There are small moments that must be filled. They open and expand while waiting in doctors’ and dentists’ offices; in long, slow moving grocery check-out lines; or in those few, empty moments before leaving the house or office for another destination. Staring into space is my favorite pastime and generally fills up all the minutes given (and much more), but there are other waiting times when my spirit needs a gentle pick-me-up without doing much conscious work.
That’s when I open the Photo Album on my phone and start scrolling. I discovered this delight quite by accident while lounging in my therapist’s waiting room one afternoon. I was feeling flattened by living with PTSD and other health issues, and I wanted muster up a little hope before I went into my session. So in a despondent, weary way, I opened up the photo album app. To my surprise, I was greeted by pictures of flowers, landscapes and book excerpts that I had busily taken days ago and had already forgotten. I scrolled back farther and it was much the same, mixed with pictures of friends, family, pets, and friendly dogs I had met on my walks.
I discovered my photo diary which had been my pocket all this time. “I never travel without my diary,” Oscar Wilde wrote. “One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” It still holds true; nothing is so interesting as what we took notice of days ago, weeks and months ago, be it written in a journal or snapped with a viewfinder.
As days spin into weeks, months, and years, it is hard to catch hold of any kind of underlining rhythm or purpose. A photo diary offers a kind of consolation. There’s nothing sublime there, it simply marks changing seasons, interests, travels, and friendship. But perhaps on the difficult days where everything is too much including our own thoughts, a photo diary is a moment of gentle release. The lightness of ephemerality eases the heavy load of living.
“But life itself is short, and so you are terribly agitated by everything that is eternal.”
–Eileen Chang, On Music
A favorite film of mine, The Taste of Tea, centers on an eccentric family living in the Japanese countryside. They spend a great deal of time sitting outside, sipping tea and staring into space. They sit as a family, alone, or in a small group and no one talks. They just stare out into the deep green that is the summer. And then they get up and go on walks or go off to work.
The first time I watched The Taste of Tea, I was shaken and delighted that the film gave space and respect to one of my favorite pastimes: sipping tea and staring into space.
When spring grew warm enough, I was inspired by the film to sit outside and stare into my backyard in the early morning. The Taste of Tea had given me a sort of permission to leave stress behind and take this time for one of my deepest desires: to enjoy and contemplate nature while sipping tea.
I named my new practice “Sipping Tea and Watching the Grass Grow.” I felt ridiculous whenever I mentioned it to anyone but that hardly mattered. I was doing what I loved so much, watching plants grow, watching the birds and small animals moving through it all, and sky glowing blue and serene over us all.
Grass grows slowly, imperceptibly but after each rain, it leaps up by inches. The violets came in May and they lasted for weeks. After that the dandelions bloomed and I lost a little bit of my heart to them. The wind picked up their seeds and sent the white fluffs floating into the air in sweet, downy clouds. After that, small wild strawberries, glowing like fierce red gems, appeared in the lawn. Now at the end of June, a luxurious, emerald green covers nearly everything. It reaches up from the ground, covering fences and stones or it high overhead, green leaves moving in tall, imperceptible breezes.
The heat has settled in so now even in the mornings, I pour sweat while drinking my tea. On some mornings the birds are noisy and busy and on other days they are not. Sometimes a great big bumblebee comes tumbling along, droning in that low, hazy buzz as it investigates every surface and flower. And then sometimes it does not come. Some days the clouds are like fluffs of cotton, other days there isn’t a cloud in sight. Each day brings a new configuration, nature is never still. I watch it all and at other times, I close my eyes and listen to my breathing. I’m not alone, never alone, a part of a whole.
I walk past a window on my way to get a glass of water and note the snow falling outside. As I fill my glass at the sink, my thoughts have already turned back to my work on the computer. I’m wrestling with the household budget, when I’ll fit some reading in, how to get on with my writing work, when I’ll exercise, when I’ll catch up with email correspondence and the list goes on and on.
Anytime I stop my work and look up, past the chatter in my mind, the snow catches me off guard as if it’s the first time I’m seeing it. I debate whether I can put off the grocery store to avoid driving in the snow.
