Tuesday, December 29, 2009
The scents and sounds were familiar. In the kitchen, my mom stood over a stir-fry sizzling on the stovetop, and I breathed in an aromatic swirl of ginger, garlic, and fish sauce. I was back at the home where I grew up, and I fell easily into a rhythm of being I've adopted since returning to visit yearly during the holidays. It was a state of being that was unique. For the time being, I abdicated many adult responsibilities, leaving the workplace behind. Yet, I was not truly on vacation, not in that state of carefree leisure that you would call being on vacation.
I certainly had hours of leisure at hand, unrushed moments to read the book I had brought from home and to catch up with an old friend who still lives in town. And I did readily settle into the well-worn routines that required no effort on my part. It's as if an imprint made by me from a year ago -when I lounged and read on the couch in the family room- were still there, and all I had to do was fall back into this mold, arrange myself neatly with a book, and pick up the thread of my existence from the year past. It seemed a little too easy.
I was surrounded by the past, and I bumped into objects and memories that invited introspection. There was my old Jane Eyre paperback, its binding falling apart, gallantly flanked by two sturdy hardcovers (on WWII tactics that my dad had acquired more recently), collecting dust over the years on the creaky bookshelf in my old bedroom. Jane Eyre was my mom's favorite novel growing up, and when she told me this years ago, my flickering intention to read it grew. I wanted then to peruse the same words that had moved her and share experiences with her across time.
I still have the desire to share experiences with my parents, and so over the holidays, I made matcha for my tea-drinking dad. Each morning, with the chasen (wooden whisk) I had packed from home, I would brew three large bowls of matcha in my parent's kitchen. E and my dad sat at the kitchen table talking while the sun streamed into the large window as I brought out the bowls, their pillars of steam rising. The three of us sipped from our bowls, my dad initially tentative, not knowing what to expect from this dark green liquid in front of him.
It was a fitting convergence: a ritual that E and I shared, transplanted to my old home, transmuted slightly to include my dad. A ritual of preparing and drinking tea that I adopted in adulthood, one that is woven into my current life. Now, in the home where I grew up, my dad drank matcha for the first time, partaking in a ritual that is a part of my life.
Saturday, December 19, 2009
I've been thinking about inspiration, that kernel in which serendipity seems to reside. What does it mean to say that one is inspired? Is it more than the strong prickles that you may feel when watching, say, an especially heart-warming story on Oprah? You can be moved by that narrative of resilience on TV. It could even motivate you to consider making changes in your own life. The phrase I'm inspired by her story may come into play here, but isn't it more apt to say that I'm moved by her story?
True inspiration is original in its birth. The inspired idea may be one that has already been bandied about by others countless times. It may not be an original thought in its content, but in its inception, there is originality -an autonomous movement has occured. There is that eureka moment when a germ of an idea flickers and you try to capture it in its purest state. The outlines are fuzzy, but the kernel pulses and you peer at it intently lest it should vanish. Once you have the kernel fully in your grasp, you nurture it, and it grows into something largely fulfilling.
I think about preparing the fertile ground on which I could harvest those eureka moments. A substrate that can gently foster creativity.
I prepare tea for E and me in the late morning, a yellow tea, smooth and honeyed in its flavor. A tea relatively new to me, but one I have had enough times so that I can rely on the unfolding of familiar sensations as I prepare and drink it. But each time I prepare the tea, there are enough differences to pique the imagination.
A bowlful of cranberries in the half-shade.
Teacups that may topple. The cranberries will later burble on the stovetop as I stir the simmering sauce.
Monday, December 14, 2009
Overnight, the thaw brought changes: unbroken patches of snow were now porous jigsaw puzzles tufted with grass. I walked to work in the late morning while the sunlight was soft, filtering through a scrim of haze. I passed a chorus of chirps emerging from a dense bank of evergreens, a cabal of birds, happy in their secrecy.
The sting of cold on my face of the last several days was now replaced by a cool balm as I made that short walk to the hospital. Recent arctic weather had jarred with its abrupt appearance. It jangled with habits formed thus far in the season - of my careless throwing on a woolly scarf and a middling-warm jacket, outdoors attire too breezy for the weather at hand.
I was chastened into donning my thick down-filled coat, and I wound my scarf a bit more snugly, the obligatory dapper knot secured at the chin.
But this morning, the swaddling proved unnecessary, and I arrived at the hospital flushed, in an incongruous bundle.
My patient lay in bed, recovering from an early morning procedure. She looked weary but strands of her hair were still perfectly in place. She was starving from the overnight fast required by the procedure and was now craving a big piece of prime rib - an indication to me that she was on the mend. She would be going home later that day as the results of her test were benign. We need to make some changes in your medications, I told her, to prevent the problem from recurring. She nodded with understanding, and I proceeded to make the necessary arrangements for her going home.
At home, I sat down to cups of sencha. There was the first infusion with its bold and less nuanced flavors, while the second infusion warmed me with its sweet, steady notes. A box of clementines was almost empty, and I took out the last few to have with my tea. The trim clementines, poetic in name and eminently functional in size, graced our kitchen at this time of the year. We'd eat a bowlful at a time and feel virtuous as we avoided dipping into the bag of unctuously sweet peanut brittle nearby.
