Recently, I attended a photography exhibit. One photo there, in particular, remains vivid in my mind. At home, I searched for its reproduction online. When I found the image, I pored over those faces looking through the windows of a trolley car. Their expressions were varied, each framed by a window.
With a click of his camera, Robert Frank, the photographer, has captured a defined moment in each of his subject's life. I see an impassive face - haughty- his cold gaze seems to settle on me. In contrast, I see another face, this one marked with pain, his head tilted towards the outside world, a pleading look in his eyes. I imagine the trolley rolling away, its occupants immured inside, their frozen expressions softening, changing as they disappear into the distance. I wonder what threads of happiness or sadness run through their lives, the photo allowing me only glimpses of one indelible moment.
I see my patient's composed face as she sits waiting for me. I enter the room and sit down across from her. She holds her features tightly. After awhile as we talk, her face shades into tears. She feels frustrated, unable to get her weight down since the birth of her last child. She is only thirty but already she has a bad back. She blames this on her weight. She's afraid of developing diabetes like her mom, or like her grandmother whose kidneys shut down at the end of life.
I see her calm features gradually crumple. We sit together and work on a plan for weight loss. She knows it will not be easy but she is willing to try again.
Sitting with my companions at a cafe after the photo exhibit, I am nursing a cup of tea. My energy is flagging and I choose a black tea, a 1st flush Darjeeling.
We are huddled in a corner next to the large window filtering a dusky sunlight. I see the unruffled surface of the liquor of my tea, hazy in the dimming cafe. Expectant, I take the first sip and I wait for the tea to reveal itself to me. Warm and brisk, the placid surface gradually parts and other layers come forth. Subtle sweetness with a hint of molasses gives way to a floral earthiness. Other flavors continue to unfold, coaxed a little by time and patience.
I occasionally find myself with free time while at work. It's especially so on these snowy days when the wind blows thick sprays of snow across the roads, startling you as you're driving in your car. All around you there is a blinding whiteness and for a moment you feel a gripping fear. When you can finally see, a relief settles, and you slow down with the rest of traffic.
My patients sometimes cancel their appointments on these days, and I don't blame them. My once full day is then pocketed with welcome idleness. Twenty minutes here, a five minute respite there, and sometimes there's even a full uninterrupted hour.
I like these breaks in my day: I sip my mug of unfinished Jasmine Pearls green tea, left over from lunch; I chat with my colleague, and we launch into a discussion of the books we are reading at home.
These moments energize me. They contrast with the unceasing flow of activity, the hours that run into each other, unrelieved by restful pauses. I spend the time with my patient, immersed in the interaction, each individual unique with her needs, his pain. I emerge from my examining room, often desiring a pause to imbibe the experience freshly received, a chance to reflect a little on its import.
But there is no time to do so. The day pushes forward in a whirl, and I find myself unwittingly on a treadmill.
So when I do have these holes in my schedule, I find them precious, careful not to fritter them away. To emerge from them with renewed vigor, to clear away the skeins of cobwebs that accumulate, those are my hopes.
The computer sits tantalizingly on my desk, on-line news and lighter fare mere clicks away. I try to resist, knowing from experience that these distractions ruffle rather than calm, dull rather than sharpen the senses.
I have in my desk drawer, stashed between script pads and insurance forms, a book of poetry. During an unencumbered moment - between seeing patients - I read a poem. As I put the book down, getting ready to see my next patient, I feel the musicality of the verses, the humanity in them.
Or I brew another pot of tea, if time permits. If it's later in the afternoon, the tea may be Silver Needles, a white tea. Sometimes, I have maxed out on my ration of caffeine for the day and so I brew a pot of blueberry rooibos. I feel the warmth of the mug in my hands; I gaze at the watercolor of the azure-blue sky and water tacked on the wall above my desk.
Sometimes, I just sit at my desk, sipping from my mug, not looking at anything. I think about my patient I just saw. I still see her face, alternately sheepish and defiant because she is still smoking. She has emphysema and is unable to walk for more than a few yards without becoming winded. Her daughter sits nearby and shakes her head from time to time as her mom emphatically tells me, "I am really near quitting. I just need to cut down at my own pace."
