In the children’s section of the library the other day, I spied a book titled “Wabi Sabi.” I’ve been hearing a lot about wabi sabi these days because it’s all over modern home design blogs (another obsession of mine). The idea, as it relates to home design, is that not everything in a modern home needs to be sleek, metallic, completely finished. Something simple, quiet, old, comfortable is also beautiful. I checked out the book without reading it and brought it home.
Later that afternoon, sitting on our decidedly non-wabi sabi couch, I read the book to the boy.
It begins with a zen proverb: “An old pine tree can teach you the sacred truths.”
“But,” the boy began, “what does it mean? How can an old pine tree teach you?”
“Just let it roll around your head for a while, kiddo.”
So we went on–the book is about a Japanese cat named Wabi Sabi who sets out to learn the meaning of her name. Along the way she meets various creatures who give her hints and finally (*spoiler alert*) a wise monkey who teaches her what it means to be wabi sabi. The illustrations are torn-paper collages and quite beautiful. Each page also has a haiku on it, which the boy is familiar with from the Jon Muth books I mentioned earlier.
One of these haikus starts by talking about something being alive and dying at the same time. “How can that be?” he asked. I love moments like this, when you can see the little gears in his head turning. When he hears a new idea and tries to process and make sense of it in a way that he can understand. It’s almost as if you get a window into the elasticity of a child’s brain. The page has an illustration of fallen autumn leaves. “Well, I said, it’s like those leaves that have just fallen. They’re still a bit alive, but they’re dying also.” “Oh,” he said, not entirely getting it. Still, he loved the book.
A few days later, while walking to the bus stop, he spied a dried out yarrow bush. “Too bad that plant died, Mama,” he said.
“Not entirely, kiddo, look–there’s green leaves at the bottom. This plant comes back every springtime.” I said.
He gasped, “It’s alive and dying at the same time!! Mom! This is Wabi Sabi!”
And so it was. Since then he points out everything that is wabi sabi, sometimes a bit incorrectly, but so happy to have learned for himself just what it is.