A splash of orange, an intimation of a warmer season, relieves us from the tedium of the hardy staples of fall and winter. For the time being, I bit into a clementine and forgot about cabbage salads and thick butternut squash soups.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
The parsley turned out to be the hardiest of my herbs this year. Despite my spotty watering of our plants, the herb thrived in a whiskey barrel outside our kitchen window. Shoots of parsley grew and grew, usurping the tidy space occupied by the lackluster tarragon, the latter seemingly sapped of its aromatic vigor and yielding a pallid version of itself.
As the temperature dipped, the parsley remained upright, green, and abundant. Other herbs wilted, progressively divested of their green raiment.
With the first frost, I walked outside to see the parsley plantings slumped over. Prostrated on the damp earth, its stems slack but the leaflets still deep green, it looked mildly defeated.
The snowfall overnight blanketed the remnants of my herb garden with white so that only a lone twig, peeling of its bark, could be seen poking out from the snow.
A full year has elapsed since I started this blog. It was done on a whimsy at the end of a long work day when I procrastinated leaving the office to avoid unearthing my car from the piles of snow that had accumulated around it. The snow was falling in sheets, occasionally pelting my office window with loud splotches that melted on impact.
Inside, I sat at my computer and discovered the world of tea blogs. Some (here and here) captivated me with glimpses of a world that was gentle and tea-filled.
Tea, similarly, has permeated my life, I thought. Not just the concrete acts of choosing, preparing, sharing, and drinking tea. It was more than that; tea, whether experienced in solitude or with others, has informed my view of life, one that is more gentle and compassionate.
On that wintry day a year ago, I wanted to be able to express those sentiments for myself and perhaps share them with others. So I started this blog -overcoming my Luddite tendencies in the process- trying to sketch tea-filled moments in my own life. It hasn't always been an easy endeavor: for though it may be relatively simple to catalogue the teas that I have drank, it is something entirely different to capture the interiority of my tea experiences and share them with you.
But writing has buoyed me and I'm grateful for my little corner in the blogosphere.
Happy Anniversary, Tea Musings.
Thursday, December 3, 2009
There are still splashes of red amidst the slow dunning of the world. Bright red berries dangle from leafless limbs and tantalize with a promise of wintry bounty. Colors more muted -soft yellows, pale greens, blanched reds- line the river, the weeping willows overhead and their fallen leaves on the grass.
E and I walked on a sea of these finely-shaped fronds, a thin cushion over damp grass, mushy from a recent rainfall. A river walkway on the other side of town, one not in our repertory of weekend walks. But over last weekend, we decided to veer from habit, exchanging one riparian walkway -one on our side of town- for another.
Our walks on well-known paths are sheathed in the warm mantle of familiarity. The pleasure of predictable sensations as I see that particular tree rustle its few leaves; the anticipation I feel emerging from the dimness of a culvert, then climbing a path that opens onto a magnificent vista of a snaking river.
New vistas unfolded themselves to me over the weekend. A glimpse of a passenger train on its way to the Pacific Northwest, its attendant chug-chug reverberating across fields and river.
We emerged from the valley of the river onto the winding streets of a small town, peering into its shops, many closed as it was Sunday. I had a cup of chai at the Starbucks (a shameful admission, I know) on a hilltop and watched the sun set through the window.
At home, I brewed a new green tea given to me by my friend and colleague, L. He brought it back from the mountainous town of Da Lat on his recent trip to Vietnam. He had seen tea plantations abut coffee plantations in this area, known for its proficiency in cultivating both.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
I have a fondness for college towns. Ivory-covered Georgian brick, they breed nostalgia for my college days. It's especially so, at this time of the year, when light so peculiar to late fall evenings permeates all with its magical blush.
Over the weekend, E and I took long strolls through Evanston, and I was in my element. The ambling pace of the town - students wrapped in scarves on bikes weaving around us, graying professor-types with abstracted looks passing by - was a counterpoint to the jostle and blare of nearby Chicago.
We stopped in at Dream about Tea, a Chinese tea house on a street still garnished with fall colors. Inside was a sunny space with neat rows of square wooden tabletops. The proprietor smiled broadly at us behind the counter while I contained my glee as I looked around. Large jars of green Chinese tea lined the countertop although a smattering of blacks, oolongs, pu-erhs, Japanese greens, and whites were present as well. I was giddy as I tried to decide on my first cup of tea.
Caffeine-neediness trumping common sense, I chose a 1st flush Darjeeling over a Chinese green while in a Chinese tea house. The gracious owner brewed my tea in a sturdy glass mug, neatly scooping tea leaves and placing them - without the intermediary of an infuser- directly onto the bottom of the cup. He then poured the hot water over my tea and handed the cup over to me.
E, himself, decided on a Chinese green, the "house" selection. We settled into a shady corner with our cups and waited for our tea to brew. Sunlight dappled on nearby tables, and potted greenery lined the front window, a lushness not echoed by the scrawny, leafless tree outside.
