Mono no aware

Last Wednesday morning I went to the market. On that first day of fall, the market was a symphony of tomatoes, apples, eggplants, zucchini, chrysanthemums, basil and broccoli. As always, it was a feast for my senses and I was filled with gratitude, as I am each week, at my good fortune of living near Montreal's famous Marche Jean Talon.

I spent the afternoon in the kitchen, and didn't even mind doing so. As long as the frequency isn't more than once a week, I'm ok working for a couple extra hours (on top of my usual kitchen duties); chopping, saucing, freezing, drying, or whatever else needs to be done to make best use of that week's market haul.

I don't purposely buy produce to "process, put up, or put by". (Say that fast five times.) But I can't seem to help myself in the presence all that seasonal beauty. In my enthusiasm I over-buy and then I must deal with it.

Case in point, my kids aren't wild about eggplants, and I know this from years of experience, but I couldn't resist their luscious purple beauty at the market, so eggplant un-parmesan was on the menu. From-scratch tomato sauce bubbled, sliced apples went in the fridge for Thursday morning apple crisp breakfast, wild blueberries were drying in the dehydrator. It was that kind of afternoon.

September was unrelentingly beautiful. A tad warm if you ask me (no one has) but impossible to complain about when day after day we were graced with cerulean skies.

But the earth turns regardless. And though the days were clear, sunny and warm they were, they are, shortening. At 6:00 o'clock the sun sinks behind the horizon of three story walk-ups and maple trees in our neighborhood. The sky is still light, but in what seems an instant, that golden glow of slanted late afternoon sun is gone from the day.

It is my favorite time for photography.

Eggplant in the oven, tomato-crusted pots and pans stacked in the sink, I grabbed the camera from my desk, and ran to the community garden (called un jardin pour tous/a garden for all).

But I missed it. As I was layering the casserole, in a hurry if you must know, I kept thinking I'm going to miss it. This light will be gone by the time I get to the garden. And it was.

The weather held for a few more days and I returned to the garden later in the week. No rush this time. No eggplant, except the un-touched leftovers in the fridge.

It is that time of year, the season of mono no aware.

Mono no aware is a Japanese term. I am not a student of Japanese, the language or the culture, and I feel inadequate talking about something that I can't claim as my own, culturally or linguistically; though I can definitely claim it as my own experientially. My Japanese friend, if he reads my blog, might call me out on my mis-interpretation of this idea, "nice try Renee, but actually, it's like this...". But he would never say that, he is far too polite.

According to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, mono no aware is the pathos of things, deriving from their transcience.

I'll admit, I don't quite grasp the concept of pathos. I can't define it in my own words. But transcience, oh my do I understand that. The wikipedia definition of mono no aware helps explain it.

Mono no aware is a sensitivity to ephemera.

Sit there for a moment.

A sensitivity to ephemera.

an awareness of impermanence, or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life.

Sigh.

I now have a phrase, an understanding, a ladder rung of an idea to define late summer/early autumn melancholy.

A few years ago I recognized this pattern of late summer melancholy in myself. (And wrote about here, here, here and here.)

I experience mono no aware most keenly in September and early October. It's not cherry blossoms that trigger for me this wistfulness and gentle sadness. It's the last cicadas and the drooping heads of spent sunflowers. It's the noticeably darker evenings and that golden glow of late afternoon. It's the first crisp days and red-tinged leaves.

It is exactly as wikipedia says: a transient gentle sadness at the passing of (summer) and that longer, deeper gentle sadness that this is the way of things.

The impermanence of summer's beauty, splendor, her majesty, is the story of us. That is the ache of course. We ache not just for a season, gone, we ache for us.

The renewal of the earth next spring, the birth of babies, the eventual redemption, permanence, of all things, all of these are so precious, anticipated, longed for, because we experience the ache of the passing, the impermanence, the transcience of things.

And there are some moments, seasons, that my awareness of this transcience is heightened, the veil thinned.

(Cue Landslide, by Fleetwood Mac.)