The patient's daughter has heard this before, many times in this office, and she sighs, leaning back in her chair. My patient puts on her coat as our visit ends. She gives me a hug and tells me that maybe when I see her in three months, she will surprise me with good news.
I needed to bake a cake. It was as simple as that. All week, I had been looking forward to a time I could set aside for this purpose. I partially satisfied this yearning through making dinner on several nights: I threw together a stir-fry, whipped up some eggs for omelettes. I puttered in the kitchen and saw dinners coalesce in less than an hour - and there was satisfaction in that. But the desire to bake still nagged at me. Ingredients for the cake I wanted to bake were all there in my kitchen, including the intriguing bag of almond flour. I became impatient, proprietary of my free time. Shoveling snow, I daydreamed about cake.
The day came at last. Dishes from breakfast and lunch had been washed, now drying in rows on the counter. The kitchen was neat and scrubbed. Outside, the snow fell unceasingly, drifting into hillocks, blocking our garage. The cats had scattered to their respective corners for their midday naps - the presence of one was indicated by an uneven mound formed from the bunching of a throw-blanket. A layer of the blanket rustled mysteriously as our cat underneath breathed heavingly.
I worked in the kitchen, unrushed. I combined the different flours, brought together disparate ingredients, and whisked the gleaming batter.
I was creating something new in my domestic space. It was a way for me to inhabit my home more fully: the aroma of the cake baking in the oven, the large bowl -not completely scraped of its speckled batter- still on the counter, the teapot's roiling, anticipating an afternoon tea.
I chose a yellow tea and watched its delicate silver-laced leaves steep in the hot water. I took the cake from the oven, the kitchen now heady with aromas of almond and oranges. I looked outside and saw passersby blurred by the blowing snow. Inside, a cat emerged from his warm roost for a momentary stretch.
I finished preparing my tea and sat next to the kitchen window. The cake was pleasantly crumbly, yielding the flavor of sweet oranges on an amandine backdrop. I sipped my tea, its floral nature silky in my mouth. I sat in the white silence of the afternoon, finally roused from my reveries by the appearance of two hungry cats in the doorway, "meeeoooww".
Notes on how I made the cake: I omitted the glaze altogether, used only 1/2 cup of sugar instead of 3/4 cup called for, and found this more than adequately sweet ( I have a veritable sweet tooth). I used the zest and juice from one orange. Otherwise, I followed the instructions from the original recipe to a T.
Certain sights never fail to evoke wonderment in me, living here in the midwest. A formation of Canadian geese appears in the evening sky, their distinctive v-shaped figures gliding overhead into a long band of crimson. The laggard ones, still orderly in smaller flocks, are close behind. The geese dip low over the darkening lagoon, emitting squawks, beating in unison. Soon, the sky falls silent, bereft of life for the moment.
I love these wintry days when we walk through the parks, still in the city, but the silence feels rural. Here and there, we pass a runner, sleek and bright; another couple strolls by, swathed like us, red faces peering out from woolly bundles.
It is in this bare, white landscape that I observe more deeply. The city hovers nearby, but it's the lake that beckons with its expanse -the sheets of ice crackling as the water underneath sighs with a rhythm of its own.
The solitude invites quiet observation, and I feel an affinity to my surroundings. I see the rippling of water in a melted slash on the frozen lake's surface -this rivulet freed from the riven ice. I see park benches, their wood once bare and brown, now with a thin mantle of snow.
In the distance, we catch a glimpse of a bank of windows, brightly lit, and we quickly make our way there, drawn by the prospect of warmth and tea.
We walk into the fragrance of a cafe, greeted by a jostling of bodies. It seems fitting now to be in the midst of this bustle, solitude only minutes away. With my cup of chai precarious in my hands, we squeeze into the few seats still unoccupied.
I sip my chai, a tea I don't make at home nowadays. Chai, for me, is a treat -more a confection than a tea- one I often have when we go out. Turbo-charged with a generous dollop of sugar and the caffeine from black tea, chai seems to fit nicely into this tableau of conviviality. I bask in its warmth, its aromas of Indian spices, the flight of geese still vivid in my mind.