This is the world of the everyday. It’s full of a thousand petty cares, some essential to living, others not as much but all in a lump group, tugging us along.
But there are times my mind needs something more refreshing, and it’s time to take a break. And that’s where music comes in—as powerful as Circe creating a circle of magic with her staff. I pick out music without words (or words I don’t understand). Today is Rimsky-Korsakov, tomorrow might be the film Phantom Thread’s soundtrack, or a piece of jazz played by Lucky Thompson.
As Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden starts, the circle opens. I come out of the everyday world and enter somewhere extraordinary, where beauty converges with life and cares and worries exit for a time. And all it takes is a little music, a little snow, and entering the moment that is now.
I watch the snow falling, noting the wind direction as the snow blows southeast and then drops and then exhales again southwards. I note the density of the snow, how it’s light and sparkling and then downy, heavy, and wet. My thoughts finally still and I turn off the music. A heavy relief passes over my body and mind and I am still, watching the beauty of the world.
This winter has frozen and thawed. And then frozen and thawed once again. With the most recent exhale of cold, fog rises up from the melting ground and wraps my town in a trance.
It softens the ragged tops of trees and transforms the dead yellowed grass into a carpet spreading out into unseen lands. With foggy foreshortened vision, the world becomes finite and in the smallness, my wonder grows. Trees become gloomy gods, bushes hunch over like mysterious beings with secrets hidden in twiggy souls. The sky blurs out and the land rises up to meet it and everything is reformed or brought down to its most basic form. It is easy to become lost and confused.
I walk the perimeter of my neighborhood park. We become redone together. The playground becomes enchanted, strangely unknowable as the slides and swings soften and distort.
The ballpark’s high chain link fence however, becomes more sure. The metal darkens and braces and holds against the diffused white light. I stare at it through my camera lens, delighted by its ferocity while everything else around it wavers and melts.
A train passes over the hill and I can see nothing, it has been whitened out, but I can hear the busy clack of the iron wheels running on steel rails.
Geese fly overhead for a minute and then vanish.
I press on and the mist parts as I walk and so we walk together, softened, softening with the night closing in behind our steps. The night takes everything behind us, rebuilds it like it wishes and then I step into my home and close the door.
Rain falls a few hours later and the fog mounts up, gently pressing at the windows but by morning, it is all gone and only little bits of ice remain on the walkway.
There are moments in time where the past overlaps with the present. Sometimes referred to as “thinning of the veil,” they are strange, illusionary moment when one season passes into another, when the silvery full moon shines its brightest, and when firelight flickers warmly in the cold night.
Right now in the Northern Hemisphere, the darkness is overtaking the days of light. Icy winter is just beginning to finger the edges of autumn’s beauty. The first frost came a few days ago and over the weekend, I awoke early in the morning and was greeted by the sight of downy snowflakes falling weighted from a heavy sky.
As the days grow shorter, I catch glimpses of color and movement out of the corner of my eye. I can’t say what I’m seeing exactly—perhaps it is the corners of autumn on the wane, the earth shedding its summer glory before it falls still. Perhaps I’m seeing the fast flicker of days as they shorten, when sunset comes around 5PM instead of later hours.
Whatever it is, I feel the shift and though it’s a cycle I’ve witnessed my whole life, there is something unearthly about the shift, as if something strange is lurking in the off edges of the exchanging cycles. There are tiny spaces in the exchange, little windows that open up into another world and as the darkness lengthens, perhaps it is the past that grows a little clearer, a little nearer.
Earlier sunsets and later sunrises means more darkness and with the dark and external stillness arises memories and with memories, the dead rise up. The dead is our own past, old and gone versions of people and ourselves which are still living. What people have been to us, what they have done to us, what we ourselves once were, lives in the murky shadows of memory and as the seasons change, one foot treading precariously before another, time slides a little and anything is possible.
There are many stories that deal with these strange moments in-between worlds and time.
