Beauty & Imperfection

With its seeming love for the one-of-a-kind and constant change, the natural world can be quite worthy of our detailed inspection. Even an oddly unique, or broken and incomplete natural object can be so beautiful it can take our breath away. There is a story about Sen no Rikyu, a famous Japanese tea ceremony master – he shook a few leaves onto the moss after a tea garden was cleaned a bit too perfectly. Leaving a few fallen leaves on the moss points to the wonder and mystery of reality as it really is.

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We care about others’ approval because we need others in order to survive, and that can have us wanting to be perfect. But perfection in the abstract is a rather odd concept when you think about it. Toward what end? And according to what standards does it operate, anyway? What matters to one person may not matter at all to another and different cultures value different things.

I have found that people actually love it when we accept ourselves, imperfections and all, and when we can be open about feeling vulnerable at times. Those who can accept their own imperfections tend to have an easier time accepting them in others which can be a great relief given how much we tend to fear being negatively judged.

Japanese tea ceremony teaches many lessons through the actions involved in sharing tea while engaging with various objects. For example, a beautiful tactile tea bowl like the one made by my Japanese tea ceremony teacher, Giselle Maya, may be misshapen or have imperfections in its glaze that resulted from a collaboration with the kiln fire. Irregularities and burnishing from age and use can add great depth to beauty, something that we can learn to appreciate in each other as well as in tea bowls, even mended ones.

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The Japanese concept of “wabi sabi” embraces imperfection. It recognizes that since everything is constantly changing, perfection is impossible, except in perfect moments as Beth Kempton notes along with wonderful examples in her Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life.

I find that looking for a beauty that embraces imperfection can provide great solace. At times we can even catch others and ourselves in the act of being beautiful. And seeing the light shining through that deeper beauty can connect us to all that is.

Below are examples of imperfect beauty that called out to me. I recommend the wonderful adventure of finding your own examples.

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Viewing Stones

Many viewing stones are completely natural, although some are cut so they can be placed cut side down in a carved stand. With an impact that belies their small size, viewing stones can be highly evocative of mountains, waterfalls, or pools. They are worthy of contemplation for the response they produce in us.

At times they resemble animals or are prized for their surface patterns. A tiny figure may be added to complement the mood of a stone. Larger ones are displayed outside in gardens. Placing a number of them together on a stand provides an opportunity to linger and enjoy the “conversation” among their diverse colors, shapes and textures.

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Sharing Visual Creativity

In June, 2019, a bunch of us shared art and crafts in a wide variety of media at Park Avenue Congregational Church. When someone (or in this case someones Karen Stark and Gwendolyn Phelps) takes the lead in organizing one of these shows, the results can be quite interesting. With luck, that will encourage those who think what they create is not good enough to submit their work anyway. We can all communicate things that matter this way. It need not reach the level of high art to express the joy of being alive. Children understand this. We should all learn from them.

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Water Tower Magic

On September 7, 2014, a unique event took place to celebrate a local landmark (below) turning 90 years old. The notice I saw spoke of images of local places by both youth and adults. Each art work would be briefly projected on the substantial Arlington Reservoir structure before another took its place. Curious, I took my camera and portable canvas-seated sling bench to the classical revival water tower.

The images can only hint at what it was like to walk up the road to the top of the hill as the glowing tower came into view and then to join the crowd that had gathered there as darkness descended and the Luminarium Dance Company interpreted the images to music issuing from two large loudspeakers.

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More Than Just Stones

I had the shadow box for some time before I discovered what I wanted to do with it. It was a multi-step process: 1) Pick a stone, 2) Find or take a photo with something to say about it, 3) Arrange them together in the box, and 4) Take a photo of that. I did not know what would happen. The ones I struggled with the most could come together in perfect balance in the end. I kept thinking of new possibilities until it was time to stop. But this could be endless. Stones just have resonance.

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Morrisonite jasper slab with closeup taken from the top right.

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Lobster claw Scholar’s Rock with a lobster roll.

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Bubble lace agate with closeup.

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Hut Stone Scholar’s Rock with Japanese garden photo.

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Jasper pebble & the Whidbey Island beach where I found it.

Kintsugi: Two Tea Bowls Mended with Loving Care

There are very few practicing the traditional craft of kintsugi (literally gold mended) in Japan, although you can purchase materials online and try it yourself.

You can also find examples with related concepts. This article describes three aesthetic concepts related to appreciation of nature including the illusive wabi sabi. Other Japanese concepts related to kintsugi include, mottainai (regret about waste), and mushin (openness to transience).

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The example above was a favorite “travel” tea bowl of a Japanese tea ceremony enthusiast. When it broke in transit, honoring it by having it mended using a nontraditional color (normally kintsugi uses gold, silver, or platinum) certainly gave it most vibrant new life. It is treasured by its owner for the whole series of memories it has accrued including this latest set.

When I first encountered kintsugi, my first thought was about the time-transcending collaboration; the one who made the bowl, the forces that broke it, and the one who mended it all contributing. I could imagine the bowl held gently in the hand as it was fixed linking the spirit of the mender to the spirit of the maker, even if the maker was long dead.

There are many good reasons to mend a bowl. From tending my tea garden and dealing with storm damage along with all the seasonal changes I learned the wisdom of honoring the potential of what is here now even as everything changes. At times, the radiance due to loving care brought to mending a troubled past can lead to a beauty that surpasses the original.

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The owner of this beautiful bowl by Brother Thomas considered having it mended so the repair would be invisible, but the gallery owner thought better of that and decided to have it mended using gold leaf. When the bowl was shown to Brother Thomas, he was most pleased. In fact, he liked it better that way. The bowl remains a very happy part of the gallery owner’s collection.

Although Audrey Harris was not so pleased with her first attempts at mending using kintsugi, the important lessons she learned with the help of her teacher were certainly treasures. Kintsugi is brimming with metaphoric lessons. Here is another video showing a particularly powerful use of this metaphor.

Addendum: This post was updated on 3/11/19 to include the video on the meaning of kintsugi for a survivor.

Abalone Portraits

When the abalone shell arrived, it had a crack in it. I decided to take a photo anyway. What I saw in the image was much more than I expected. We are like this, I thought. We forget the extraordinary beauty that comes right up to our cracks.

I could not stop taking close-ups as abalone arrived at my door from all over the world. The slightest shift brought dramatic changes. In this conversation with light and mystery I sensed a deeper connection. There were so many lessons here, a spiraling out to a universe of being. Joy and grief blended with so much at risk for the abalone and for us.

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