Though we might protest it, Seattleites are secretly in love with the pain of our winter darkness, if not for its own allure, then because it sends us fluttering to the inconsistent light—an excuse to indulge. Did you know that it was supposed to be sunny today? we ask each other breathlessly, as if good weather is a secret.
How long will it last? A few hours or a day? We take long lunches and ditch out of work early to bask with friends over pints on someone’s patio. We stand on the outside deck on the ferry ride home. We peel off our fleece and wool sweaters to reveal fish underbelly-white shoulders that redden after fifteen minutes in direct light.
That’s the thing about Seattle: the inconsistency of the weather is what we complain about, but it’s also what keeps us here. Living in the Pacific Northwest is a constant exercise in fragility and change. The perfect pool of sunlight happens for five minutes, then a vicious blast of freezing air clouds the sky. Hours later, the horizon first glows yellow and aubergine, then we’re sprinkled with a cool mist and the sky unfolds into darkness.
Knowing that each of these experiences won’t last long makes them that much more precious.
Along with the promise of lake and ocean waters, the mercurial weather is part of what drew me here from Arizona. It may sound daft—especially to my solar-starved neighbors—but 350 sunny days a year becomes depressing. Having the needle stick on unwavering sunshine may look like paradise, but over time, the weather suggests an unspoken hopelessness in its consistency.
My recent investigations into the concept of wabi-sabi have helped me put this into perspective. It is said that if an object, person or experience evokes a spiritual longing within us, it belongs to wabi-sabi, whose tenets are based on the fact that nothing lasts, nothing is ever finished and nothing is perfect.
Last week, one of the interns at work made a presentation that included a quote by Leonard Koren who writes about the incorporation of wabi-sabi in art, architecture and design:
The closer things get to non-existence, the more exquisite and evocative they become.
Greg commented that, for him, the concept of wabi-sabi was embodied in the place between falling and flying. Thinking over the meaningful events and eras of my life, I know what he means. Moments where something was lost, damaged, or forever changed—and the journeys leading up to those moments—are the most impactful.
Though we might wish for an occasional do-over, we often conclude that the gestalt of our experience is worth the bumps, bruises and even significant losses that we encounter. In wabi-sabi, we flourish like newborn saplings from scorched earth, always growing and changing, alive but flawed and destined to remain so.
That’s why organized religion as a concept has always proved troublesome for me. What feels more true to the human condition: pursuit of a flawless paradise or the desire to explore the unknown, to test boundaries? Crave stability though we might, we are none the less attracted to people and places that offer us the greatest opportunity to navigate between self-reliance, inspiration and failure—not perfection. They stimulate us but they don’t attempt to, nor are they designed to, save us.
In my opinion, there is no saving necessary, no perfect paradise that we should strive for—doing so misses the point. Instead, if we are strong enough in our sense of self to immerse within it, there is an abundance of grace in the impermanent, imperfect world around us. Each day affords opportunities to discover the exquisite beauty of not smoothing damaged edges or attempting to create or bogart perfection.
Alongside that which does not last and that which is not perfect, we can embody the elusive third element of wabi-sabi: that which is never finished. Our lives are a flawed process, a combination of fleeting experiences that each contribute a layer of patina to the original composition of our selves.
Now that I’m beginning to understand wabi-sabi, I can see that it forms the foundation of my writing practice. It’s woven intrinsically into my desire to travel the country seeking experiences that feed into and describe the making of a modern-day American.
I don’t have an expectation of the quality of these journeys (“good” or “bad”) nor am I trying to create a perfect experience of any place. The last thing I want is to come away seeing only Disney-esque veneers. When I say “hidden city,” what I hope to find is an ever-changing menagerie of facets and imperfections that make these places what they are and contribute to our identity as a nation.
With every departure I make with you in the coming year—the place between falling and flying—I predict that we’ll focus less on the smooth stretches of road and instead revel in the unpredictable twists along the way… and notion that our journey together is always far from finished.