Home decorating in the “Wabi-Sabi” style

Nov. 02, 2013 @ 11:35 AM

In one of my favorite scenes in an old-favorite Clyde Edgerton book, the elderly Mattie Rigsbee makes her lunch and attempts to settle in and eat while watching one of her favorite “stories” on TV.  Forgetting that she’s sent her seat cushions out for cleaning, she finds herself bottom-down and legs-up, stuck in the frame of her favorite chair. 

The dog catcher happens by to pick up a stray and finds Mrs. Rigsbee there.  Before she allows him to initiate any rescue attempt she asks a favor…”Would you wash my dishes?”  She is worried that her neighbor will wander over and see that she hadn’t done them before she ate.

I contrast that scene with another in a children’s book whose title is long forgotten.  It was British, and our girls adored its colorful pages that set forth scenes from the life of a working class family in some city that could be London.  Three generations are crowded into one house with a tiny yard and everything is so functional…with laundry drying by the stove in the living room and little concern given to appearances, but plenty to the relationships within the home.

I grew up in a home with vast antique-filled rooms that acquiesced to the need for appearances.  Behind them we did our real living in a cramped family space that absorbed the chaos and activity of family life and hobbies.  Our home today, here on this Orange County farm, is a somewhat rickety old NC farmhouse with additions that I jokingly say we put there to prevent the old parts from falling over.

Peter and I have visited houses that are so perfectly designed and maintained they might as well be public buildings.  From the tasteful décor you have no clue as to who lives there or what their interests might be.  Even the more private spaces, such as bedrooms and dens, look like something you could book for a weekend and move right in.

Inside our house, on its very best days, you’ll find a stack of magazines and a basket of knitting where I can sit down and pick them up.  Our compost bucket is in constant use, so it sits out on a counter from which the coffee pot is never put away.  Produce from the garden is likely mounded on another surface, and the week’s mail is stacked on the hutch in the entry hall. 

Guitars and spinning wheels lean against the walls.  Peter’s iPad resides on the sofa where he loves to sit and watch old TV shows, and no doubt his shoes are tucked nearby (though he’d want me to tell you that he usually puts them away every night).

Because of our daughter’s recent wedding here on the farm with resulting house guests, I began an attempt to wrestle our house into a poor cousin to one of those more elegant homes.  I got a little carried away upstairs, and managed to get our daughters’ now-vacant rooms and bath cleared from most of their left-behind items.  If you stood back and squinted, you might imagine them as a space you could occupy at a B&B.  I got the downstairs spiffed up just enough for comfort and planned to mop the floors on Thursday.

But then the rains came along with the big tent in the back yard and friends started arriving to decorate.  Mud was not to be confined to the yard, so I scratched mopping off of the list and as other people’s stuff began to fill the house I laughed at my feeble attempts to create any kind of image.  If there was one, it might have lasted 30 seconds.

My mother’s home décor was Victorian and some of those tasteful houses might be labeled “Traditional” or “Modern.”   I just discovered my decorating style – “Wabi-Sabi.”  That is a Japanese aesthetic term that means "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete."  Among other things it means that if you drop by and find me stuck in a chair, I won’t be asking you to do the dishes.

A CHH columnist since 1998, Susan Gladin is a freelance writer, United Methodist minister, and curriculum coordinator at the Johnson Intern Program in Chapel Hill. She tends horses and a home business on the farm she shares with her husband. Their two grown daughters live nearby. You may e-mail her at sgladin@gmail.com, or write c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.