I watched the leaves on the bottom of my cup unfurl into tan filaments and I took my first sip. The Darjeeling was bracing as I had hoped, its dark briskness rousing me from late-morning sleepiness. I continued to drink my tea, the liquor deepening its shade, becoming bitter as I neared the stratum on which the leaves rested - a gentle nudge for me to a have another cup of tea.
Counter to the palate of a proper tea drinker, I chose a Chinese green just after having had a cup of a black tea (custom and perhaps intuition suggest that you should begin a tea tasting with a mild tea like a white or a green. Then you progress to stronger, oxidized ones like oolongs, blacks, pu-erhs). I committed a heterodoxy, indeed.
My host recommended a green, new to me, the Xin Yang Mao Jiang (Fur Tip) from Henan Province. This tea originally belonged to the class of "Famous Teas" of imperial China, a tea befitting emperors, presented to them as tributes.
I watched the needle-shaped leaves unfold their ragged edges in the misty green of the liquor. With my first sip, I tasted the briny notes of steamed leaves. With the second infusion, a sweeter accent emerged, lingering with me, warmed as I was by the meandering sunlight.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
On my walks each morning, I look for changes in the leaves. On the ground, there are ones with crinkled edges, snapping into bits in my hand. Those still clinging to trees and low-lying shrubs have dark circles of blight, flaunting their badges of senescence. These pocked-leaves curtsy as I walk by.
I wake up in the dim light of morning, and each day seems to start out the same - rituals enfolded into neat seams. The brushing of teeth to plaintive feline cries for food, the trudging downstairs accompanied by gallumphing of many paws. Predictable little details that vary minutely day to day. A beam of sunlight dapples aslant on the bedcovers one morning; the next day, I see mere slivers of sun creeping into the bedroom .
The morning tea before work is habitually Keemun, my most muscular of the day. I brew it strong to coax out its briskness, its round cacao flavor. The tea wakes up my palate, blunted by sleep and a too-sweet breakfast. I pour the tea into my Thermos for the short drive to work.
I sip the tea while snug in the car. A slight bitterness of taste may jolt me with disappointment. On another day, Keemun's dark, full notes play themselves delightfully on my palate and I wonder then if it was that extra flick of tea leaves settling in the infuser that gives my tea its piquant nature.
Over time, I have learned the amount of tea leaves that would yield a cup of tea pleasing to my taste, and I have often abided by that knowledge (even if it means dissenting with written instructions). But I'm not always constant, and so I veer from well-trod methods. Those few extra seconds of brewing, while I watch the deepening red of the liquor, will yield a cup unlike any from the past.
On a recent morning, hurly-burly with tardiness, I made off with lukewarm and bitter tea. Stanching an impulse to empty it out the car window, I sipped and grimaced. I took in drafts of cold air, teasing out the sweeter notes of Keemun, hardly lost in my haste.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
It was nearing dusk when we saw the starlings. A sight that transfixed us as we stood staring at the sky during the ensuing minutes. The birds were mere specks high above as they assembled into a giant formation, swooping through the darkening sky in harmonious flight. They made a bowl-shaped arc, seeming to pulse with one mind. Finally, they alighted in a nearby grove where trees were thinned of their leaves. Soon, I heard a symphony of chirps coming from the flickering treetops.
Later on, we learned that the starlings have been performing their curious dance daily now for the last several weeks. They enact their rite always in the same city park, at the same time of day, and noone can account for why they do it.
I marvel at them - they perform gestures that are unexplained and novel to me. However, these have an embedded logic and import I have yet to discover.
Days later, I found myself saddled with more cranberries than I needed for baking purposes. I had overzealously bought several bags, my grand plan of churning out cranberry-inflected cakes stymied by a crazy work-week. Undaunted, I turned to a dish novel to me -one that would take mere minutes to whip up: cranberry sauce, that most seasonal and American of side dishes.
I did not grow up in a household where a glossy turkey and its attendant trimmings and side dishes awaited us on Thanksgiving Day. Our holiday instead was a patchwork of cultural ideas: a plate heaping with spring rolls beside a pitcher of Kool-Aid, tingling red lobster meat abutting a platter of stir-fried baby bok choy.
Now, I stirred the bubbling sauce, bursting with cranberries and watched the bits of lemon peel fleck the bright redness. I thought of countless cooks doing the same over the years, harried in their kitchens this time in the season, fretting over their Thanksgiving menus. I felt a thin thread linking us across time and space.
While the pot simmered, I prepared tea, Teavana's Copper Knot Hongcha (black tea), one given to me by my visiting cousin, Q, and his girlfriend, K.
The dry leaves were indeed little kinks of interlacing black and gray, brewing up a startling ruby-red liquor. I watched the steam loopily swirl upwards as the color darkened.
The cranberry sauce cooled on the stove into a scarlet sea studded with ruptured globules. On a toasted half of an English muffin, I thickly smeared some of the sauce.
I sat down to tea and sipped from my cup. The taste of the black tea was mildly brisk, faintly smoky, and pleasant with a note of caramel. I bit into the porous muffin, puckering a bit at the invigorating tartness.
12-18 oz cranberries
1 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
Zest from 1 lemon
Juice from 1 lemon
On your stovetop, place all the above ingredients into a saucepan. Turn heat to high and wait until the mixture reaches boiling point. Then turn down the heat and simmer the sauce for 8-10 minutes, stirring frequently.