One of my favorites is Still She Wished for Company by Margaret Irwin, first published in 1924. It deals with the lives with two women, Jan in the 20th century and Juliana in the 18th. The two women never fully see each other, despite their ability to see the past and future, but it is Juliana’s brother, Lucian, that travels through time between them. Jan first encounters him on a stormy afternoon on Hill Street, London. She takes shelter under the doorway of an old, preserved 18th century house and as the rain pours down, he appears near her side. The book follows and explores their strange relationships.
Another book about curious women existing in that magical land in-between words is The Brontes Went to Woolsworths by Rachel Ferguson. The three Carne sisters live in pre-war London. One is a journalist, one a young actress and the last is still under the care of a governess. They make up stories as they have done since they were very young, one particularly long lasting imagery saga about a real life judge they read regularly about in the papers. When they meet the judge’s very real wife, problems ensue and during a dark night, two of the Bronte sisters appear on their doorstep. Take a guess which two.
And of course, any list about the stories that deal with past impinging on the present would be incomplete with The Turn of the Screw. One of Henry James’ most popular short stories, The Turn of the Screw is narrated by a very young and sweet governess who isn’t entirely sure what she is seeing or what is going on with the two children she looks after. The three (including a housekeeper and a few servants that are rarely mentioned) live in a great empty house but after a short while there, the governess begins to see lone figures in what should be empty spaces—the top of a turret, in front of a drawing room window overlooking the lawn, by the side of a still pond. She is never able to catch and speak to them for they always disappear and slowly, she gathers that these figures are not quite human nor, is the rumor, were they that human when they were alive neither. What follows is questions of belief, what is real and what is not, and the end plays out the consequences of her decisions.
Earlier than James’ spine tingling story is The Christmas Carol, a ghost story that largely takes place at night by the master of Victorian ghost stories, Charles Dickens. His lesser known Ghost Stories are a delight. The characters in his haunted tales travel through dreams, moonlight, firelight and meet all sorts of ghosts and other sorts of beings. My favorite “The Queer Chair” occurs when man dozing at night realizes that an old, quaint chair in his room has come to life and they have a long discussion about the future near the warmth of the fireside.
Another of my favorites is “The Ghosts of a Mail.” A drunk man on his way home decides to take a comfy snooze on the top of a wall overlooking a yard of wrecked and decrepit coaches. He wakes under a full moon only to discover that the coaches are being used once more and goes on to have a wild ride with a beautiful lady trying to escape her pursuers.
Dickens favors the moments between sleeping and waking for his ghosts to appear (his most famous ghost of all Marley can’t resist making his appearance during the ungodly hours) and it is small wonder.
Some of my own most fantastic nightmares, more real than the day, occur when I’ve been dozing off or are just beginning to fall asleep. My mind is in-between places here, not fully in one state nor the other. I’ve seen ghostly sad boys standing by my bed. For decades, my bedroom walls were covered in elegant cursive every morning as I slowly awoke.
M.R. James is another writer that uses the moments in-between sleeping and waking as some of his most terrifying moments. One such story is “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” A professor comes across a strange bone whistle on his walk along the English coast and inscribed on it in Latin are the words, “Who is it who is coming?” As he makes his way back from his walk, he blows the whistle a few times. Nothing happens. But that night his bedclothes rise in the form of a blind man and attempt to strangle him.
Sleeping is dangerous time, indeed. The mind lives in another realm while the body lies prone. And now as the dark and heavy hours approach, we turn on lights and stay indoors. But those strange corners still remain and in-between our waking hours, we sometimes see them.
I look across the river and catch sight of the willows, lost in their own world. They have no regard for me. They are speaking to each other in whispers so I hear nothing clearly but I see their long golden-yellow chains wavering over the water. It reflects their light.
There are presences in this world that are not human but sometimes, a human being comes across one of these presences and this is when poetry happens—when we interact with the strange divinity that moves through the world.
I caught sight of the willows and so complete were they within themselves, so beautiful to behold, that my mind stopped dead in its tracks and my heart eased. In the presence of an Other, human commotion becomes impossibly silly and pointless. The past and future converge into the present and there is only now.
