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.
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.
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.
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.
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.