This past year has been fraught with … perhaps peril isn’t the right word, but certainly rife w/angst. Tea has been a great comfort. Writing has not (ergo: no entries on the blog since February!).
My beloved was ill for more than a year – beginning February last year. It was spring of this year before we were out of the woods. I use we intentionally: it seemed as if I too was hurting from chemo, as if my own body was eating away at itself… Mortality had breakfast with every morning. Only a ‘good’ year in that he made it. I’m much lighter in spirit these days!
Writing was nothing I wanted to undertake: too much reflection, too much energy. It was all I could do to get through the days. As a result, my happiness journal project – supposedly a year of lists – isn’t finished 162 weeks in, what with the move the year before, then settling in. My gratitude journal went 2 weeks at a time with no entries, some months. Factor in multiple illnesses, two active grandsons plus life in general: watching a well-loved cat fade into passing; juggling the happiness of bird-watching with the need to feed & clean feeders; swinging a toddler in his swing, in the midst of a gnat swarm (really!) Returning to Oklahoma for my baby sister’s TWO graduations: one her BA, one her MA. Welcoming family for the holidays. Life is funny that way, the poignant with the memorable.
I’ve tried to breathe through it all, often scanning my body for tension as I focus on breath in, breath out. I’ve even mentioned ‘grounding & centering’ to my elder grandson, both to prep him for when he’s a bit older & we can do it together, and to remind myself to practice. I’ve focused on big sky mind: clouds come, clouds go. Only the sky remains. Pain rises up, but it passes.
Through it all, there’s been tea. The warm comfort of a mug, the distraction of a tea tray laden with family china & a nosegay from the flourishing garden (you should see the roses!). Today it’s a large mug of white peach matcha, and a piece of rhubarb ginger scone from this weekend’s Saturday Farmers Market.
I’ve come late to appreciating matcha – probably because I had no clue how to brew it! It turns out you can know a boatload about something, and NOT know something fairly important. Like…you brew matchaat 180°, NOT boiling (212°, fyi). And you only ‘brew’ for the time it takes to whisk the fine powder into the water thoroughly. I sometimes steep for 3 minutes, but no longer, ever, or the matcha becomes quite bitter (which I used to think was just how it tastes!).
You learn all the time, if you pay attention! And the one thing I’ve learned this past year is what my priorities are. Not always what I’ve assumed: writing isn’t as important as family, nor is it as comforting as tea. It’s not even above gardening! (Did I mention our roses 😏?)
I’ve also learned to forgive myself for guilt, for fatigue, for shrieking at people (truly!), for the failings (big & small) of normal human beings under pressure. It’s freeing, that, to treat ourselves with as much compassion as we do our loved ones. And it’s a basic tenet of most spiritual paths: the Golden Rule means very little if we can’t learn to love ourselves first. Tea makes that much easier!
As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m working on being happier this year. Not that I wasn’t pretty happy last year. I just want it to be more…conscious this year, I guess. More intentional, since last year’s was in large part the result of non-repeatable actions. Moving 1/2 way across the country, downsizing to a new house… That accounts for a great deal of my excitement last year!
This year, however, we’re living here already. And have more or less ‘settled’ in. We’re (literally!) putting down roots: planting trees & shrubs & flowers and garden beds and swing sets. Well, if digging holes and filling them w/wet cement to ‘plant’ swing set legs counts…
It seems like I’m grownup enough (finally!) to work towards happiness, if necessary. And it appears that’s actually not a bad plan. Last week’s prompt asked me to consider what I do well. And how much of that comes naturally, compared to what I’ve worked to grow better at. And it turns out? There is very little I think I’m ‘naturally’ good at.
This week’s prompt asks me to list ‘what things do you do that take you out of your head?’ Good question! And many of them are the exact things I listed the week before, that required me to study them, practice 🙂them, learn them.
I wonder how many of us still believe the happily-ever-after stories of our childhood. That we would somehow just ‘become’ happy…? That it would descend upon us like a warm sunbeam, and wrap us in light.
Instead, it’s beginning to look as if happiness is more like the garden bed I put in last fall: I had to dig out the execrable red clay (down 10+ inches!), mix peat moss & manure & dirt together, and then put it back in the bed. My beloved had to put in edging to hold the newly raised bed surface in (N.B.: other folks aren’t responsible for our happiness, but they can help!). I had to plant seeds I bought into tiny peat pots, and put them under the lights on the light table, and water them until they were ready to transplant outside. And then I had to mulch the little plants, watering when it was dry weather. But by October? The bed was so lush & lovely no one could believe it! See above. And that was in autumn, when gardens are supposed to be winding down!
