Jack Gilbert, a "poet" whom I tend to scorn but who, sometimes, in a single line or two, moves me so much it physically hurts, wrote this -- in his poem "Ruins and Wabi":
"The Japanese think it strange we paint our old wooden houses when it takes so long to find the wabi in them. They prefer the bonsai tree after the valiant blossoming is over, the leaves fallen. When bareness reveals a merit born in the vegetable struggling.”
I've asked some Japanese people about "wabi" and, apparently, he's mistranslating it, despite the fact that he had a Japanese wife (which pretty much sums up my take on him), and yet...
If his version of "wabi" doesn't exist, it should. I will try to embrace this imagined wabi as my face continues to wrinkle, cuneiform letter by cuneiform letter, like the old Robert Redford's. I will try to remember it as I lose my strength, my flexibility, my memory, my recovery, my everything -- as Gilbert himself says (twice in his corpus), "small by small."
I am reminded of it when I look at the former Minister's Office in Yangon, now almost in rubble, though showing signs of reconstruction. Six years ago, it seemed deserted, but now I see laborers there on occasion and the odd wheelbarrow. But what moves me the most are the plants growing unbidden in the windowsills, along the rooftop -- as if the whole thing were a giant terrarium.
A man recently told me that shiitake grow effortlessly on fallen oak. So, as my back fails today to bend to the degree I think it should, and as I catch myself repeating the same story to the same listener -- and perhaps not for the first time -- I realize that, yes, there was a me that was oak, and there is or will be a me that is shiitake.
I'm not sure, but I think I can live with that.