Cool sauce before serving.
Saturday, November 7, 2009
I've been thinking about rituals, those cornerstones of everyday life. Perhaps the recent passing of that great anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, started me on this trajectory. Unlike those which he studied, the little rituals that inhabit my day are pretty banal, westernized, and cossetted. They're not little-understood practices performed in far-flung places in need of rigorous deconstruction by social scientists. There's no need to coax from my time-worn habits a universal principle. More personal in their intentions, my rituals provide a comforting ballast to the unpredictable inherent in each day.
Preparing tea in the morning is one of these rituals. I got up late this weekend, waking to unseasonable warmth, the balmiest of weather. I opened the windows and heard the rustle of a breeze and the crunch of dry leaves on pavement. A ladybug appeared, its spindly legs twitchy, sidling across the window screen. Swadled in a wool sweater - my autumnal wear thrown on through force of habit- I watched the cats bound onto the window ledge. Rustles and scents from the outside world attracted their attention and their nostrils flared avidly, pressed to the screen.
While the kettle rumbled, I culled oats and spices together for a batch of granola. The familiar movements of delving into the pantry for little spice jars and reaching on high for the largest of the nesting bowls seemed somehow necessary. It was as if I could not start my already late morning in earnest without performing these rites.
The kettle's roiling came to a halt as I tried to stave off hunger by finishing off a quarter of a cantaloupe. Now I was ready for my morning tea. I pulled out one new to me, Rishi's Organic Ancient Yellow Sprouts, a yellow tea from Yunnan Province. Yellow teas are quite rare, unique in taste, their nature poised somewhere between those of white teas and green teas.
The dry leaves were long and grayish-green with ragged edges. I placed a tablespoon of the crinkly leaves into the glass infuser filled with hot water and watched them unfurl into recognizable leaf-like forms, delicately veined. The liquor was decisively golden and the first taste, a delight: a honey-smooth flavor evoking a springtime orchard when mild floral aromas have yet to blossom into the cloying overripess of the late fruiting season.
The taste of my tea held no astringency nor grassiness. Without being bland, it is even-natured, slipping with ease into the balminess of my day.
Sunday, November 1, 2009
I am not a morning person but I wish I were one. My friend, K, calls this desire morning-person envy, one that we shared over a late breakfast one weekend.
I often wonder how it feels to wake up each morning with abundant spryness. Instead, I flail at the alarm button as it goes off and fitfully tug at the bedsheets over my head to prolong my sleep a few more minutes. Later in the kitchen, I gulp down my breakfast, keeping one eye on the clock while I brew my tea abstractedly. And when I finally leave the house for work, I am a harried bundle of trailing scarf, cradling a much-needed thermos of scalding tea.
On rare occasions, I do manage to drink my first cup of tea in the unhurried light of the early morning, steeping myself in its languid pace before leaving for work. The kitchen is bathed in a soft light. The cats, worn-out from their nocturnal tussle with a fuzzy ball, are asleep in an entwined heap. Their even breathing, the creaks and starts of our old house - the house settling, E would point out to me when these unaccountable noises appear- only accentuate the deep silence. I feel light, unencumbered by the constraints of time, and I banish the kitchen timepiece to a corner.
I catch a rare glimpse of this state when with unhabitual foresight I go to bed early enough to rise with ease the next morning. But my memory can be willfully selective, and during the bustle of my late nights, I forget how much I cling to my sleep.
This morning was an exception. I woke up to a glimmer of light from the window. Shivering a bit, I looked outside: fallen leaves, illumined by moonlight, covered the sidewalk and yards. The bare boughs were starkly lit and grazed the misted windowpanes. Daylight had not claimed the scene and I hurried to get outside before it did.
I took a long walk, solitary in the near darkness. With the encroaching sunlight, a few figures quietly appeared, some still in their bathrobes and slippers, their dogs in tow.
On my way home, I picked from among the fallen leaves several brightly colored ones - outnumbered by their dun-colored counterparts this deep into the fall season.
At home, I brewed a pot of sencha. What remained of a cranberry lemon cake from yesterday rested on the kitchen counter. I cut a slice for myself and tasted the bracing tartness of fresh cranberries.
Recipe for Cranberry Lemon Cake
(adapted from a recipe by Dorie Greenspan)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
pinch of salt
3/4 cup sugar
grated zest of one lemon and juice of 1/2 lemon
1 cup fat free yogurt
3 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups cranberries
Getting ready: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Generously butter an 8 1/2-x-4 1/2-inch loaf pan, place the pan on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt and keep near by.
1. Put the sugar and zest in a medium bowl and rub the ingredients together until the sugar is fragrant. Add the lemon juice and whisk in the yogurt, eggs and vanilla. When the mixture is well blended, gently whisk in the dry ingredients. Switch to a spatula and fold in the oil. The batter will be thick and shiny. Scrape it into the pan and smooth the top. Add the cranberries to the batter.
2. Bake the cake for 50 to 55 minutes, or until it is golden and starts to come away from the sides of the pan; a knife inserted into the center of the cake will come out clean. Cool on a rack for 5 minutes, then run a knife between the cake and the sides of the pan. Unmold and cool to room temperature right-side up.
