Hope everyone is doing well. Wish I had the time to stop by more often.


  13. All this discussion about wabi-sabi and simple beauty reminds me of Bill Holm’s incredible essay “The Music of Failure.” Much of it is taken up with the story of an impoverished family of Icelandic immigrants–failures in the common way of thinking–who, upon deeper examination, proved to possess all the best of human thought and endeavor in their small farmhouse on a bare stony hill in Southwestern Minnesota: music, poetry, philosophy, literature…and a personal ethos of kindness, hard work, community, reverence and striving for beauty in whatever form they could touch it. It made me cry the first time I read it as a graduate student, and it’s one of the things I reread whenever I realize I need to be reminded of what is truly important.


    1. bill holm was amazing. my favorite poet. i got to see him his last time at the minneapolis pubic libray did you run into him studying at morris?


      1. On of the books I am taking out of my collection is by him, a tavel book, something about Islands, Strange Islands, maybe (Holm means Island).


      2. I’m also a Bill Holm admirer. In one of his Going Home Crazy essays, he suggested that a Swiss Army knife was one of the most important tools he had with him in China. Based on that essay, before I went to China get the baby (now the teenager), I purchased a SA knife and it really was a lifesaver a couple of times during the trip. I still have that knife and I think of Bill Holm whenever I use it.


      3. Frazier talks about Swiss knives in his Siberia book, which is much more readable when he finally gets to his actual drive across Siberia.
        tim, I will get the book to you. At some point I am going to bring a bunch of books up to the used book store by Steve. Maybe we could arrange a transfer of some. I would rather give away than sell.


  14. My grandma’s ukulele and my grandpa’s green leather hassock. My first pair of Birks purchased in 1987.

    The uke is cracked and the bridge is worn. It can’t be repaired or played anymore but I keep it. It hangs on the wall and reminds me that there was once someone in our family who was like me.

    The hassock is really completely shot. It’s really not all that beautiful. The leather cracked, split and peeled long ago, allowing the inner cotton lining to show and some of the cotton batting to come out. My step-dad tried to fix it and did much more harm than good. I put it back together as closely as possible to the way it was and now Pippin uses it for chewing on bones while watching me.

    My old Birks are really shot but I honestly wore daily them until 2 years ago. I still wear them but only in the house. They’ll fall apart. The soles are cracked, the cork broken away, the heels ground down to disintegration. The three leather straps are in tolerable shape. I don’t think they even make Birks like they used to! They’re not beautiful either, but for some reason I can’t bring myself to throw them away.


    1. “It hangs on the wall and reminds me that there was once someone in our family who was like me. ”

      Love that more than I can say—


    2. Krista, I have a pair of flat espadrilles like that, use them for slippers: canvas, holey, falling apart, can’t give ’em up.


  15. That is a really lovely photo, Steve. It doesn’t seem strange to me to see beauty in people or things who have spent a lifetime providing service.


  16. What a rich topic today. Just said goodbye to out of town guests, will go read yesterday’s in a while.

    There are a lot of things around here that I’d consider wabi sabi, but mostly Husband. Or not him exactly, but how he dresses when he’s hanging around home — always in work clothes, old flannel shirt, soft and comfortable, frayed cuffs and collar; jeans that frequently have multiple layers of patches (some he hand sews, some I do on the machine). They get so heavy! Shoes inherited from his dad or mine, all of which are a bit too large for him, but oh well. Probably could use a haircut, but no hurry (and won’t pay for one — has me do it, and I promise I have absolutely NO skill). Just very little care about looking perfect or shiny or new. He will ask my advice sometimes if we go out and there’s a reason he does want to look spiffy…


  17. My grandma gave us a book every year. They were usually Whitman Classics and she would write our names and the year inside the cover. I still have Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch from Christmas, 1967. The pages are yellow and the cover’s worn and barely holding on. It’s perfect.

    Steve – the photo is too much. So are all the rest of you.


  18. My mother-in-law, a simply marvelous human being, had severe debilitating arthritis from ages 24 to when she died at 67. When she died she had essentially no bones left beyond her wrists. She still wrote, fed herself, washed some dishes, did some crafts at courage center, and several other things you would not believe she could do. When her hands were at rest, the first knuckle of her little finger rested inside the knuckle of her thumb. Try that. She never complained, she loved life. She was a model for those of use with chronic pain.


  19. Reading and catching up at the end of the day. Great stuff today. And good reminders all of it. The old French violin (which really does need a story written about it), the uke on the wall, the shoes, the swiss army knife. All the “stuff” that is that much more special because of the stories they tell, the memories the keep and the connections they make.

    So glad there is this congress of baboons to read and be part of.


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