I exhale the stress I’ve held this morning as I watch them. The willows, their long hair hanging over their faces, disregard me totally and completely and talk in their slow tree way, something to do with the air, water, and earth. I cannot hear much but what I do hear makes me recall there were other beings on this earth other than myself, older than myself. They exist in this time, in many times, living, dying, always reappearing. The willows hang their hair over the water as they have done for centuries, listening to the currents and moving with the breezes and eddies of the wind.
With a gratefully diminished self, I thank the universe for the ancient poetry that is the willow tree and move forward, reborn, into the bright day.
the tea smoke
and the willow
(Trans. David G. Lanoue)
The thick green groves of cup-plants (silphium perfoliatumare) stand eight feet tall and are in their late summer glory. I look up at their bright yellow ray flowers and shield my eyes, the bright flowers sway so high and run so close to the sun. When I squint, the flowers darken into forms without color like the outline of the sun beating through closed eyelids.
I take a step nearer and peer into the leaves. Tiny pools of still water collect where the thick cup leaves meet the stems. It has not rained in the last few weeks and I’m surprised there is any water here at all. For leaves that are not broken or rotted, thimblefuls of water weigh without movement, rimmed with the detritus of summer: a fly’s wing, a wad of spider web, bits of dead grass and portions of pollen.
These tiny pools are water for goldfinches, tiny birds that flash by like rays of light. It hasn’t rained for weeks and this is left, tiny pools of water full of dirty summer. I consider drinking it. With one quick gulp, I’d drink the essence of a passing summer, imbibe what August means, and taste the bitter part of the growing season. This is living but rotting part that underlines all our lives but that no one likes to see, much less taste.
I shift my weight from foot to foot. The sun beats heavily down. The yellow flowers tumble in overhead breezes and the goldfinches live nearby, finding water where they can as the dry weeks pass. My hands drop to my sides and I pass back through the grass, ready for the shade. Perhaps when it rains and all the cup plants are full, I’ll take my drink along with the many others.
Outdoor living is coming in fits and starts now that it’s June. Last week it was in the 90’s (30C) and today it is gentle and cool with thunderstorms passing by north and south, bringing coolness in the wake of their stormy skirts. The sun shines but the thunder rumbles nearby and my cats retreat farther indoors to snooze on chairs instead of near windows.
It is tempting to join them. The heat break means that deep good sleep is possible again. Even with air conditioning, I sleep poorly when it’s hot. I sleep best when it rains.
And it has been raining at night but in great torrid thunderstorms where the house shakes and the windows rattle. Sometimes I lie in bed as the thunderstorms march by and wonder at the fate of all the creatures and people living outside.
It is summer and I have no arguments with it. It’s too hard to argue with the seasons. On the beautiful days, I sip my breakfast tea outdoors and watch the birds and squirrels to start my day. There’s always a drama playing out in the backyard. My favorite is the cardinal who walks along the deck rail, casting his bright black eye here and there and then breaks into song until a robin kicks him out. When the coast is clear, he returns and does the same thing all over again. Despite my nearness, he doesn’t mind me at all and I adore his bright red plumage and courageous laughing heart. His song cheers my soul and I’ve come to recognize his particular song. It falls under the same lines as all cardinals but it has a bit of improvised trill at the end. I think he’s been hanging out with song sparrows and got Ideas.
He’s a hard individual to photograph (all flash and movement) but I’ve shared a photo of a cardinal from National Geographic so you can get the idea. He’s hard to ignore and is a permanent on the robins’ blacklist. I aspire to such a level of happy insouciance.
How to get through a Big Book and have a little fun too.
- Make and eat food mentioned in the book (big books always include food, usually in meticulous detail).
- Read a little bit each day.
- Make a soundtrack.
- Dress like a character from the book for a day. Or a week. Or a month if it really grabs you.
- Ten minutes to kill? Daydream about the landscape or what the characters are seeing as they move through their day.
- Read passages you enjoy out loud. If you’re in the right mood, record yourself reading passages and share it (Instagram is great for this). Include illustrations if you like (thank you, Shirin).
- Whip out a highlighter or some sticky tabs for those great parts.
