About Carolyn Asome

Posts by Carolyn Asome

The Beauty of Imperfection

Balancing stone disks

I never fail to be tickled by some Japanese expressions. To date, Irusu which means pretending to be out when someone knocks at your door or Shinrin-Yoku which means visiting a forest for relaxation and to improve your health or yup, quite literally, forest-bathing.

But possibly the one we are most familiar with is the Vogue-ish Wabi Sabi, the idea of finding beauty in imperfection. In the interiors world (which is where I spend most of my time when not trying to highjack Gill’s soapbox) Wabi Sabi has become very de nos jours. Broadly speaking it is everything that today’s mass produced, technology-sated culture is not. It is brocante markets instead of shiny new shopping malls, a cluster of bluebells over a dozen, cellophane wrapped red roses, authenticity not perfection, nature over anything clinical or sterile.

Wabi Sabi is to understand the tender, heart-soaring beauty of a misty grey April morning or the elegance of an abandoned, rotting shed. It celebrates cracks, crevices and all those other marks that time and weather imprint on something.

It speaks volumes too of the wisdom of the Ancient Japanese that they gave this idea a name (no prizes for guessing that there is no corresponding word in English). According to Japanese legend, a young man called Sen no Rikyu set out to learn the elaborate set of customs known as the “Way of the Tea2. He went to tea-master Takeeno Joo, who tested him by asking him to tend the garden. Rikyu cleaned up debris and raked ground until it was perfect and then examined the pristine garden. Before presenting his work to his master, he shook a cherry tree, causing a few flowers to spill randomly onto the ground. Rikyu then understood the fleetingness of perfection.

It’s a word that we could all use more of in our lives, along with the understanding that there is a beauty in things being imperfect, but most importantly in ourselves. Wabi, I have since discovered can also be used to describe a certain type of person. It is frequently used in conjunction with the phrase: “The joy of the little monk in his wind-torn robe”, and it refers to someone who is perfectly themselves and doesn’t crave to be or have anything else.

Sabi, meanwhile might be translated as “the bloom of time”, and talks to things that carry their years with grace, and of the marks of age and constant use that can amplify the beauty of an object such as the green  patina that is gradually acquired on a bronze statue.

Outside rarefied design circles, society hasn’t on the whole caught up with the idea of wabi sabi. We live in an age (sigh!) of photo-shopped everything, hatred of wrinkles, waist-lines or else faces that are pumped full of Botox.

Wabi-Sabi is also a rather powerful lesson in reminding us that we are part of nature’s cycle of growth and eventually decay. Through Wabi-Sabi we hopefully learn to embrace the glory and the beautiful (and inevitable) marks of the passing of time.

I’ve just returned from a week in Milan at Salone del Mobile, a best in show for the world’s design and furniture. Aside from the many objects, furniture, installations and ideas I got to see during the week, it was also a very fun glimpse (especially when you are nosy as I am)  into the private world of chic Milanese women and the way they live. For all their privilege and exquisite taste, two things struck me most. First of all, their faces were not pumped with filler or Botoxed to the max. There were laughter lines and much evidence (rightly or wrongly) of decades of sun worshipping. They exuded such joie de vivre in the way they laughed, ate, talked, gesticulated. Not for them the pinched, tugging at an outfit.

Their homes were not a checklist of design classics, the sort of show homes one sometimes finds in interior magazines but a paean to understated elegance, rammed with books and the sort of knick knacks that are hugely personal. They were clearly comfortable in embracing who they were, readily “bien dans sa peau” and in possession of such an alluring and infectious confidence. If I’m honest, damned sexy to boot too.

Something that has surprised me a lot is that getting older doesn’t mean getting rid of our individual traits but rather it heightens them. We do not all just become a generic older person – thank God. I love  that I am more myself that I have ever been. I am learning to accept my scars,  pigmentation and trying to find the grace to just embrace whatever it is that is around the corner.

One of the most dynamic women I met that week, fizzing with abundant energy was Uberta Zambeletti. Zambeletti told me, that like my mother, she was widowed when her child was born and yet, while fate had apparently dealt her a tragic set of cards, it had also taught her gratitude for what she did have and gave her the resilience to deal with life’s challenges. It was why she decided to call the concept fashion and lifestyle store she founded, Wait and See.

How to embrace wabi sabi? It takes a mind quiet enough to appreciate this strand of beauty, the courage not to fear bareness and a willingness to accept things as they are – without ornamentation. It also requires that we slow down and try to shift ourselves from doing to being. Look deeply for the details that give something character – be it on a chipped jug, your favourite item in your wardrobe, or some beautiful fabric.

