The Wabi-sabi home – surfaces

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If you want a cleaner, less cluttered, more relaxed environment, wabi-sabi is the way to go.

Wabi-sabi arose from Zen Buddhism but it enables you to live a simpler and less-cluttered life whatever your situation or beliefs. Earlier I wrote about the tokonoma, a special alcove or area that you can have in a room as a focal point, but here I’ll deal with surfaces.

In wabi-sabi, it’s very basic: you keep your surfaces clear, and if you can’t, you limit the number of things on them to three. Just follow this ‘rule’ and you’ll find it all comes together easily.

To start, look around your typical living room and count how many surfaces there are. In mine, which is a living-dining room, there are eight:

* a centrally placed sideboard used as a room divider

* a sideboard in one corner

* a coffee table

* a dining table

* a marble-topped buffet running along one wall

* and three deep windowsills (this is a French house and the windows open inwards)

All of them just asking to get filled up with tat.

The marble-top buffet had all the CDs and DVDs on top of it, which was fine as long as they were neatly arranged in their storage units. Problem is, they never were – they were stacked up 10 deep, constantly waiting to be refiled. My sideboards seemed to have the habit of collecting whatever was meant to be stored in their drawers and cupboards, while my coffee table, like many people’s, rather defied description, piled high with books, magazines, coffee cups, wine bottles and God-knows-what else.

All this is by way of saying that I am by no means naturally tidy, nor clean, and that my approach to housekeeping is – um – relaxed, to say the least. Nor do I get much help from the DH in this, as he simply doesn’t notice mess.

My biggest sin, though, was one committed by many of us – cluttering the windowsills. Which of us doesn’t want more light in our rooms? Certainly not me. My house is old, with thick walls and tiny windows and every scrap of light is precious. Why, then, did I persist in putting pot plants and flower arrangements and candles and wotnot on my windowsills? I suppose I thought it added character. Well it doesn’t.

As a first step to wabi-sabi, CLEAR your windowsills. Don’t put anything there – not lamps, not ornaments, not candles (and matches and incense-stick holders…). It will take a couple of weeks to get used to how bare this looks, but once you get your eye in, it looks completely natural – you will benefit enormously from the light, and it also makes the windows much easier to both clean and open. Whatever you do from now on, don’t block your windows. (For purists, this is in fact more of a Zen approach than Wabi-sabi, but we’ll go into that another time.)

From your windows, progress outwards into the room. If there’s one piece of furniture that you look OVER as you enter the room, this is the next important thing to keep clear. In my case, it’s a green-painted sideboard to the left of the door as you enter the room.

In former days, this usually had three wooden bowls on it. I loved them, but somehow they always collected companions – unpaid bills, bank statements, letters to be posted, gloves, the dog lead. Now I work hard to keep that sideboard completely empty even if I don’t have time for anything else. Gloves go in the drawers in the front of it. The dog lead’s been given a hook by the door. If my husband dumps a bill or a letter on this sideboard, I immediately remove it to the dining table where it’s less noticeable (the dining table remains a bit of a disaster area, as I do my beadwork on it, but nothing in life is perfect).

For many people, the coffee table is just a clutter magnet, so buying a table with two layers is a good move. The detritus that builds up on the top shelf can easily be cleared to the lower shelf each day and then you can deal with the whole mess later in the week. Be practical about this if housework isn’t your idea of a good time. A glass top is all very well, but it shows every fingermark and you can still see all the rubbish underneath, whereas if you choose a natural wood finish that is not highly polished, or a white or grey distressed finish, you can hide a multitude of sins. We don’t have a two-layer table, though I aspire to one, but we have one with two sliding sections, made by my husband’s father, which enables us to hide the remotes, etc.

For surfaces against walls, such as sideboards, console tables or tallboys, you can afford to be less strict. These surfaces are usually not USED as such, but they are in your sightline as you enter a room, or as you sit on the soft furnishings. If you lack the discipline to keep these completely clear, try to limit your items to three in number – for instance a lamp, an ornament you really love, and a flower arrangement that reflects the season. That gives you a simple still-life that adds texture, colour and light to a room without overwhelming it.

In my own home, the clutter on the marble-top unit required the most thought. The problem was really lack of storage, and this was dealt with by the DH taking all our CDs and ripping them into I-Tunes, then discarding the ones that we never played (let’s face it, with most albums you only really love a few tracks, not the whole thing). This freed up about a third of the space in the CD racks, leaving plenty of room for a ‘refile’ section into which I can quickly pop any loose CDs prior to refiling them properly.

Voila, clean surfaces that are easy to dust and wipe down without having to move anything – and that means they get cleaned more often.

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