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 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.
The holidays have taken a back seat to the sky.
I peer up at the sky every chance I get, noting clouds, colors, and motions. The leaves lie forgotten in the ditches and without their leafy apparel, the tree branches spread overhead like crones’ fingers in the sky. I see through the fingers.
Summer is a claustrophobic time and winter is the great opening. We’re all exposed now, to the sun and wind and elements. Gracious green canopies no longer spread out in umbrella formations, bestowing dappled light and easier breathing. No, it’s time for sullen scolding winds and scudding clouds.
I position my fingers on the trunks of trees to hang on while I view skyward, nearly whisked away by the drama overhead. The great burr oaks are the best for holding. They have seen centuries and still chose to linger on in this world. They’re rooted vast and deep. While I hold onto one, burr oak reminds me that time is like a spool of thread and the spool can be wound or unwound. Time backward or forward. The clouds overhead whisk by on wings of dark intent and their colors etch into my eyes and race to the brain. We are grey together, sometimes closer to white, other times to blue.
The spool unwinds and I am younger and back on my parents’ farm and the clouds are racing there too and I am turning away from them while standing at window. I turn my head and my body follows and I crawl into bed under the quilt/or turn up Winter by Vivaldi/or listen to Tess Wiley’s electric guitar solo/or write stories about an insane family I invented but might as well be my own.
The spool winds and I am back in my town and I am back with the oak. There are no birds flying, the wind is too strong for that, but there are squirrels in the trees, chomping fiercely and their backs and tails are as grey as the sky.