Storing: You can keep the cake at room temperature for at least 4 days or freeze it for up to 2 months
Saturday, October 24, 2009
I drive to work each morning flanked by lines of trees on each side. They seem to march onward with me, my companions along for the ride. A maple, bearing more brilliant leaves than his laggard brethren, draws my attention. In the suffused morning light, the colors are otherwordly, and the scene takes my breath away.
The heralds of fall are everywhere. There are the poetic ones: leaves saturated with colors or ripe apples on arched boughs. And then there is the comical autumnal announcement: a billboard on an interstate highway proclaiming that the leaves have reached 5% of their peak color this week. I wonder, will they attain 17.35% next week?
Gibes to the state's bureau of tourism aside, this season is a glorious one, and its waning light of day draws me closer to home and to my pot of tea.
Today, it is lots of sencha, one called Kawane 1st Flush Hatsu Yamaka (sadly, I no longer see it available in Rishi's online store). The tea comes in an eye-catching tin foil packet festooned with Chinese characters against a background of floral designs. I tear open the top of the packet, careful to keep the bag relatively intact. I scoop out a spoonful of the leaves. Delicate strips of deep green, I think of bite-sized bits of nori as I breathe in the scent.
The first infusion brews up a delicious cup of sencha: grassy, subtly sweet, and barely astringent. Further infusions accentuate these characteristics and efface a fleeting bitterness.
I drink the tea, savoring each sip, and continue to examine the packaging of this sencha. As I smooth the crinkly pressed-foil between my fingers, its metallic glint looks familiar to me. Little red shiny envelopes similarly etched with gold characters, I am transported to my childhood on the Lunar New Year, the Vietnamese Tet.
There was the aroma of glutinous rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves. I flitted around excitedly in my holiday finery awaiting the moment when the little red envelopes would be passed around to the children of our household.
That moment came, and I filed past the adults, receiving a pat on the head from one, a pinch on the cheek from another. They each placed in my hand the long-awaited red envelope.
Once I amassed my treasures of the day, I would in the quiet of my room admire their variegated designs, their wrinkle-free newness. Inside the envelopes were, of course, small sums of money. I breathed in the scent of freshly minted coins and bills, the smell of which I have invariably associated with Tet to this day. One by one, I deposited coins and bills into the modest-sized slot atop my rosy-cheeked piggy bank. The porcelain pig then sat happily engorged on a high shelf while I played with my red envelopes.
And now, as I drink my third cup of sencha, I linger over memories invoked by a golden glint, a familiar touch, and finally, that jolt of recognition.
Saturday, October 17, 2009
I don't enjoy housework, those chores of dusting, sweeping, vacuuming among other things. Sure, I reap satisfaction from walking barefeet on a recently mopped floor, scrubbed vigorously to an eye-blinding sheen (preferably by someone else). I do housework grudgingly, acutely feeling its tedium, relying on the prospect of domestic orderliness to prod me on. Floral-scented towels, neatly stacked books on scrupulously-dusted shelves, and a piney scent greeting me as I enter the kitchen, all these things are my reward.
I wake up on the day solely appointed for housecleaning with a despondent heart. I would look wistfully out the window at the neighborhood cat basking in the sun and wonder why I wasn't doing the same. I'd glance over at my writing notebook and favorite ballpoint pens, in their dedicated porcelain mug, and wish that I were writing, pen in hand. I'd imagine black ink rolling out effortlessly with nary a splotch as I ease my pen across the blank page, and the lined sheet would give way to neatly written words.
So on my day off from work, there is no grand bustle of housecleaning. Instead, only a few well-chosen chores punctuate my day. Ones that readily fit into its pockets. Today, it was the laundry.
I listened to the whir of the washing machine alternate with the roil of the water in the tea kettle, a syncopation of domesticity. White noise that soothes, reassuringly benign. They held promises of a pot of tea and a basket of fresh linens.
I sat at the kitchen table with a gaiwan of oolong tea, sipping from it slowly. Outside, I saw the evergreens lining the driveway, luminous in the early afternoon sun. Our curious gray cat bounded onto the table and sniffed my tea. She soon left when she realized that this was not suitable feline feed.
The washing machine signalled the end of its run with a tell-tale click click click, and I went downstairs with a large basket to fetch the laundry. I folded the well-worn shirts, smoothing their creases, and placed them in neat piles. The unwieldy bedsheets ballooned out as I shook them free from each other. Soon, they too lay trimly in their own alloted piles. The task of folding laundry became almost lyrical, lacking a tedium that would otherwise be present if done for hours on end. But this chore, a mere wrinkle in my day, occupying minutes rather than hours, invites mindfulness. It is not unlike tea, the making and drinking of it. During those moments -contained in a little capsule of calmness- scattered throughout my day, when I make and drink tea, I slow down. I attend to each gesture, from the simple and familiar act of prying open the creaky lid of the teapot to the more involved process of choosing a tea.
Distractions, those harrying thoughts that intrude like wavelets on a calm lake, come, and they scatter my attention. But I try to sustain a mindful attention, at least in snatches, when I remember to do so. And these moments seem to give coherence to the rest of my day.
