Have you fallen into the Black Hole of Capitalism this holiday season? It’s easy to do. Starting with Black Friday — which is really Native American Heritage Day — and steam-rolling on through Hanukah, Christmas, and New Years, we’re all primed to open our wallets and allow money to liberally fly out of them. We’re tempted by sales and guilt and family obligation to spend more than we probably should or even need to. Most adults generally don’t require much more than a few selected consumable products or services — hand cream, toothpaste, maybe a massage or two. Nonetheless, we are made to think that we must find the “perfect gift” for all the loved ones in our families, which usually means some new hi-tech thingamabob or the latest fashion-plate item.
For several years running friends and I have pooled our money to purchase a cow, a goat, a water buffalo, or a fleet of chickens from Heifer International (tinyurl.com/y8wy72j2). For anywhere from $20 to upwards of $5,000 for a complete “Ark” — for an entire community — you can help a family provide food for themselves and perhaps add some income to their meager lives. Your donation, tax deductible, can empower women, support sustainable farming, or provide clean water and shelter to families across the globe. Heifer is a great organization, and you know your money is going to provide the minimum basics for folks who can’t imagine the luxury of needing a Starbucks cash card. (Look, I love coffee as well as the next person and I’m thrilled to live in our coffee-culture state, and yet … can we once a year forgo a month of lattes?)
So, holiday giving to others is one way to go. But another route is to ignore the glitzy stuff on sale everywhere and actually make something. Yes, it takes more time and planning but the rewards of making and giving something hand-made is old-fashioned and heart warming.
One year late in my mother’s life she began knitting scarves — both to be auctioned off in the holiday fundraiser for her beloved Women’s Century Club in Yakima and as gifts. Earlier in her life she was a master knitter; she made wool sweaters in different sizes for all four of us in the family. When I was in junior high school, she knit me a dress. She took up a complicated deer- and snowflake-patterned ski sweater project for me that took her over a year and required several different colors and types of needles. (Though it is a tad on the small side now, I still squeeze into it on some days just to remember the skill, the concentration, and love she put into it.) But what I treasure the most is that nubbly green scarf she made with wool from Tapestry Rose — knowing that it was one of the last things she was able to knit.
Here’s where wabi-sabi comes into the picture. Handmade gifts, no matter the circumstances of their making, are gifts from the heart. It’s like that paper plate picture of a Thanksgiving turkey that you may still have on your refrigerator: you know the one, the kid draws around his hand, adds a beak and a few feathers. Anyway, grandparents know it’s not about the quality of the art, it’s about the giving. In fact, it’s the imperfection that makes the object special.
So it was that wabi-sabi came to be. Here’s one legend that explains it. Sen no Rikyu was asked to tend the garden of his master. He raked and cleaned debris until the grounds were meticulous, perfect. Then looking at his work, he had an inspiration. He shook a cherry tree and a few blossoms fell onto the ground here and there.
This is said to illustrate the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi — the art of finding beauty in the imperfect. Wabi-sabi exists in direct counter valence to lavishness, slickness, shiny industrially mass-produced everything. It’s why I love the wooden stairs and the attic of Jack’s Country store — they’re real, authentic. It’s why those few brick-streets still left around Pike’s Market in Seattle are so pleasing; why flea market finds are thrilling; why the fog hovering just above the fields on a grey Peninsula day is sometimes so heart-breakingly beautiful. Why when I see falling down barns and rock walls, I have to jump out of the car for a photo.
A couple weeks ago, six of us took part in a book binding workshop at the Sou’wester Lodge. It was taught by Jillian Barthold, an incredibly talented artist who was at the lodge participating in their newly-launched artist residency program. (Jillian has a crazy-fun gallery, The Fruit Salad Club, in Portland: tinyurl.com/y88gvfcd). We had such a blast; we joked while we stitched, threaded needles, punched holes in paper, and pasted pictures onto book-board. We made the most beautiful collection of handmade books. And, all along the way, every “whoops!” simply added to the wabi-sabiness of our projects. (If you haven’t checked out the happenings of the lodge recently, do! This past weekend was the Sou’wester’s Third Annual Hand-made Bazaar, a total and complete celebration of wabi-sabi. Put it on the calendar for next year; or, even better, check out their website often to see all the creative things going on: www.souwesterlodge.com)
So much about the holidays has become humdrum and same-old same-old. It’s been mightily disconnected from the sacred. But even if you don’t have a Christian or religious belief system that aligns with the season, this time of year can still have significant meaning.
Wabi-sabi, if nothing else, reminds us that all things are imperfect and transient — our bodies, our friends, our dogs and cats, our well-being. Everything we see in the material world around us is part of Nature’s cycle of growth, blooming and dissipation. It’s a great time of year to ponder the gifts we have and the gifts we give. It’s the season to embrace both the unique pleasures and the biting melancholy of life on earth.