Desperately seeking a Wabi Sabi house

Steep Hill, LincolnSteep Hill, Lincoln – perfect in its imperfection?

We’re house hunting again, and it’s making me think a lot about what I like and don’t like and why that might be. What we really want is something old and characterful, but most of the housing stock is post 1960s and we’ve begun to consider other possibilities. Recently we thought about viewing a house I spotted on Rightmove – it was very modern, but it was light, bright, and beautifully decorated and finished.  It was immaculate. But therein lay the problem – we don’t live immaculate lives. We’re often messy and sometimes the housework goes un-done if there are more interesting things to do (and there are always more interesting things to do). I just couldn’t see myself in this house at all.

It was so perfectly presented that a few crumbs in the kitchen would have ruined its good looks. And then I thought – one reason I love this rental house so much is that it accommodates our lives and doesn’t ask too much of us. The kitchen has an ancient, broken brick floor that doesn’t show up all the little bits of food that get dropped on it, and the solid old pine of the units can take a few crumbs left lying and the kind of watermarks you get where it’s been wiped with too wet a cloth. I like to cook, and I want a kitchen I can cook in and really use, not a show place. The rest of the house is like this, too – this house supports us, we don’t support it.

I don’t really like perfection. It has an instant appeal, but I become bored with it quickly and it somehow pushes me away. This is ironic, given that I’ve spent much of my life trying (and failing) to be perfect, thinking somehow that it would make me more lovable. And yet that’s not how I respond myself. I’ve never found perfect faces and bodies very interesting – give me a quirky, individual sort of beauty any time. And I love the house we’re living in for its bumpy walls, sloping floors, uneven staircases, and all its glorious, imperfect idiosyncracies. It has immense character. Perfect faces don’t have much character, and neither do perfect houses – they tell you nothing about themselves.

Perfection both demands something of us and is untouchable in itself. If a thing is perfect, there’s nothing you can add to or subtract from it without messing it up – it gives us nowhere to go, no way of interacting with it and all we can do is worship at its feet. At the same time, its perfection can be like a reproach, by highlighting our own lack of it. Nobody much likes the person who seems to live an immaculate, perfect life (of course, they never do, and we’re only seeing what they want us to see, but it doesn’t endear them to us). And when we fall in love, it’s often someone’s vulnerabilities that open up our hearts.

I find this with photography, too. The perfect can have a kind of instant, ‘wow’ type appeal, but it doesn’t last. Technical perfection often has a soul-less quality and it leaves the viewer nowhere to go – it’s glossy and finished. When I started in photography I would sit gazing in awe at the immaculate, perfect landscape shots in the magazines, wishing I could produce such a thing myself. After I’d seen lots of these, though, they lost their appeal and now I don’t give them much more than a passing glance.

And another thing – I grew up in Scotland, and I can tell you that the much-photographed Highlands very rarely look the way they look in this kind of image. It’s a wilder, grimmer, wetter place, full of swarms of irritating midges, and cold, buffeting winds. The reality of it is not so immediately appealing but it touches the soul in a way these images never do. Those perfect, idealised photographs of it don’t capture what the place is really like – immensely beautiful, but also sometimes threatening, gloomy, timeless, untamed, and at times hostile.  This is what makes it what it is, and when I look at these photos I don’t see the Highlands I know.

The Japanese have a concept they call Wabi Sabi. It’s complex and not easy to translate, but put simply it’s about the beauty and nostalgia of age and imperfection. Perfection is controlling, Wabi Sabi is accepting. Perfection is an attempt to preserve, contain, and stop the ravages of time, Wabi Sabi embraces them.  Where perfection only sees entropy and disarray, Wabi Sabi sees beauty. When something is Wabi Sabi, it’s perfect in its imperfection.

I’m looking for a Wabi Sabi home.