Another metaphor (you knooow how I love metaphors): aging is like autumn — full of brilliant light, even when the leaves are falling and the air is chilling. Even on the days when arthritis is a royal pain, and other attendant challenges rear unreasonable heads, I’m grateful to be here.
That too is a part of the whole happiness thing, I’m learning. Gratitude. Another thing I’ve been practicing, writing regularly in my gratitude journal. With entries that range fom the chickadee on the feeder outside, to my elder grandson telling me you’re the best, GiGi!
So here’s my prescription for you and your future happiness: practice it. Treat it like a skill that you can learn. Because it is, I promise. And the more you practice, the better you’ll get at it. Honest.
Gratitude: at a time when my heart is often cracked yet again by the news, and when much of our country seems to be mad with hatred, it’s hard sometimes to remember how much there is to be grateful for.
Even though I keep a gratitude journal, noting down my many thanks has been less frequent than other times. And my ‘daily’ pages are … well, let’s say that weekly would be an improvement!
In other words? I’ve been grieving, not grateful-ing. But a long-time tradition I believe in is using each day of November to record something I’m grateful for. Making the month of Thanksgiving truly a month of gratitude. I’m a bit late off the mark this year, but here goes with a catch-up list:
Today, this very moment, what I’m grateful for is autumn — my favourite season. Just this week the trees in our town ignited. Seriously — there is incandescent scarlet, saffron, & chartreuse. A deep winey burgundy, and the sombre backdrop of greeny-black evergreens. It’s a lush tapestry of gorgeous.
Weaving in & out of this are birds, like red, blue, grey, black, even orange threads of bright movement. The four blue jay brothers are squawking at me to fill the sunflower feeder, and a nuthatch vies with a red-bellied woodpecker at the suet block. It’s a never-fail antidote to the tragedy of so many human interactions.
And after a night with my astonishingly wonderful elder grandson, I’m once again thanking the universe that my beloved & I took a leap of faith and moved half-way across the country to spend more time w/ our two grandsons. The elder a perpetual movement machine, running on peanut butter, jelly, apples, & tickle marathons. The younger one endless wide-eyed wonder, enthralled by even the fan above him (his own personal mobile!). You flat can’t have ‘quality’ time w/out plenty of quantity.
I’m still surprised at how many faces in this small town are becoming familiar to me. Just today, when I went to vote, I recognised 2 women exiting the polling station. Where I know them from eludes me, but they were faces I knew I SHOULD know! I’ve never lived in a small American town, so much of this new chapter is totally new to me.
The power of landscape to awe me is another gratitude. Maybe I just took the sprawling skies of Oklahoma for granted, no longer seeing them as beautiful, but the mountains here — the vistas that open up like a kaleidescope of 15 greens, 5 browns, and uncountable shards of orange, wine, russet & pumpking — send me into stunned, breathless silence. They’re that incredible.
How can I NOT be grateful?
If, like me, the evil we do to each other, the refusal to own our own responsibility to change things, and the powerlessness we feel as individuals is overwhelming you, I’m prescribing autumn. Get outside — even if it’s chilly. Maybe especially if it’s chilly! Blow the doldrums over the hazy horizon. Take a cup of tea (I’m drinking Harney’s new London Fog — how appropriate an autumn tea is THAT?!), and just watch the season unfurl in front of you. If you’re very lucky, maybe the birds will even talk to you. And for that, we’re always grateful.
This is what Pascal, my older dog looked like when he came to us 10 years ago. A tiny elf-eared puppy, easily frightened — a big cat, a leaf falling, the smell of the resident possum in the back yard… Any of those could do it. So could the vacuum — even a few days ago.
Today we killed him. Yes, I know: we say ‘euthanised,’ or ‘put him down,’ or ‘put him to sleep.’ But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like we killed him. Even though he was in a lot of pain, and wasn’t himself at all. He’s had dysplasia since birth — he was supposed to be OFA certified to NOT have dysplasia, but… — and it’s just worsened. He also had epilepsy, in a couple of versions. And our previous vet told us he has the dog equivalent of autism, as well.
Through all of his trials, he was still so beautiful. So loving. And such a mess.
A couple of weeks ago, he began having seizures. Two a day, grand mal. And he probably had a stroke, as his leg began to drag, and he showed very poor coordination. We took him to the university veterinary hospital, an amazing facility, staffed w/ utter saints. Seriously — I think the requirements to work there are more stringent than canonisation… I’ve never met more people w/ overtly compassionate affects in one place. Ever.
Turns out that the resident canine neurologist (yes, there’s one on staff) diagnosed a brain tumour in addition to everything else. So now we have a dog that needs pain medication for his hips, anti-seizure meds (2), and allergy meds. And he’s still doing verrrry poorly.
