Building a skillful life through wabi-sabi.
My heart sank as I listened to the hail pelting down. I fidgeted restlessly in my chair, wanting to jump out of the group therapy room and drive away, knowing that the car I’d bought was about to experience a pounding.
Instead, I waited out the unexpected hail storm and talked with others about how to prevent hail-damaged cars from triggering drug or alcohol use.
I had bought a Volvo just a few months before. I was proud to have spent a modest amount of money on what others consider a luxury model for upscale liberals willing to openly state their political views.
However, I chose a European-branded car because of its reputation for safety and durability, perhaps fitting another aspect of the Volvo driver stereotype.
I worked as a representative for a small business lobbying group and had a long commute as part of my job. My husband and I purchased a Volvo from Texas Direct in Houston. We drove it to a town in eastern New Mexico where Republicans are as familiar as tumbleweeds on the region’s desert roads.
As a used car, it required some minor repairs, which we did. But the impact of the icy rocks gave the Volvo a dismal appearance. A few days after the storm, I stood in line with my clients to see an insurance agent. But I knew I wasn’t going to use the funds I received to replace the trunk lid, hood or roof. Instead, my husband and I decided to use the money to pay off our loan for another car.
Under other circumstances, we would have cleaned up the Volvo, bringing it back to its original shine. However, I was finishing up an internship in graduate school and was moving to another house so my mom could live with us.
The house, which was on the bankruptcy list, required even more attention than the Volvo to get it into livable condition. Paying off the loan freed up a few hundred dollars each month to invest in the house we bought on the faith that we could afford because we followed the fifth biblical commandment to “honor your parents.”
A work of art, an imperfect beauty.
Urban Dictionary satirically characterizes Volvo owners as follows: “Despite being expensive to buy and maintain, Volvo drivers see them as works of art – well-made machines that protect passengers, other drivers, and even pedestrians from dangers on the road.”
I did indeed perceive my Volvo as a work of art. But after the hail storm, I had a hard time seeing how all those dents a dime and a quarter inch in size added to the beauty of the car. Then, out of the blue, I was introduced to wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi is a Japanese philosophy that declares beauty to be imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.
Wabi Sabi is a way of thinking that I continue to develop for those unstable aspects of life that refuse to fit into the perfect framework I have created for them. My Volvo’s are the tangible embodiment of how illusions are shattered by reality.
Since my first introduction to wabi-sabi due to hail damage to my Volvo, I have had other episodes of its application.
I parked my car under a tree where the birds were doing their business, right before meeting a woman I wanted to impress. Later, I drove down the wrong road and used someone else’s driveway to turn around and drive in the right direction. The slope of the road was so steep that it ripped off the right side of the front bumper. My husband screwed it back in place. But the bumper had to be repaired hours after I drove the Volvo around town, oblivious to the damage. It was on display in my son’s school carpool, where many parents drive shiny BMWs, Lexus and Mercedes Benz. I didn’t notice anyone else driving hail-beaten or bird-decorated cars.”
According to the Utne Reader article, “To discover wabi-sabi is to see unique beauty in what may at first seem decrepit and ugly. Wabi-sabi reminds us that all of us on this planet are transient beings, that our bodies and the material world around us are returning to dust. Nature’s cycles of growth, decay, and erosion are embodied in frayed edges, rust, and liver spots. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace the splendor and melancholy of these traces of passing time.”
To live imperfectly, but beautifully.
Today I realize that I have put on the armor of wabi-sabi. If I encounter people who live only on the surface, they may look at me in one of two ways: enviously or derisively. They will feel envious if they see in me only the status mark that a Volvo represents, or mockingly if they condemn me for not fixing the outer skin that gives away the exquisite mechanics of the inner world.
Sometimes in reacting to judgment, I’m tempted to say, “Wait, you don’t understand. You don’t know everything I’ve been through.” Then I realize that explanations mean nothing to people who live superficially.
And then I remember that this desire to connect with people who are incapable of deep connection is also wabi-sabi.