- Pace yourself and remember, reading gigantic books isn’t a race. It’s about the journey. Might as well bring along snacks, good drinks, great lighting, and enjoy the ride.
A big city not far from mine has a casino. I’ve heard a few stories from friends that have worked there. Most center on being treated badly by a customer and revenging themselves by throwing the customer’s car keys into the Fox River. Karma is enacted on a regular basis at the casino.
There’s something about that river, flowing by, murky green during the day and black at night, a bottomless pit for car keys.
The river divides the city in half, east to west. The Fox flows along the old warehouses, limestone and brick, built back when the city had manufacturing plants and industry. Now the warehouses sit sturdy and silent, crumbling ever so slowly. Their roofs are flat and give the illusion of brick walls running straight into the sky. Some were built like prosaic wedding cakes, higher and higher, until the final topping is small square with tiny windows. Industry has never been about aesthetic needs and wants. And yet by some miracle, these old turn of the century warehouses have achieved it just the same.
I observed the warehouses from the back deck of the riverside café, clutching my cup of earl grey and wishing I had put sunscreen on. It was the first time I had ever been to this café and I came because I needed a new setting for a fiction story I was working on. None of the cafes I remembered from the past were working for me. I needed this kind of café, one that hung out in an old manufacturing city where there wasn’t much industry left. There was, at least, a casino and many local businesses and this café hung on, here at the water’s edge.
A little further up was the casino where my friends had thrown those keys into the water. From my point on the deck, I could see the grimy metallic white heel of the building jutting out. Another friend told me that he goes there regularly to play black jack. It relieves stress and earns a little extra cash for his family.
The wind picks up a little and despite the sun, it’s chilly. Spring plays these tricks on us.
There is no sign of life in the warehouses all around me. We’re all boxed in together and the light plays off their empty windows, open and blank to the sun. I sip some tea and play “Over the Hills and Far Away” by Led Zeppelin just to see if this café will work for my story. It only takes a few bars of listening to the song and I know that this place is perfect. This spot on the river is perfect for many stories. It’s been perfect for all the stories I know nothing about and the ones that I’ve caught the smallest glimpses of.
A mallard suns himself in the weeds that line the water’s edge. The river moves fast and sure and I turn off the music. No need to for further noise. The song is already there.
There was little snowfall this winter. When there isn’t a snowpack to melt in the spring, there is drought because the melting snow fills the rivers and creeks and creates spring flowers. So I thought this spring would be sad. It would be sad just like this election had been sad, the healthcare system in this country is sad, the state of the mental health of this nation is sad and so on and so forth. It would be one more thing.
But no one can predict the weather. It rained and rained at the start of this spring and the miraculous happened: flowers bloomed in a frenzy (it’s been a month and I’ve got the same tulips blooming still), trees let out baby leaves before I could blink and the grass roared to green life.
It is one of the greenest springs I have ever known. And now that it’s been going strong for a month, things are happening. The rain has not stopped and now blooming bushes are pulling down fences, sidewalks are disappearing under green and mud, lawns are growing faster than people can mow and the birds never stop singing.
During a walk, I passed by a young tree packed with chickadees. My husband thought the chickadees were cute (they were). I told him they were vying for territory, their cheeps filling the air with lust for power, trees, and land. And as I said these words, I thought of the few things we know about the Celtic pagan past and that this time of year was not a just sweet time but a pulsating, racing, hungry time. Nobody was full of food yet, that wouldn’t be until later on in the summer. The sun was coming back and people obsessively followed, traced, and urged along her every movement.
This is a season when the continuation of life hangs in the balance. Will the sun come back? Will the green come back? Will the birds come back? Will we survive into the next season? Will there be plenty or starvation ahead?
I sit down to eat breakfast and look out the window. In the garden, bleeding heart flowers cascade from slender green stems. Birds disappear in the riotous lawn only to reappear again as they wing upward and away. The maples unfurl their leaves in the sun while the red oaks are more steady, slow, and cautious. A faint, tender green line the tips of their branches. A small squirrel inches to the end of a slender tree branch and places maple tree helicopter seeds in her tiny cheeks.