Wabi-Sabi and Tear Water Tea

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There is a book I remember reading as a child in school. It was called Owl at Home by Arnold Lobel. It was first published in 1975 and looking back on it now, it held some fairly profound philosophies for children. Owl was a cuddly, simple and adorably naïve character. One of my favourite stories was called, “The Guest,” where Owl decided that Winter might be cold outside in the snowstorm, so he opens his front door up wide to invite Winter to come in and sit by the fire with him. Oh bless his cotton socks. But really the best, and most well known Owl at Home story is, doubtless, “ Tear Water Tea”. Owl decides that he wants to make a pot of tear water tea. He sits down with his kettle and starts to think of things that are sad with the intention of filling the kettle up with tears.


“Chairs with broken legs,” said Owl. His eyes began to water.


The list goes on.


“Songs that cannot be sung because the words have been forgotten.”

“Spoons that have fallen behind the stove and are never seen again.”

“Mashed potatoes left on a plate,” he cried, “because no one wanted to eat them and pencils that are too short to use.”

Soon Owl’s kettle is full of tears and, being quite chuffed with himself, he happily makes a brew and fills up his cup.  


I absolutely adore this story.


But when reading it as an adult you are hit with the stark reality of how sad these things actually are. Like holy cow that poor spoon! Thoughtlessly condemned to the utter desolation of the blackness behind the stove for all eternity. The text is accompanied by wee, simple drawings that appear to have been de-saturated of colour about 60%, to illustrate the forlorn-ness of the objects. The plate of mashed potatoes looks especially maudlin. It struck me though how perfectly this story portrays the Japanese aesthetic / world view / philosophy of Wabi-Sabi. (Stay with me here - I’m going somewhere, I swear…)

The Japanese, hey? They’ve really got it all figured out. Everyone is so hot on the life changing magic of Konmari-ing up their homes right now, and I did a whole presentation at school a few months back about the whole Ikigai thing and my begrudging, but learned love of green tea. Wabi-Sabi though, is about the lovliness in imperfection. The melancholy beauty of impermanence, and the sad but graceful embracement of inevitable change. Richard Powell says, "Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect." (Powell, Richard R. (2004). Wabi Sabi Simple. Adams Media. )

And so here we have Mr. Zen Master Owl, taking time to contemplate the loneliness of incomplete and imperfect objects, that are no longer wanted. Life has moved on from them. (You really must see these illustrations.) He is so in touch with this sadness that he can summon up a kettle full of tears on command. He lives it, he cries, and then poof! He’s sitting there on the next page smiling and enjoying his nice salty cup of tea. Owl recognises that sadness can and must also pass as easily as it comes. The beauty of impermanence. The beauty of being imperfect.


It’s for this reason that Cellar Door ASMR Co. features what I like to call Rescued items. I love to visit second hand shops, yard sales and flea markets to hunt for beautiful treasures that have been long forgotten, and breathe a new life into them. Bonus points if they are slightly flawed in some small way. There’s something about small ceramics especially that sets my ASMR on fire. Smooth ones, with smooth lines. Something that you can fit comfortably in one or two palms. Objects that you can lovingly cradle, and take great pleasure in the perfectly weighted balance of it as your fingers close around it. I especially love unique glaze patterns. I don’t know what it is! Maybe it’s not actually my ASMR that does this to me, but perhaps some other… je ne sais quoi. If it’s not the same, is definitely closely related. 


Speaking of tear water tea and ceramics, there is a tea set in our Homewares Collection. A beautiful creamy off-white Chinese tea set, consisting of a squat ceramic teapot with a bamboo handle and 4 small cups with no handles. They have little white flower blooms etched into them and I fell in love with it the moment I saw it. It was just so romantic and it took all the discipline I could muster to put it up in the shop instead of keeping it for myself. “Someone else deserves to make tear water tea in this,” I thought.


It was made all the more remarkable when I noticed a tiny chip in the rim of one cup. The chip extends ever so slightly into a centimetre long, barely visible to the naked eye, hairline crack in one side of the cup. Some people might say that for this reason, I have no business selling it, but I beg to differ. I immediately smiled to myself and whispered, “wabi-sabi”.