I”m not necessarily talking about me or the state of health care for the elderly in the US. One of the subjects that calls to me is how some things age with character. Aging well is of interest to me personally and as a photographic study.
A couple of weeks ago I used “Not all who wander are lost” as a theme. This is from a J.R.R. Tolkien novel The Fellowship of the Ring. This time I want to focus on another line from that poem: “The old that is strong does not wither”.
Discard after use
The US is a “use and discard” society. This is as true of people as it is of paper plates. (Try getting a job if you’re over 50). That is a shame and a moral dilemma to consider another day. What I want to talk about here is our short sighted view that things have to be shiny and new or they have little value.
It used to be that many things were designed to last a long time. Designers were not sophisticated enough to create things to be cheap and only last for a short time. Most people only had 1 or 2 sets of clothes. They wore them until they wore out, then salvaged what they could to make other things. Cars may not have been very reliable, but mechanically they lasted a long time. A set of plates was made to hand down to generations to come.
No, I have not become consumed with nostalgia for the “good old days”. We are living in the best times as far as goods being reliable and affordable for more people.
I’m a designer. When I come across something that is designed well I’m impressed and I have respect for the designer. Many times these kind of things are aging well, too.
It’s hard not to go all “Zen Buddha” on this topic. I will touch very briefly on the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi. Briefly because this is a very deep and rich subject that requires much more time and space to develop. Also brief because after a lot of reading on the subject, I am barely scratching the surface.
The concepts of Wabi-Sabi don’t translate to Western languages very well. At a simple level, it is concerned with the acceptance of transience and imperfection. Rather than throwing away a cracked pot, they might fill the cracks with gold to emphasize the beauty of the imperfection of the object. A simple pottery cup used in a tea ceremony may be chipped and stained from long use, but that makes it beautiful and unique in their view. At many levels this is beautiful and healthy.
But I’m not Japanese or Zen. I appreciate the depth of some of this philosophy, but how can I use it in my everyday work?
As I get older (I’m already older than dirt) I appreciate things that have stood up to the passage of time with a certain elegance and, maybe, defiance. Some thing seem to have more character than our typical modern discardable products. And these same overcomers seem to develop more character as they age.
It seems that most of the admirable things I encounter are mechanical or works of Civil Engineering. Our modern technical products seldom age well and haven’t had a chance to age very long. But take a Detroit vehicle, say from the 1940’s to 1960’s. These are still there, defying the weather and elements, still holding their shape, and it’s a shape that has style and personality.
I think, for me, that idea of these objects shaking their fist at time and proclaiming “I’m still standing” is very encouraging. Yes, they may be all rusty. Their glass and seats are cracked. The engine doesn’t run anymore. But the product the designer created is still there. The thing that people created out of steel and rubber and paint and leather is still recognizable. It is still pretty sound. You have to think that some scraping and polishing and paint would restore it to it’s glory. Indeed, some people make a living buying these old survivors and restoring them.
Badge of honor
Even if it will never be restored, never run again, it is still there in evidence. It resists the passage of time. It rusts, but that adds a new certificate of accomplishment to it. The cracked glass can take on a new beauty. It acquires a grace that is only paid for through years of weathering.
These things call to me. I like to stop and acknowledge them by making a portrait of them. I want to remember them and be encouraged by them. These things are not just a rusted heap of scrap metal. They have acquired a character that few objects achieve. They are treasures. The designers who created them are probably long gone, but their work still give testimony to their accomplishments.
I hope to weather well. I hope people will look at me and admire that I am still defying time: He is old and scarred but still there. He may be cracked and rusty, but it has a certain grace to it, too. Time changes everything and always wins in the end. I am encouraged by things that pass gracefully into time.