The still green leaves of the maple tree barely fluttered in the now waning light. I finished my tea and felt enfolded in the present moment.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
Another rainy morning. But I got on my bike nevertheless and pedaled to the farmers' market. There were only a handful of weeks left before the outdoors market would close for the season -a few more bike rides on paths cushioned with tawny leaves until it would be too cold to do so in my thin Polartec jacket. So I soldiered on in the drizzle and arrived at the market as the rain petered out. A band was playing as I pulled up - a scratchy rendition of a well-known reggae tune played to a sparse audience.
I got off my bike, locked it, and with my empty knapsack tossed over my shoulders, proceeded to make the rounds. My first stop was my favorite: a produce stand presided over by two elderly Hmong women. Faces wizened and weatherbeaten, they smiled as I approached. With a flourish of her hands, the younger of the two - more adept in English than her companion- showed me her harvest of the week. It included a very green bouquet of spinach which I snapped up without hesitation. The bok choy, a staple from her farm and a staple of my stir-fries, was sadly pock-marked and wilted. She saw my disappointment and motioned me to a wooden crate in which a few Roma tomatoes languished. She pointed to their bruised and blighted skins. Everything froze, she said (her farm was at least 50 miles north of the city, in Sheboygan, and I was not surprised that the first frost had set in already there) and pointed to the mustard greens in the corner, except these. The hardy leaves of the mustard greens were indeed startlingly vibrant, piled high in a profusion. They seemed forgotten in their nook, unglamorous cousins to the red-stemmed chard nearby. Here, take one, she said, and she gave me a tied bundle of the greens. I took it and thanked her.
She told me that she may not be coming back next week to the market because of the gas prices and the low yield from her harvest. Her van, rusty white and huge, stood behind the vegetable stand where boxes of unsold produce remained stacked on one another. On the table in front of me, though, lay hardy-looking green beans and ripe oblong plums. She placed a plum in my hand and gestured for me to taste it. As I bit into it, I was half-expecting an unwelcomed tartness; instead, I was greeted by a lush sweetness. Soon, my knapsack bulged to its limit and I bade my farmers goodbye: Yes, we will meet again next season.
Later on, as I sat down to my tea, a new one called Steamed Green Needles (also picked up at the farmers' market earlier that day), I thought of a Hmong patient of mine. She first saw me for chest pain and difficulty in breathing which appeared out of the blue. She initially went to the local emergency room, thinking that she was having a heart attack. However, extensive testing there did not show anything dire, and she was told to go home and make an appointment to see me.
I walked into my examining room as she sat waiting for me, straight-backed in her chair. Her brows furrowed as she told me of her recent ordeals: she had no appetite and was rapidly losing weight; she had only snatches of sleep at night. Mostly, she lay awake listening to her heart thump away and constrict. At work, she would feel the chest pain come on while sitting at her desk. We talked for awhile and I learned about her past. She had lived in the jungles of Laos, on the run with her family. During the daytime, they hid. At night, under the cover of darkness, they fled to safety. She became separated from her family (eventually, she did reunite with them) and later on had nightmares about it. That part of her life was behind her, but now she became panicky whenever the sounds of fireworks reached her from the lakefront on the Fourth of July.
Presently, she receives treatment for her condition and is doing better. Her symptoms may never completely go away but they recur less as time goes by.
As I sipped the Green Needles, I remembered the last time I saw her in my office. She wore a bright scarf and allowed her shoulders to relax as she sat in the same chair in which she held herself so rigidly the first time we met. As she talked, I no longer detected that note of fear in her voice. I felt hopeful then as we sat together, and now, as I finished my second infusion of this quintessentially Chinese green tea - sweet, with a note of brine, astringent- I imagined wounds that can heal.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
I was on foot doing errands. Armed with a compact umbrella tucked away in my backpack, I scurried about town looking up occasionally at the gray sky which was fuzzily etched with giant thumbprints. The sun hadn't set yet and there were streaks of crimson lashed across the sky. Pencil-thin raindrops fell, finally relieving the suspense hanging in the air. I was glad to be in the rain, to feel the bracing drops grazing my forehead. I snapped open the umbrella and entered a little nook sheltered by this awning -patterned with cats and dogs crazily falling from the sky. I was on an island, magically dry, surrounded by the thick sheets that were now coming down fast.
I took a detour, one that would take me by a woodsy area on campus. A chain-link fence enclosed it, protecting this arboreal nest in the midst of university life. There was an unobtrusive path that winds through the woods but because of the rain, I decided to stay alongside the fence. I looked at the tops of the thick-trunked trees -a riot of autumnal colors- standing like sentinels guarding the enclosure. A carpet of fallen leaves on the pavement, a saltiness in the air wafting in from the lake, they piqued my senses reminding me of my first real autumn years ago. I remembered seeing fall come to the Ozarks, to a little town whose main road snaked over hill after hill until it reached our little apartment on the grounds of the large Chest Hospital where my dad worked. The grounds were a large expanse of grassy knolls, dotted with tall trees. We would hurtle down these little hills, my sister, brother, and I, racing each other and kicking up the fallen leaves. I marvelled at their colors, at the dizzying variety. We carried armfuls of the leaves, bringing them into these little grottoes that curiously carved themselves into the grounds of the hospital. We were early American pioneers, intrepid and resourceful, and the leaves were our provisions to be stored away for the upcoming winter.