It is that time of year. A time for apples, eggplants (the kids are done with eggplants) and roasted tomato soup. A time to feel wistful and allow myself the gentle sadness of the passing of things.

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  • sue

    sue on Oct. 3, 2015, 9 p.m.

    Interesting. ...I feel this sadness/ heaviness every year too. It is conflicting for me as I love fall and the change it brings...the crisp air, beautiful hiking, the fall colours of the leaves. Yet I can barely stand to look at the pic of the dying sunflowers. I actually scrolled by it as quickly as I could.

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  • Chessa

    Chessa on Oct. 3, 2015, 9:54 p.m.

    William Gibson, one of my favorite authors, really captures this sentiment in some of his books (he's a science fiction writer and some say the godfather of the cyberpunk genre.  Seems a weird genre for this kind of thing, but really, what moves more quickly than technology?).  Heart-piercing beauty coupled with the wistful sadness of change and the passing away of things, time, people...it is such a hard concept to put into words, but I feel it, and I appreciate it so keenly.  

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    • renee

      renee on Oct. 3, 2015, 10:14 p.m.

      Chessa, I am familiar with William Gibson on a name-recognition basis only. Celine is reading Neuromancer right now (and Gibson is a Canadian author). Damien and Celine have talked about "godfather of cyberpunk" stuff in conversations we've had but nothing has been mentioned to me about the "Heart-piercing beauty coupled with the wistful sadness of change and the passing away of things, time, people" (my family doesn't speak that language).

      I had picked up this book for Celine to read  (she tells me it's really good) but I'm thinking I might want to read it myself, because I actually like to "revel" (does that make sense?) in mono no aware from time to time.

      In my original draft of this post I asked for mono no aware expression literature, art, music, movies, etc. recommends. But that part got edited out, and here you are recommending and referencing one anyone. Love how that happens.

      I hear you, it's a hard concept to put into words, all the big important stuff is, but I am trying more often these days to write about ideas that are difficult to put into words: philosophy, religion, faith, beauty, art, etc.. And I feel vulnerable doing so so I appreciate you adding your voice and nod to the conversation. 

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      • Chessa

        Chessa on Oct. 3, 2015, 11:31 p.m.

        Neuromancer is great - and it's been a while for me, I should re-read it!  My first William Gibson was Pattern Recognition and it's the one that has stuck with me the most - if I had to pick one to recommend to you, it would be that one.  One of the sequels to Neuromancer (either Count Zero or Mona Lisa Overdrive) has this one scene in it that still evokes mono no aware everytime I think of it.  Think ephemera + an artificial intelligence and its search for beauty and meaning.  Just, so haunting and beautiful and ultimately sad.  Beautiful longing.  Apparently I need to reread the lot! 

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  • Tonya

    Tonya on Oct. 3, 2015, 10:55 p.m.

    Hi Renee,

    I do know what you mean - as the leaves are turning, I sometimes wonder how many more seasons I will be here on earth to enjoy.  But then I do my best to remember to enjoy what is right before me at this moment.

    I also love Fleetwood Mac:)

    Love,

    Tonya 

    P.S.  We sold our home in northern Vermont and found a place in Maine:)

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  • Lisa Zahn

    Lisa Zahn on Oct. 4, 2015, 1:30 a.m.

    My kids becoming teens and me becoming middle-aged has made me very "mono no aware." What an interesting term, and one I'll think about to describe my oft-wistfulness at the passing of time now that I'm "older."

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  • Krista

    Krista on Oct. 4, 2015, 3:26 a.m.

    ~~a transient gentle sadness at the passing of (summer) and that longer, deeper gentle sadness that this is the way of things.

    Yup. I understand this well...and also work hard not to stay in this place.

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  • renee

    renee on Oct. 5, 2015, 11:15 a.m.

    After reading my post Celine sent me this link which explains seven Japanese aesthetics, or Biishiki, of which mono no aware (or just aware) is one. 

    reply

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