mono no aware

March 17, 2009

The summer before my senior year of college, I spent two months working with Warringah Church of Christ outside of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. My friends Benji Jones and Hunter Harris were also helping out. Within a few days, we’d discovered that your average Australian lives by a different rhythm than your average American. We’d gone expecting to every day to be full of service—home maintenance projects, church work, and vacation bible school. 

What we found instead was plenty of down time. Hunter and I had both brought our bouldering shoes, so we’d take a bus out to Malibu beach and do some bouldering on the house-sized rock there. We’d take a bus or ferry across the bay to downtown and eat dinner or go to a movie. We went surfing a few times and went on plenty of hikes around Manley and Bondi beach.

Near the famous shell-shaped opera house is the Royal Botanical Gardens. After meandering through it one day, we bumped into the Art Gallery of New South Wales

I am always surprised by what I take away from such places packed with beauty, history, and creativity. My favorite was an exhibition of Japanese art. I’m a sucker for the placards next to each piece. Where else would I learn that the Japanese see in the ephemeral beauty of cherry blossoms the transience of all life. 

One phrase in particular has stuck with me: mono no aware.

We were staying with the Walmsleys at the time, and lucky for me, Yuriko Walmsley could translate the words. She said they were archaic, no longer used. They meant “the sadness of things.”

Mono no aware imprinted in my memory because I have seen it in my father’s eyes. I have heard coyotes sing it in their dirges to the moon. Even in moments of exuberant joy, it stands in the corner and follows our laughter with a hint of regret. Nothing stays the same. We are but a vapor. We are sound and fury.

Like water, sadness runs through everything.  
I ran across a lovely letter written by the poet Franz Wright the other day. He was commenting on a poem my friend Anna Laura wrote and posted on her blog.

He wrote:

Haven’t we completely misunderstood the true nature of happiness? I am not even sure I understand these terms anyone: sadness, happiness! I mean this literally, even though I would like to be happy as much as anyone else. But happiness can clearly not be expected to last or remain the same, anymore than this life of ours can. I am not even sure I can tell the difference between happiness and sadness anymore! There are moments of sadness and loneliness when I love my life every bit as intensely as I do during moments of great joy.

Just some 3:30 a.m. thoughts. There is a sadness in your words, but this seems to give them a kind of poignancy and beauty that I respond to and recognize.Maybe we just need to give up all thought or intention of attempting to control these things-it is so obvious that that is impossible!-and just allow ourselves to be carried, or guided, without bitterness, with trust? I don’t know, but this is how it seems to me at the moment.

When I read his words, I thought, mono no aware. The sadness of things. John Keats wanted “Here lies one whose name was writ in water” on his tombstone. The sadness of things. A wife and her baby killed by a drunk driver. The sadness of things. Our loves lost, our fears realized, our dreams trampled, our families splintered—the sadness of things.

Each morning when I arise, if I will continue to breathe and move in this sad, beautiful, broken world, I must continue to believe that God has written my name and yours on the palm of his hand.

One Response to “mono no aware”

  1. benji Says:

    I’ve never forgotten that phrase either. I think of it often since I see a lot of Japanese art in Seattle.

    In the beginning of Jarmusch’s ‘Down By Law’ Roberto wanders the streets of New Orleans discovering “It is a sad and beautiful world.” His particular phrasing of this is, to me, ambiguous. Is the filmmaker saying “sad and beautiful” as a juxtaposition of two contrary properties or is there a relationship between them? Is there beauty in sadness (which is how I interpret ‘mono no aware’) or sadness in beauty (which Wallace Stephens wrote about)?

    I’m still working through these ideas in my life. Sometimes I find sadness and beauty enabling, other times paralyzing. For the most part sad art/film/stories suit my aesthetic tastes but the art or films I make or the stories I tell are usually happy. I guess happiness and sadness mirror the mysteriousness of God: we’re acquainted with these concepts without understanding them.

    On a lighter note, there is very little sadness in a sushi train or a ferry ride from Manly Wharf. G’Day, and No Worries.

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