Presently, I arrived home, shoes seeping wet and squishily uncomfortable. I brought in the smell of rain and as the cats came to greet me, they flared their noses vigorously as they sniffed the air. Only momentarily distracted from the all-important matter of food, they noisily led me to their empty bowls. A flurry of expectant meows and flailing paws ensued as I pulled out their bag of food. Then all was quiet except for the chomping of pellets.
I turned on the tea kettle and waited for it to boil. It seemed fitting to brew tea now, during these first days of fall. The tea leaves, harvested in the spring, were ripely green and plump with the season. They show no inkling of the seasons to come, of the settling in of senescence.
I scooped them - the aptly named Ensi Needles, a Chinese green- into the glass infuser and watched the needle-shaped leaves elongate to their full extent. I sipped the rich honeyed liquor and breathed in draughts of the lake that came in through my kitchen window.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
I tore open the hermetically-sealed bag of a Taiwanese oolong tea, Rishi's Bai Hao Oolong Hsinchu. It had been a couple of weeks since I picked up this tea from my farmer's market but the bag remained unopened until now, when I finally found the time to sit down to a proper tea tasting. One at which I would be comfortably ensconced at the kitchen table, sipping multiple infusions of the tea at my leisure. So with the beeper turned to mute, I set out to brew the oolong in my gaiwan. I sat next to the sun-filled window where I would be bathed in the warm rays, where the sunlight lay dappled here and there, shimmery like silent wind chimes.
I looked at the brewing instructions printed on the bag of tea and read them with perplexity: I was to fill 75% of my gaiwan with the tea leaves and brew the first infusion for one minute and the successive 2nd and 3rd infusions for a mere 20 seconds. Seventy five percent full? I glanced at the trimly packed and not overly plentiful batch of this oolong and quickly decided against depleting what would be tantamount to most of the bag's content at one sitting. Instead, I scooped out a mere tablespoonful of the leaves into the gaiwan and poured hot water over them. I also settled on a longer brewing time of 2 1/2 minutes - instead of the enjoined one minute- wondering what consequences my flouting of the printed directions would yield. Was I foolhardy, risking an encounter with an insipid cup of tea by not following directions? But I felt myself bucking against a reflexive obedience to authority. But what was this authority?
I pictured a phalanx of dignified high priests of tea at Rishi decreeing, "they shall brew this oolong with the lion's share of their tea supply for no longer than 1 minute." Was tea a subject so enshrouded in mystery that only an elite few enjoyed the power to dictate its modes of preparation and consumption? I wasn't sure about that and moreover, I was accustomed to brewing oolongs with modest amounts of tea leaves and with longer brewing times, lengthening those of successive infusions.
My tea brewed up an aromatic cupful, one with floral notes emanating from a limpid honey-colored liquor. The first infusion, alas, was overbrewed and tasted bitter. However, I still detected a fruitiness present in this lightly-oxidized oolong. Not yet chastened, I then brewed the second and third infusions, keeping the brewing time of 2 1/2 minutes the same.
Finally, I hit the jackpot. In both infusions, the floral and fruity notes emerged -unalloyed with any bitterness. I sipped with delight, savoring the nuanced complexity of this tea.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
I am comforting myself with making a batch of granola as I round out the second week of this lingering viral illness. It's nothing serious, just stretches of physical malaise - which feel interminable at times - that conveniently set in towards the evenings as I finish seeing my last patient of the day. I then gather the remnants of my afternoon tea to put away and rally myself for the short drive home.
The weekend finally comes and I putter around the kitchen, throwing together oats and sundry spices. I wait expectantly for the aromas to waft forth from the oven. They inhabit our kitchen at least once a week and may be the reasons why I like making granola often. I look outside at the perfect azure-blue sky and pause to listen to the steady hum of the crickets. It's one of those sounds that you usually notice only when it ceases, creating a palpable void. Other sounds filter through the kitchen window: a dog barking, the rise and fall of a child's voice, the distant motor of a car. I listen wistfully and think of the bustle outdoors, of my bike resting forlornly in the garage, waiting for me. It's as if the rest of the world brims with health, engaging in every active pursuit imaginable while I, pale-facedly, sit in my cloister. That languor, so voluptuous in the first few days of an illness, has become tedious. It is with difficulty that I bring an appreciative mindfulness to daily activities in the midst of physical discomfort. I counter against an impatience to get well and a lapse in short-term memory giving me the impression of possessing good health in the distant past.
So, I still make my tea daily, slowly and mindfully, taking comfort in the familiarity, the constancy of this beloved ritual. And I drink matcha, more than usual. E joins me in the morning and makes it for us as I cede my tea-brewing duties temporarily. He sets the bowls of steaming matcha before us, foamy and mossy green. The bowl feels comfortably warm in my hands, its contours generously accomodating my fingers. I sip from the bowl and taste that hint of brininess that never fails to surprise me when I drink matcha. I think of seaweed tossed on the shores, amassed in tendrils, giving off that heady aroma of theirs. I feel a bit revived, the warm bowl in my hands, the cats rustling nearby, while seated at the the kitchen table with E.
