Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sencha in the Fall

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

My Farmers' Market

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.