Like Grand Cru wine, we need time to mellow
Young people enjoy advantages of fitness, teeming with exuberance, and discovery of romance: Or so it seems to this elder. Gifts that come with age are more elusive. But those later year gifts are there. A reflective, wistful or long view of life is not easy to define, but with experience, we come to enjoy how the day’s ebb and flow fit a greater whole. Concealed in the day-to-day are peaks, turning points, or new beginnings that come into view with time. We find sweet melancholy in how lives play out. Younger people don’t always notice this life view, but you can bring it into your thoughts no matter how old you are. In doing so, you enhance your non material wealth.
Time, nostalgia and wistfulness enhance life’s pungency.
This benefit of age struck hard one rainy evening. I met an old friend at the annual party held by a Consul General in Boston. Judy Fairbanks was an older woman I’d known from many years earlier. In an instant, the entire cycle of her life’s experiences became apparent, the excitement, the turns, the crescendos, and pianissimos.
November Turns Into June
Judy was sitting alone in the crowded Consul’s ballroom wishing she’d never come. When I first knew her, she never sat alone. Back then, she’d been the gorgeous young wife of a Boston Brahmin, and things were different. The two of them had been the power couple of our town. Her husband had been the Consul General back in those days, along with many other titles. With her big puffy hair and ear-to-ear smile, she would work the room exchanging flattering words with the city’s elite.
She lived comfortably in her seaside mansion and now found it a chore to drive into town to attend a party on a cold November night. She sat alone unnoticed, unrecognized, and looking for an opportunity to exit.
Her husband was now gone for many years. As Mr. Fairbank’s widow, she still hoped a few old friends might remember her from earlier days; but no friends showed up. Tonight’s younger guests were not interested in Judy. Nor were they interested in their past. The past was gone and good riddance. They were far more interested in what comes next. They wished to connect with the city’s newest celeb/elite rather than a widow sitting in the corner.
I noticed her and, even after 45 years, recognized the tremendous puffy (if artificial) hair. I had done some work for her husband and remembered her from magazine photos and social occasions. Back then, she had seemed so much fun. She had been the embodiment of cultured elite.
I introduced myself and said hello. Judy didn’t remember me, but nevertheless, her face lit up with gratitude that someone would sit down to talk. She did remember my father. “Yes, I remember your dad, “she recalled. “He had a hotel on Waikiki and made a gift to us of the bridal sweet when we first married.”
Within seconds of the first “hello” she transformed into a different person. She became animated and cheerful. From there, she launched into a nostalgic chronicle of the joys, accolades, and accomplishments of her dreamy past. She was no longer a pitiful widow looking at her watch. No longer did she see a dreary November night in Boston. Now she was gazing off over the palm trees, taking in Hawaii’s Pacific sunshine. She imagined reliving her twenties again, trim with shiny hair. She could visualize the memory of admirers again lined up, hoping to be recognized by and photographed with her.
“Gosh, but your father was such a wonderful man!” she reminisced with that titanic smile. The former infectious joy could still shine through her eyes.
Sabi-Wabi: The joy of imperfection and impermanence
As Judy continued reminiscing, I remembered two Japanese words that deal with the sweet melancholy of nostalgia and days past. “Sabi” and “Wabi” are words that one dictionary says can’t be translated or understood by Westerners. My teacher in Tokyo once explained that seeing an old thatch roof hut or weathered barn or other worn-out artifacts that evoke thoughts of your youth could exemplify a sabi wabi feeling.
Wikipedia goes further and suggests the words deal with an aesthetic feeling Japanese people experience. Included is a description of wabi-sabi by Andrew Juniper, who notes that, “If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi.” Richard Powell, in Wikipedia says “Wabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. Sabi refers to the beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear or any visible repairs.”
An aesthetic tea cup, according to this thinking, can become yet more beautiful with the passage of time, damage and repairs, or other evidence of impermanence/imperfection.
That was just the sentiment I felt hearing Judy’s reminiscences.
She finished her Hawaiian story and the excitement of her romantic, well-lived life. The story was a glimpse into one who was no longer the stereotypical beauty she had once been. Her exploration into memories made her analogous to the broken but now repaired “kintsugi” ** tea cup. She revealed a new authentic beauty as she began to shine while reminiscing. She shifted her thinking from the immediate loss and sadness to celebrating a happier place.
Her imaginary trip affected me in a way no school kid could appreciate. I felt a psychic pleasure of transitioning into another world. The vision warmed me that November night and has continued ever since.
Are we nothing more than tea cups?
Lives are like ceramic cups. We all experience cracks and scars – physical and emotional. We can see those moments as broken. But we can also see overall beauty in life and the ways we’ve pulled ourselves together.
Wistfulness and nostalgia must be the least tangible of nonmaterial assets. They’re complex aesthetic sentiments that we exploration in later years. Is there an element of sadness or conflicted sweetness? Yes, that’s part of our “impermanent, imperfect, and unfinished” lives.
But for one elderly lady and me sitting alone in the middle of a party one night, nostalgia was not only sweet but warming and a valuable source of pleasure. The party was an event and a temporary one. The memories we get to keep forever.
**KINTSUGI Is the art of repairing broken pottery that is said to leave the object more beautiful since it acknowledges, engages, and embraces the reality of imperfection.