Sunday, September 8, 2013

Enough: The Scanadanivian Idea of Lagom & Wabi Sabi in Japanese Culture

...How to Find your Way Through
American culture of ‘bigger is better’, to
Finding your own 'just right'...

            Have you ever wondered why, and how, so many things here in the United States are large, spaced out even space inefficient, and how this slowly consumes one’s hard earned money, time and energy? I know I personally feel lost among many things that are time, money, space, energy, and environmental resource wasters, sometimes yeah I even use more than I need…I feel like it can be very hard not to, having been brought up in such as society. But think about it, who TRULY wants to:

“worry about how we’re going to get it and getting it and going
into debt for it. Rather than doing without…I’m sure it would lead to a simpler life if we didn’t have to worry about the things we didn’t have” ~
Rosalynn Carter  (Andrews, 15)

            With this idea in mind, I would like to in this blog, cover two interesting topics related to the idea of— enough. First we have the Swedish idea of lagom, and secondly, the Japanese concept of Wabi-sabi. The first topic, an excerpt from the book Less is More, is by Alan AtKisson, who at the age of 40 learned Swedish, and appropriately soon after moved to Sweden. He thought their culture quite interesting, and found it not so ironic, with Sweden being a wealthy country it possessed many shopping malls, and also, not surprisingly “the advertisements that drive us to them” (Andrews, 102). Sweden, as many people may know is where the world-famous brands such as Ikea, and Hennes & Mauritz come from, though, despite the ‘ususal consumerist excesses’ one finds there, they also have something to offer unlike most other countries, the concept of: lagom (Andrews, 102). Not to my surprise, this concept, and way of living and simplicity—if you will— has no direct English equivalent, and appears quite often in Swedish conversation. For people in Sweden, it captures something essential about the culture. 
            “Lagom has to do with quantity, with the “how muchness” of something. Lagom is neither too much, nor too little; but neither it is just “enough”... Meaning “exactly the right amount” ” being widely applicable to everyday life in Sweden (Andrews, 102).
“if it were a place it would lie north of sufficiency, but south of excess”, when something is “just right” that is lagom (Andrews, 102). Alan first encountered the idea of lagom when he visited his wife’s apartment for the first time, outside of Stockholm. The simple-but-comfortable style has always appealed to him, though he was amazed to find she only owned two towels (where in America most people have a whole closet full). “the concept of owing just two towels was just mind-boggling” (Andrews, 102-103). She said when the towels are dirty I wash them, and if they wear out, she buys very good ones again, because they last a long time since they are high quality… “why do I need more than two…De tar lagom?” (Andrews, 102-103).
            If you can understand this idea of lagom, other aspects of Swedish culture and design start to make sense. Some rules of Swedish design include, that: materials should not be wasted, function proceeds form; nothing is gained by excess; and something important is lost (Andrews, 103). The origins of lagom, is quite interesting. In the time of the Vikings, when they would pass a bowl of beer around in a circle, it was expected that “everyone would drink exactly the right amount for them…and leave exactly the right amount for everyone else(Andrews, 103). Lagom comes from two words, “lag” meaning team, and “om”, meaning around, so a sense of togetherness, and social solidarity became a pillar to Swedish culture and politics. Social solidarity means, the “commitment of the well being of others, not just oneself” (Andrews, 103). Not surprisingly, there is no adequate English word, or phrase, that comes quite matches lagom, it has a certain attractive quality that “enough” and “sufficient” in English lacks (Andrews, 105).  To many, “enough” sounds like it should have the word “barely” in front of it…for some reason, and to use “enough” never sounds like… [insert word- enough-here] (Andrews, 103).
            Of course, with anything good thing, it comes to an end, or in lagom’s case a limit. For instance: How much is enough chocolate cake, or what is lagom for the earth’s maximum amount of CO2, on the flip side, calling your boyfriend lagom, would not be a very good idea (Andrews, 104). Similarly to this Swedish concept, is a Japanese parallel, the phrase meaning: “I have just what I need”. Though in this an a later blog, I will cover Wabi-Sabi, Zen & Chado. Research suggests that people often want “more than what is around them” this desire seems to be deeply wired in the human organism, that we have seemed to develop over millennia in hostile environments, both natural and social, to have more than enough to defend “against the vagaries of an uncertain future”, hoarding being the modern day extreme (Andrews, 105). We are more likely to get the idea of lagom to most people, since it speaks a lot to what people want in life.
            A tangent/note, that I felt was very applicable to the above idea. One of my new favorite books, The Name of the Wind written by Patrick Rothfuss, which is an amazing tale spun of a gypsy boy, with a feeling of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Having nothing when he goes to University, he reflects on his new surroundings and room later in this book:“I set my battered copy of Rhetoric & Logic on the shelf over the desk. My lute case leaned comfortable in the corner. Through the window I could see the lights of the University unblinking in the cool autumn air. I was home…looking back I count myself lucky…true at Anker’s the crowds were not as wealthy, but they appreciated me in a way the nobles never had. Think in terms of shoes. You don’t want the biggest you can find. You want the pair that fits. In time, that tiny room at Anker’s came to be more of a home to men than anywhere else in the world” (Rothfuss, 454-455).
            Lastly, part of a chapter on Wabi-Sabi, authored by the editor in chief of  Mother Earth Living (combination of Natural Home Magazine & The Herb Companion magazine), Robyn Griggs Lawrence. She grew up in Iowa, where she was able to find the beauty in old abandoned barns, and was taught to appreciate true craftsmanship, from her father being a wood worker. She believes Wabi-Sabi is an important means of helping people accept and embrace their homes as sacred, nurturing spaces—just the way they are (Andrews, 157). Wabi-sabi is an umbrella for many other ideas that came to light around the time of 9/11, right when she happened to have her first article of this topic published. Some other topics related to it include: simplicity, slow-food, reusing and recycling.  This idea is an ancient Japanese philosophy which roots, not surprisingly, in Zen, revering austerity, nature and the everyday. Wabi-Sabi stems more directly from the Japanese tea ceremony, Chado, the Zen ritual for making and sharing a cup of tea, whose origins go back to warlords in the 15th century Japan. The ‘waby’ way of tea (wabichado), grew out as a backlash against right warlords having gaudy imported good based ceremonies, championed by a still famous tea master, Sen no Rikyu.  His simple tea ceremony, with tea severed in locally fired bowls and flowers in fishermen’s baskets, quickly became the most sought-after way to have tea, with wood and bamboo replaced porcelain (Andrews, 158-159). Wabi, is an interesting poet’s word, being slightly melancholy, is the author’s favorite description. It is: “the feeling you have when you’re wating for your lover.” (Andrews, 159). The status of these monks rose alongside wabi in the 15th century Japan, as people grew war-weary, and the upper classes grew tired of conspicuous consumption.

