Sunday, November 10, 2013

Budapest to Krakow, part 3

Wabi Sabi

Shortly before leaving for Budapest, there was a first in a short series of Ideabooks in Houzz ( a internet shelter site) on Wabi-Sabi. It very much struck a chord as Japanese culture has been an major  influence for as long as I can remember. I contributed in the comments section to the first article and checked in on further comments as they came in on our down time. It was really cool to see such a good response to such an anti-bling concept.

I had been exposed to Wabi-Sabi not as a concept but as a way of life by family friends in Mexico who were very much of traditional Japanese culture. This family was one of my aunt and uncle’s closest friends. They were pretty much family as I called them aunt and uncle as well. We saw them just about every week and I worked intermittently in their pharmacy. I was very much drawn by their discipline and formality. Once when I was doing my homework at their home, I asked if we could listen to the radio; my aunt Emy’s reply was you can pay attention to the radio or to the homework. My honorary aunt knew instinctively what Clifford Nass researched and warned about, multitasking. I also now recognize their modesty- in the context of a small city in 1960’s Mexico, I later realized that they were affluent, but that was not readily apparent in their home.
In college, I continued to learn about Japanese culture and history and became a fan of Japanese films. As a woodworker, I was introduced to their tools by a friend who mentored me in this craft. Their chisels, saws and planes rapidly became my primary hand tools. They are just as indispensable as my power tools.
Prior to  medical training and practice, I had  done remodeling and construction work with utilitarian goals- fix it and rent it out.  Once I start working on my home, my need for the place to feel like home led me to the Arts and Crafts style where once again, the Japanese influence was felt. But during all this time, while I had absorbed Wabi-Sabi,  the Houzz articles put a name to what I felt a kinship with: a reverence for the well-worn, imperfect, asymmetric and modest in the context of a culture that could produce a beautiful, razor sharp, exquisitely finished sword in the middle ages.
One of the many pleasures of Eastern Europe was seeing so much of what I at this time perceive as Wabi-Sabi in their architecture and culture. I at times felt like a peasant when in London, Paris, Munich and other Western European cities. Despite the language barrier, there was a strong feeling of  kinship with the culture of Eastern Europe. I just really loved the character of the buildings and their more analog way of life.


We also encountered Wabi-Sabi in many of our interactions with Hungarians, Slovakians and Poles- a sense of modesty and down-to-earth that is very much a part of that aesthetic.

Someone taught that temples are for fanatics only and took away the temples and promised there was no need for temples. And now there is no shelter, And no map for finding the shelter of a temple. And you all stumble in the dark, this confusion of permissions. The without-end pursuit of a happiness of which someone let you forget the old things which made happiness possible.

David Foster Wallace  Infinite Jest
Infinite Jest was the other context that colored my experience of Eastern Europe. The USA is home and no other country is preferable. But for many people and in many aspects, the United States has diminished in the qualities that made it a great country. IJ portrays much of late 20th century American dysfunction. It seems that there has not been a major American institution- government, religious, education- that has not been diminished in public esteem in the past 40 years with that trend seemingly accelerating in the past 20 years. In contrast to the irony and cynicism pervasive in America, was the role of religion in these 3 countries, especially Poland.
I was struck by the prominent role of Catholicism in Poland. They believe. The Poles also have a hero-something lacking in the US- in Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II.

I cannot look past the child abuse that went on during his tenure.  I continue to practice Catholicism and admire JPII for his humanity, accomplishments and as a source of inspiration and because the Church is made of humans and thus subject to being less than exemplary at all times- as we all are.
I loved the notion of a bar named The Unexamined Life in IJ  and wish that I could believe as the Poles seem to believe. DFW in his much loved  This is Water graduation speech at Kenyon College (yes, I've become a Wallace-head)  noted that there is no such thing as atheism. We all believe in something.
The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clich├ęs, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

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The speech goes on to give an alternative to the irony and cynicism prevalent in American culture or the blind belief that leads to atrocities  perpetrated in the name of God and Country. And Eastern Europe provided an alternative to the ostentation ( I swear not to buy anything described as stunning- I'm tired of that word), irony and cynicism I see so much of in my country.