Caren Stelson



for all

That Wabi Sabi Feeling

Recently I came upon the extra­or­di­nary pic­ture book, Wabi Sabi, by Mark Reibstein and Ed Young. I had heard of the Japanese phrase “wabi sabi,” but I nev­er real­ly under­stood what it meant until I read this story.

Author Mark Reibstein explains “wabi sabi” this way:

Wabi sabi is a way of see­ing the world that is at the heart of Japanese cul­ture. It finds beau­ty and har­mo­ny in what is sim­ple, imper­fect, nat­ur­al, mod­est, and mys­te­ri­ous. It can be a lit­tle dark, but it is also warm and com­fort­able. It may best be under­stood as a feel­ing, rather than as an idea.

The pref­ace helps, but like the cat named Wabi Sabi in the sto­ry, I have to go on a jour­ney with her to find what “wabi sabi” real­ly means.


The first extra­or­di­nary expe­ri­ence I encounter read­ing Wabi Sabi, is the imme­di­a­cy of the Japanese world. The book opens ver­ti­cal­ly, as if I were read­ing tra­di­tion­al Japanese. In the same moment, I’m intro­duced to Ed Young’s gor­geous and mys­te­ri­ous mixed media illus­tra­tions cre­at­ed from “wabi sabi” lost and found imper­fect objects.

On the story’s first page, strangers meet Wabi Sabi the cat and ask what “wabi sabi” means. The own­er draws in a breath through her teeth and says, “That’s hard to explain.” As the cat own­er paus­es, my eyes slide to the bot­tom of the page and find poet­ry, one in Japanese, one in English:

The cat’s tail twitching
She watch­es her mas­ter, still
wait­ing in silence.

And in that silence, Wabi Sabi the cat begins an adven­ture to find the mean­ing of her name—and I go along with the same curios­i­ty. The wise, old mon­key is some­where in the for­est, the sto­ry says. He can explain.

The cat and I find the wise, old mon­key mak­ing tea. “What’s wabi sabi?” the cat asks.

The old monkey’s haiku reply is confusing:

The pale moon resting
on fog­gy water. Hear that
splash? A frog’s jumped in.

The cat is mys­ti­fied, and so am I. The mon­key continues.

Listen. Watch. Feel … He moved slow­ly but gracefully, 
as if he were danc­ing, and he han­dled his things as if they were gold, 
although they were wood­en or clay.

 Wabi Sabi looks around afresh and sees her world in haiku,

alive and dying
too, like the damp autumn leaves
curled beneath their feet.

Taking a cue from the cat, I look around at my sur­round­ings through a “wabi sabi” sort of lens. I stop, lis­ten, look, feel. The weath­er can change quick­ly here in Minnesota. Fall’s dried leaves still cling to branch­es, though it is bit­ter cold out­side. Dark branch­es stretch against blue sky. Snow piles on roof tops. A long-fingered ici­cle drips out­side my win­dow. Wabi sabi?

An over­stuffed read­ing chair. A hand-me-down blan­ket. An old lamp. Wabi sabi?

With each glance and reflec­tion, I feel calmer, more patient, more appre­cia­tive in a wabi sabi sort of way of uneven edges, scratched sur­faces, lost time, the mem­o­ry of a friend’s death, the imper­ma­nence of life. A melan­choly cloud drifts over me.

If I were still teach­ing in the class­room, I’d have my young stu­dents sit qui­et­ly and look for the wabi sabi around them, or in their mem­o­ries, and nod to each a know­ing smile. I’d read them the haiku of the famous Japanese poet, and “father of the haiku form,” Matsuo Basho, and teach haiku construction—5 syl­la­bles, 7 syl­la­bles, 5 syl­la­bles. We’d talk about nature’s beau­ty and unfin­ished imper­fec­tion woven through Basho’s poet­ry, what it means, then dim the lights, turn on soft music, and set the chil­dren loose on the page. After, we’d gath­er in a cir­cle on the rug to share our poet­ry in hushed tones. Between each haiku, we’d pause and breathe in and out in appre­cia­tive silence.

I pick up the pic­ture book Wabi Sabi to read again and draw in my breath through my teeth.

A jour­nal is splayed on the book­shelf, stained with cof­fee cir­cles, half filled with sto­ry ideas, poems, haiku. Sitting in my read­ing chair, I open my jour­nal, turn to a blank page and write:

The New Year begins
Hold tight to hope, love and peace
An imper­fect world



Wabi Sabi, Reibstein Mark, illus­trat­ed by Ed Young; Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 2008.

All quotes in ital­ics are from the book. The pic­ture book’s back mat­ter is worth of study.

Author Mark Reibstein and illus­tra­tor Ed Young dis­cuss the sur­pris­ing cre­ation of their pic­ture book, Wabi Sabi.

Youtube video, “Eastern Philosophy- Matsuo Basho,” from the video series, “School of Life.” Easily acces­si­ble to younger chil­dren, this infor­ma­tive video of Basho’s haiku and his influ­ence on wabi sabi phi­los­o­phy is help­ful back­ground to under­stand­ing Reibstein and Young’s pic­ture book.

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