You don’t have to understand why you’re drawn to it, but you do have to accept it as it is.

In Praise Of Elegance

Gymnast on beam silouette on pink background

A return to elegance was big news during couture week in Paris last summer. Nowhere was this more apparent than on the Dior catwalk where designer, Maria Grazia Chiuri appeared to give a two finger salute to the nauseating theatrics and bad taste selfies of Instagram. Opening the show was Ruth Bell, the face of Dior, wearing a midi length cape dress and beret, the first in a line of models dressed in fit’n’flare silhouettes in an exquisitely restrained palette of midnight black and blush nude shades.  ‘I wanted to make something that was so subtle you almost couldn’t see it on Instagram’ Grazia Chiuri told Lisa Armstrong at the Telegraph, after the show, ‘of course it has to be luxurious but it doesn’t need to be obvious’.

Elegance possibly wasn’t the first word that sprang to mind when I interviewed the 22 year old Bell the following morning – sitting before me with her shaven head, alabaster skin and the otherness of youth, dressed in an over-sized hoodie and thick cotton trousers from Virgil Normal in LA. The interview had been rescheduled three times; I was waiting for the diva of all divas.

Bell is not a classic beauty and yet everything about her – an unfailingly polite manner, a quiet self-assurance and professionalism, arriving five minutes before our 8 am interview despite working till 2 am the night before, being happy to start the interview on the communal stairs because the offices were late opening so that I wouldn’t miss my Eurostar – was elegance personified.

Elegance is such a loaded word, one that could probably do with a crack PR team to imbue it with any sort of relevance in 2019. It seems so impossibly quaint, so démodé, certainly nothing cool or anything to inspire to. And yet, and yet, through the prism of nine squares, where so much of the tone on Instagram is dominated by a nauseating strand of self-love, there’s a growing curiosity to explore something different. Well at I least I hope there is.

What is elegance?  Literally speaking it’s the clean dismount of a gymnast from the balance beam, the smooth playing motion of a cellist, the way a dress takes in your waist just so. Elegance is also the art of less, a sense of timelessness, a beauty that shows unusual effectiveness and simplicity. It is also frequently used as a standard of good taste, except I think we all know that elegance is so much more than that.

It is thoughtfulness and kindness rolled into one, it’s a white lie to save someone’s blushes, it’s the opposite of flaky, it is small gestures that people remember and taking the time to have meaningful every day exchanges – while buying a stamp as much as resisting the urge to put the phone down on your mother-in-law. It is listening, knowing when to hold back, Coco Chanel’s style maxim of refusal, it is seeing beyond the end of your nose, knowing when to shut up and basically being a better person. Call it manners if you like. In our selfie, self-obsessed society, there aren’t nearly enough manners to go round. And why we underestimate the importance of good manners to navigate day to day life is beyond baffling.

What else is elegance? It is respecting yourself too, because there’s some ground between martyrdom (NEVER elegant) and stating your boundaries and valuing yourself. Taking responsibility for yourself – eating and sleeping well, breathing, exercising, being fit and healthy so that you can live up to the many many roles you taken on  has always struck me as rather an elegant thing to do, an elegant way to be.

It’s not believing that the world revolves around you: remembering that there is nearly always a rational explanation as to why someone has been slow to reply to your email – an explanation that, more often than not, has nothing to do with you.

A stiff British upper lip isn’t fashionable currently, but there’s a lot to be applauded in “just getting on with it”, instead of constantly worrying how you are feeling. Or how happy you are. Ah, that subject of happiness. We’re so obsessed in trying to reach this unrealistic 24/7 state of eternal nirvana, that we’ve started to believe that our problems, schedules, anxieties and feelings are more important than everyone else’s. Stop it now.

Being a little bit mindful, slowing down or just taking the time to notice the world around you – other people’s behaviour and feelings – promotes a more elegant way of living. And like so much positive behaviour, being elegant is quite addictive once you start giving it any air time. One of my favourite nuggets of wisdom which I want to share again is the sage advice that the sex therapist, Esther Perel received from her father. Every time I read it, it makes me think of what is wrong with the world.

“The quality of your life ultimately depends on the quality of your relationships. Not on your achievements, not on how smart you are, not on how rich you are, but on the quality of your relationships, which are basically a reflection of your decency, your ability to think of others, your generosity…about how you treated the people around you, and how you made them feel.”

