I found my soul in a thrift store.

Written by Cole Schafer


You hear stories of tribes killing some great beast and using every piece of the beast, from the hide to the loin to the organ to the marrow swimming through its bones.

This was my grandmother.

Her name was Mitsuko Ijima.

She grew up in Japan in a time when almost everyone was poor, a kind of poor she didn't just feel in her pockets but in her stomach, a kind of poor she only forgot when she'd hear planes race through the sky and she'd race these planes to shelters, scared of what they might drop.

She told me in the moments when her hunger became unbearable, feeling as though it was devouring itself, she'd climb atop the roof of a church in her neighborhood and she'd steal eggs from sparrows who'd nest there.

Sparrow eggs are small, like the birds that shit them out, and it took a great many to silence the grinding of stomach against self.

When you grow up in this way, food and goods feel less like an expectation and more like a gift and like the beast killed by the tribal people, everything is used and then used again and then again after that.

This behavior follows a person their entire life like a ghost and my grandmother was no exception.

The ghost followed her long after love carried her from Japan to the United States, long after her sparrow egg hunting days were behind her and she had the means to no longer live in this way.

When I knew her and grew to love her, deeply, as both a grandmother and a best friend, it was in her sixties and seventies.

She had this ongoing almost obsessive process of consolidating and repurposing, everything.

For example, she’d buy a gallon tub of ketchup from Sam’s Club. She’d bring it home and then portion the ketchup into smaller squeezable bottles and containers she had collected from previous goods before the ketchup.

She'd do this with everything: fabrics, sheets, old clothes, tools, bags, and shoelaces.

She didn’t know it. But, she embodied a Japanese philosophy called wabi-sabi (not to be confused with the tongue-blazing green paste, wasabi).

It’s a way of living in which one finds acceptance and beauty in the imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.

Because of this repurposing, very few things in my grandmother’s life were new.

I think the absence of this newness made room in her heart and her soul to love the people in her life deeper.

It took me until the age of twenty-six to get to a place where I could appreciate this idea of wabi-sabi, to let go of this universal American obsession with new, new, new.

I remember five, maybe six months back, I was looking at vehicles to buy because I had spent the previous year in Chicago and hadn't required one.

Everything I was looking at wasn't necessarily outside of my budget but much nicer than what I needed. It was here when I drove past a 1989 range rover for sale.

(I tell the story of the vehicle in this Instagram post.)

It was beaten to hell. Its paint was peeling. Its interior looked like a family of wolverines had been wintering in it. But, it ran and my god was it pretty in its own uniquely imperfect way. And, I just fell head over heels for it.

30-minutes later I owned the damn thing for a mere $8k and some change, a fraction of what I was going to pay for something newer and flashier.

To date, it’s one of the best purchases I’ve ever made.

This was my first introduction to what my grandmother had lived much of her life believing (without realizing)… wabi-sabi.

This philosophy has seeped its way into so much of my life and my purchasing decisions... 50% of what I wear these days was once worn by someone else and I own a home now that, while beautiful, was first built in the 1950s.

It wasn’t until recently that I started seeing the impact of wabi-sabi on my own happiness and my presence with the humans that I surround myself with...

As I've let go of keeping up with the newness of material goods, it's given me some room to appreciate things newness can't give... moments with people.

And, finally, I’ve noticed that when I find myself experiencing the wear and tear on myself that comes with living… I’m able to find beauty in it and give myself more grace.

I think when we expect our iphone to always sport a shine, we subconsciously begin to have the same expectation for ourselves.

I've been looking in the mirror and lines are forming on my forehead… wabi-sabi. I’m noticing the shadow that is the hair on my head that I keep trimmed close to the scalp out of insecurity is beginning to grow less dark... wabi-sabi.

This philosophy also helps us cope with death, realizing that while things can be used again and again, the bodies our souls inhabit get but one use.

My grandmother died a good while back.

It was right after a bowl of ice cream with my grandfather.

Something burst in her brain and she hit the floor like a dove that had decided it no longer wanted to fly.

Her fall shook the hearts of those who loved her and the strange gizmos and repurposed fabrics, sheets, clothes and tools that festooned her home like Christmas ornaments.

And, like the great beast killed by the tribes, not a moment, not a person, not a resource she came into contact with during her long and beautiful life ever went unused.

She loved this life and the people in it as if there weren't newer versions sitting pretty on the shelves somewhere.

This is wabi-sabi.

By Cole Schafer.