Then it really fell apart: yesterday, he tried to bite me when i petted him. He tried to bite his brother twice when poor Hugo just brushed against him. And when my beloved — Pascal’s version of the Supreme Deity, if there ever was one — reached down to pet him, Pascal tried to take his hand off. So we took him off meds to see if that helped. It did not.
We sat at the vet’s for almost two hours. Pascal’s veins were so thrombosed that the techs couldn’t get an IV in him. And think about it: if he didn’t want to be petted, even, how did a needle feel?? But in an oddly reassuring way, it was an affirmation that we were making the right decision, despite our grief.
Buddhists talk about ‘letting go.’ It means to know that everything is transient: life, certainly. But also love, pain, joy, grief. Everything passes — clouds across Big Sky Mind. I know that in a year, I will still miss my sweet mess of a dog. I also know it won’t hurt the same way. As I know that death always follows life.
But our pets are part of our family. At least, in my family they are. And as the owner of a 17-year-old cat, another aging dog, and a second cat still in his prime? I want them to live forever. With health & vigour. I want no more grief. The Buddha would shake his finger, probably smile, and remind me that I am attached.
I confess to it. As I confess to wielding the power of life, then death, over a small dog. We let go — holding a small sleepy body in a tearful hug before the vet gave him a shot to the heart (he never could get the IV in). We let go, wishing him dreams of possums in the backyard, and long walks by the river, and lots of treats. We let go of his pain-filled life. But somehow, he’s still so very here, and I don’t know how to really let him go. I don’t know how to explain to his brother (at least, that’s what we called them, although they weren’t littermates) where his buddy is. I don’t know how to explain to my grandson where Pascal is, either. And I don’t know how to let go of any of this grief.
Sometimes, I am acutely aware how inadequate a Buddhist I am…
The tea came! A big box, full of possibility. I don’t have the budget for ‘teas of renown,’ but I do splurge on good tea. And I don’t rebrew it. Well, hardly ever :). Maybe if there’s company and I double-splurged on Sunday’s tea (Hao Ya A, for anyone interested).
Most times I order tea, I’m just replenishing the house tea (Panyang Congo), or buying everyday tea. Occasionally I buy a couple of samples (one of the great things about Harney’s) ~ a nice way to try a new tea. And every so often (especially if a tea I liked in sample is available on sale) I buy a new tea. This most recent package has two adventure teas ~Pu-erh and Temi Sikkim. I confess: I was sucked in by the fact that Temi Sikkim was on sale (and it’s a great full-bodied Darjeeling, w/ that lovely floral aftertaste I find so seductive in a good Darjeeling) and the Pu-erh is billed as an ‘ancient’ tea.
The other day I made the pu-erh, a dark, ruby-red brown tea. A China black tea tasting of chocolate, almost sweet. I added my usual lump of Demerara, and then stirred in my usual milk. No change in colour ~ this is seriously dark tea. Still, it’s lovely: lightly astringent but smooth. A great breakfast tea. Makes me wonder: just how old is ‘ancient’ …?
When I make tea, it is always ~ even at the most hectic of times, like early in the morning as I rush to some appointment ~ a moment of quiet. Often it becomes, almost accidentally, an evocation of other days, when my children were small, when I was a young mother dependent on my expat family. Even now, with those two small boys (and early on, there was only one…) grown to manhood, fragrant steam curling from a curved spout takes me back 20 years. Or more.
Tea is an ordinary magic. Like coffee (which I also love dearly), it provides an enforced STOP. Halts my thoughts, distracts me from the hectic mania of contemporary life. Puts a gentle finger to my lips and reminds me to sssshhh…
So why write about tea, in the months running up to something as important as elections? Why take time for something so small, so intimate, when the world seems to be collapsing around my ears? Why take the time to celebrate these fragile, ephemeral moments that fall to the bottom of a china cup wreathed w/ flowers? Moments that curl in the heart of a summer rose, or hover on the wings of a drowsy bee.
We live in such a frenetic, frantic world. At least most of us do. There is never enough time… Right now I should be working up a course for September. Constructing a class schedule for another. I should be reading books for two presentations next month, and figuring out what I’m going to need in the way of help during my beloved’s upcoming surgery. I should be should be should be…
Instead, I be. Trying to not try tooo hard to breathe, as the pebble in the garden says. Just resting in the moment, sipping tea from that thin-handled china cup. Sitting in the early morning sun and remembering big sky mind…
I don’t know that tea, or coffee, or the quiet music of bees working the blue bells of the caryopteris can solve the world’s larger problems. But I wonder if we took the time to listen to them, to watch and pay attention, what we might learn… Who knows what we could do?