Having a strong sense of self, knowing your mind, being confident – of what sits with you and what doesn’t – is helpful too. Elegance is refusal. It is knowing when to say no and sticking to it.

Why We All Need To Be More Curious

Am I normal? written on a chalk board in different colours

“The real enemy is the man who tries to mould the human spirit so that it will not dare to spread its wings,” Abraham Flexner.

How good is your chat? Last month I wrote that it was our civic duty to one another to be interested and interesting. I was only half joking. And while no one wishes to be the dinner party bore, the person you owe it most in life to be curious, is yourself. Back in 1980 only 10% of graduate and diploma students were mature ones. By 2012, that figure was closer to 30%. Not that being curious necessarily means a return to formal education. Show me a life where you stop questioning the world around you and frankly, you might as well as be dead.

Curious people tend to be happier, enjoy higher levels of positive emotions, have lower levels of cortisol and celebrate life in the present. As if that wasn’t enough, curiosity also fuels our imagination, our creative work and encourages us to be more innovative. It can bring untold excitement, help us escape the hum drum of daily life and also promotes more meaningful day to day exchanges with everyone we encounter.

Studies have shown that curiosity improves our memory, helps to release more dopamine and makes you sleep more soundly. Being curious also encourages us to step out of our comfort zone, helps us to keep our minds more active and challenges the way we do things. In short, it keeps us on our toes, it also – and here’s another welcome health benefit – keeps us looking younger, behaving younger and moving with agility. That is a long list of things to love. And as with so much positive learnt behaviour, the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Of course for many of us, somewhere in the thick of middult-hood, we are too busy or run–ragged to be curious. Mumsnet founder, Justine Roberts was outraged a few years back when her husband suggested that she had no “hinterland.” In an interview with the Times, she said she nearly clubbed him over the head. Although as a mother of four, with a busy and demanding job, she wondered when she would ever find the time.

“But you move on, your life changes….with the benefit of hindsight, I wished I’d developed more of a hinterland. We fall into a trap where we do nothing but kids and work, or kids and domestics but it doesn’t all stop just because you’ve become a parent. You can still do interesting things and learn new skills.”  And so she set up the Mumsnet academy where the idea was that women could learn everything from how to start a business to the art of pasta making.

Sadly her enthusiasm for self-improvement or learning new skills didn’t quite catch on. Mumsnet found that many women were reluctant to spend time or money on widening their horizons, although therein lies a whole other rant about the importance of learning to put yourself first. Roll on seven years and a slew of vodcasts, podcasts, TED talks and sites such as theschooloflife.com are so readily available at our finger tips, that there’s little excuse.

Worrying that you’re not quite up to it to going back and study? I promise you, your zeal, dedication and sheer bloody mindedness (especially if this avenue is respite from a dead end job) will give you the edge over much younger peers. So too will the perspective of more life experience. There are other things to consider too, certainly points that I was never aware of at school which is that you need to incorporate failure as well as learn to enjoy the process. So much more fun that I had ever realised.

Fellow VH contributor, Jo Fairley wrote a brilliant feature some time ago about the website, masterclass.com where you can learn to cook with the California based chef and organic foods pioneer, Alice Waters, take creative writing tips from Margaret Atwood, or learn about photography with Vanity Fair’s Annie Liebovitz. The site recruits only the very best in their fields (truly a very starry line up) to produce beautifully filmed, instructive courses. At £170 for unlimited access, it works out at around £14 a month, the price of your Deliveroo. Just as compelling is Serena Williams on tennis, Frank Gehry on design and architecture or Dr. Jane Goodallon on the art of conversation.

As parents, we often wonder what we can teach our children, how we can best prepare them for later life. One of the most important lessons you can impress on them is that parents are still learning too– and screwing up often it should be noted! The buzz words at most schools these days include qualities like resilience, not so easy to teach in reality. I try to share examples of trying and failing with my elder two daughters and even, winging it and succeeding.

Hopefully they are beginning to see that it’s more important to be curious and for things to not pan out quite as they expected, than never to question anything at all. That it’s more important to learn something new than it is to look smart. Oh, and that there’s no shame in admitting that they don’t’ know something because we are all learning every day.

The landscape of work is changing too and curiosity along with an emotional agility are rather excellent tools at navigating this new world. Studies suggest our children might have as many as six careers in their lifetime- these qualities are going to be valued more than ever before.

And really, this is nothing new. As Lauren Laverne reminds us in an article celebrating learning in The Pool, the last words of Michaelangelo, artist, architect, poet and engineer, three weeks shy of his 89th birthday, were Ancora Imparo. Or, I’m still learning. Just wow.