Monday, September 7, 2009
I felt a little droopy as I sat drinking my first morning cup of tea. Feeling only slightly under the weather, I was suspended in that poorly-defined state, located somewhere between true sickness and good health. The state wherein your movements slacken and your gestures more languid than usual. There truly is a deliciousness in this languor, this license to whittle down -if just for one or two days- your full schedule of activities to a mere handful. There were patients to see in the hospital and the weekly marketing to do, but aside from these, all other pursuits I made optional.
My tea was a chumushi (Rishi's Okumodori sencha), a medium-steamed sencha and a 1st flush from this year's spring harvest. Elsewhere, I have discussed its counterparts, the asamushi sencha (light-steamed) and the fukamushi sencha (deep-steamed). Acquired a week ago from my formidable farmer's market (where after ordering by phone only a day beforehand, I was able to pick up my tea purchases at the Rishi tea-stand -which stood conveniently next to a stall containing the plumpest tomatoes I have seen this year), the chumushi now complemented my sencha collection. It brewed up a wonderful light green liquor, that characteristic turbid-green of a sencha. This tea was truly a study in balance, umami in equipoise with a soft vegetal tang that really blossomed in the second infusion. I sipped and marvelled at the stray tea leaves which settled on the bottom of my cup. They were tiny shards of green, like broken stained-glass fragments in many shades of one color.
I lingered over the last few drops, not ready just yet for the day to start in earnest. I was still savoring a languor, where my mind calmed from the tea mirrored the lassitude of my limbs. I lifted the page of a magazine and felt myself more aware of the movements that this act entailed. The sequences of these movements -which are so commonplace and usually done without conscious thought- become marvelously complex when broken down into their components. I find that I can hardly describe them individually without invoking an anatomist's obsessive attention to the workings of the human body. But I really have no interest in the sterile deconstruction of my act of flipping a page of the New Yorker. Just the thought of relearning all those muscles and nerves of the arm and their functions (which I once memorized in medical school under duress) is enough to elicit from me a very audible groan.
I am interested, however, in appreciating the random slices of life, those prosaic flutterings of an ordinary day. I share a miniaturist's delight in a gentle flicker of a cat's tail, a cupped hand around a warm mug of steaming tea.
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
I was both befuddled and delighted to discover these literary riches in unlikely places. Little nooks of civility, these two small, locally-owned bookstores, tucked away in Door County where we vacationed for a week. We came upon one on our bikes, while wending our way around Washington Island. The sky was overcast, and the air freighted with fluttery white butterflies. I thought of the cup of hot chai waiting for me at the Red Cup Cafe near the harbor, and I pedalled a little harder because of it. Adjacent to the cafe, another squat building bore a sign adorned fancifully with tropical birds, whose plumage bordered the words Islandtimes Books. We had noticed this bookstore before on previous visits to the island but surprisingly, never ventured inside. Why this oversight on my part? I, who have never been able to walk past a bookstore without slackening my pace to gaze at the display window, and finally with resignation, walk inside to stay put until I'm dragged away.
In the past, I must have been so besotted by the chai -the invigorating buzz of black tea tempered by a sweet milkiness- that I remained at the cafe, resting my limbs while poring over a book I'd been reading, oblivious to the bibliophile's dream next door.
This time, after leaning our bikes against an ancient tree, we walked into the bookstore. A curious thing happend next. Something that comes over me whenever I'm surrounded by books. I can best describe the feeling by its attendant reactions: a quickening of the hearbeat, a slight rippling of the mind, and a barely-there sweatiness of the palms. All these happen, and not a drop of chai ( or any caffeine, for that matter) has passed my lips! My head swam as I scanned the titles on bookshelves stocked with works of fiction. New and old titles stood side by side. An attractive trade-paperback by MFK Fisher caught my eye, a potential read for my nascent book club. The bookstore owner looked approvingly at my choice as I carefully stashed away my new purchase and headed over next door for the long-deferred cup of chai.
There is a different kind of charm to a bookstore that primarily carry used-books. They give the impression of being quaintly cobwebbed, fuzzily eccentric, the latter quality often imparted by their owners. Wm Caxton is such a bookstore. Located on the tip of Door County Peninsula, this treasure trove is in a one-street village of Ellison Bay. I could easily conjure up a wind-swept scene, ghost-town like, of this street in its yesteryears. The dry-goods store, then as now, a hub of the community, is flanked by a gas station with pumps that look archival.
The bookstore is tucked away in this anomalous setting, presided over by its avuncular owner, a former professor of archaelogy from Chicago. Here, books on shelves groaned under their weight, every available shelf space wedged with volumes of different sizes. I wended in and out of the aisles -labyrinthine and dim. I held books, scuffed to a faded slickness from use, old editions with scribbled marginalia that I tried to decipher, passages of text underlined with a thick ballpoint. A highlighted sentence in flourescent yellow piqued a reader's interest at one time, its import I could only guess at. Years have since passed, and these books have witnessed lives, not solely confined to the words on their pages.
I gathered up the several volumes I culled from the shelves, inducting myself into the secret society of their past readers.