“Simplicity, the aesthetic of the everyday samurai, took on a new nobility.
 No matter how much wealth they had, everyone
in Japan could make and share a cup of tea(Andrews, 159).

            No one really seems to know how sabi got hooked with wabi, but we do have a meaning for sabi: “the bloom of time”, connoting tarnish and rust, the enchantment of old things. Brings appreciation for dignified, graceful aging: worn cobblestones, weathered wood, oxidized silver (Andrews, 157-162).
            Lastly, for an introduction to the Zen making of tea—Chado. I will start by saying, I love tea, A LOT for an American (my opinion), and when I first heard about the Zen art of making tea, you have no idea how ecstatic I was… ! With American’s drink of choice NOT being tea, we can still integrate lagom and Zen ideals into our lives. 
The most important tenet of the tea: ichigo, ichie, or “once in a lifetime”…reminds us that every meeting is once-in-a-lifetime occasion to enjoy good company, beautiful art and a cup of tea (Andrews, 162). This being said, here is a wonderful take on a tea bowl by Christy Bartett, a San Fran based tea master.  She has had this tea bowl for 22 years “every time I look at it, I still see something new…you can’t be lazy. It’s up to you to see and see something new, to sustain your interest in the world around you. It’s not up the world to entertain you. It requires effort to be interested” (Andrews, 161).

“if you can’t find beauty—for free—when you are poor, you won’t be likely to have it when you are rich…even though you may have bought and paid for it” (Andrews, 160)

-Less is More co-authored by Wanda Urbanksa & Cecile Andrews
-Simply Scandinavian by Sara Norman

Works Cited~
Andrews, Cecile, and Wanda Urbanska. Less Is More: Embracing Simplicity for a Healthy Planet, a Caring Economy and Lasting Happiness. Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society, 2009. 15+. Print.
Rothfuss, Patrick. The Name of the Wind. New York: DAW, 2007. 454-55. Print.


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