Life Hacks For The Hamster Wheel And Why Good Is Good Enough

surreal image of clockworkings inside a lightbulb with a person walking inside

Clearly you don’t need me reminding you there are only 28 something days left to Christmas, possibly fewer if you’ve been slow to click onto Gill’s December opus.

As we emerge hazy eyed (and far poorer) from the ashes of Black Friday, it’s easy to lose perspective in the demented, alcohol addled run up to Christmas. That ginormous schmaltzfest where standards of perfection (of the Richard Curtis, gently falling snow – the sort that never clogs up the M25 – variety) are nigh on impossible to ever live up to. The end of year is also a time of mass reflection. The sudden self-flagellation that we haven’t achieved quite as much as we’d set out to.

And yet, sometimes it feels even managing the everyday hamster wheel is ball-ache enough. Throw in a young family, ten loads of extra laundry, the endless sorting out of sports kit and midnight sessions foraging through the recycling bins for suitable cereal boxes from which to make a rocket out of, and it’s a wonder that any of us are actually still standing.

Now might not be the time to ponder whether you really can have it all (personally I think you can although how you define ‘”all” obviously has a lot to do it with). I shall focus instead on my children’s school’s current mantra of good being, well good enough. It’s a two fingers salute to the pursuit of perfectionism (as well as presumably managing the expectations of a legion of pushy middle class parents). Earlier this year, an assembly hall of parents were shown the attached YouTube video. There was plenty of tacit nodding, a few (silent) tears, as well as me getting the giggles. Especially when it came to the sex bit. Watch it and find out for yourself.

Good enough being good enough was an approach pioneered by a British psychoanalyst called Donald Winnicott in the 1950s. Winnicott specialised in relationships between parents and children and in his clinical practice, he often met with parents who felt like failures: perhaps because their children hadn’t go into the best schools, or because they argued at the dinner table or their house wasn’t always completely tidy (plus ca change).  No child he insisted needed an ideal parent. They needed an okay, pretty decent, usually well-intentioned, perhaps a little grumpy but basically reasonable father or mother.

Winnicott wasn’t saying this because he liked to settle for second best but because he had learnt first-hand the toll exacted by perfectionism and realised that in order to remain more or less sane (which is a pretty big ask anyway), we have to learn not to hate ourselves for failing to be what no ordinary human being ever really is anyway.

It takes a good deal of bravery and skill to keep even a very ordinary life going. To navigate the challenges of relationships, marriages, work and children is quietly heroic. The point is, most of us can’t get off the hamster wheel for a myriad of reasons which involves mortgages and putting food on the table but turning into the world’s busiest person or a moaning martyr isn’t the answer either. My hamster wheels life hacks to help me get to the end of the day smiling include the following in no particular order.

Reminding myself that tidying is for losers

It’s all very well having floors and surfaces that you could eat off (nope, definitely not in this house) but there’s no point in being the tidiest person in Britain if you are also the dullest, so overwhelmed are you by your endless to-clean list . Stop talking about how much drudge you have to do each day (have you noticed everyone’s eyes glazing over??) and start channelling that energy into convincing your partner to split things more equally if you don’t do so already or finding something interesting to talk about which leads me neatly onto my next point.

Your civic duty to be interested and interesting

Counter intuitive this may feel but bear with me. Even as someone with little ‘give’ in the work/mum juggling act, I try very hard to find time to do things that make me curious. That ray of escapism is never more important than when life is a never ending treadmill. Doing or seeing something that makes your soul soar, will refresh and energise you in ways you can’t imagine. You will return to the task in hand with Herculean amounts of vava-voomness. As someone wise once said, keeping the spark in your relationship is important but not nearly as important as keeping the spark in yourself.

The great outdoors, or even just stepping out your front door

Go outside, stop, really look and listen. Notice the colours, the sky, the stillness, the damp, the mist, the changing of seasons. Think about what it really means to be alive. I promise I am not going God-y on you but life really is there for the living and how we choose to live it is ENTIRELY up to us.  Days when I make the effort to do all of this just go so much better.

Zero inboxes

A zero inbox is such a fake metric. Accept that your to-do list is never really going to go away. Actually, now might be the time to be thankful that you have a to-do list.

My daily bath

Run a bath, the world looks so much better from the inside of my bath, preferably with Gill’s Atlantic Seaweed in it (fabulous for anyone who suffers from bouts of insomnia, dry skin or who just wants a bit of cocooning). There is always time to have a bath. Always.