The journaling project I’m doing to ‘practice happiness’ asked, this past week, what currently makes me happy. I had a lengthy list — more than 20 things! I guess that’s good (or else I’m woefully shallow…) One, of course, was tea.
I try to have tea every afternoon. It’s not my morning drink; espresso is (a Mexican café con leche, w/ condensed milk, cayenne, & cinnamon). (I’m bi-beverage-al.) But after a morning spent going through email, setting up the day, making lists if necessary, and getting some exercise on the recumbent bike, tea is perfect.
It’s a way to calm and breathe. Just the ritual in choosing a tea, a pot, a spoon (I have several different ones for fun), a cup. Then filling the glass kettle for the leaves. Pouring the water over the leaves in the filter, waiting while the tea steeps. It’s such a soothing ritual. If I time it right, the afternoon sun slants through the window in warm honeyed comfort. I can consider the hours ahead w/ calm & anticipation, not always the case in the early a.m.
It isn’t much work, but it does take 15 minutes or so — more if you aren’t organized! Me? I have an entire shelf of teas for every mood & occasion. A drawer filled w/ scoops & spoons & filters & coasters. A cabinet where various pots & sugars & creamers live happily awaiting use. So it doesn’t take much work, but some.
And I’m coming to think that’s true of happiness in general: we have to be willing to plan a bit. Work some. Even organize. But then there’s that lovely moment when you stop, and take a slow deep breath. Calm & happy. Ritual and practice in a cup of white peach oolong!
Lately, I’m trying to refrain from doing FB in the a.m., especially NOT when I first get up! That lovely, vulnerable, sleepy happy that envelops us like soft warm down blankets? FB is its nemesis!
Instead, even as fall deepens into upcoming winter, I go to sit on our patio, 10 feet from the bird feeding stations. 12 from the mixed border beneath the bedroom windows. I watch the little finches jockey for seed, and a portly blue jay crane his neck to reach a feeding hole on the sunflower tube. The sun is like warm honey, and life is very very good.
i have that privilege. No one is going to come round up me, or my beloved, or my family. No one is going to believe evil of me based on how I look (well, I do get blonde & senior jokes!). Seriously? I have a pretty idyllic life.
Which is why I need my garden so desperately these days. I hope that makes sense: I need this place that reminds me we can still grow beauty from seeds (it helps to have a light table, though). That there are still bright, hungry birds willing to share their flightiness & colour w/reasonably quiet observers.
I need to be able to sit, as I am, with the sun on my arm, typing at a patio table as I drink good iced coffee w/cinnamon, turmeric, cayenne, & condensed milk. I need to be forcibly reminded that life will go on. And for me? It certainly will.
But in Puerto Rico, subject to arcane laws put in place to protect corporations, not people without food and water, it doesn’t. In so much of the world, to be a grandmother is hearbreaking, not joyous (if exhausting!). To be a grandmother (or father, or aunt, or other family member in charge of the littles) is to wonder how they will survive. Is to wonder what kind of lives they will be ALLOWED to live…
It’s beyond heart-breaking.
Coffee & garden sun won’t fix any of that. But it will help me get to the next moment, relatively sane & able to go about a day too often fractured by what is happening in our country.
I didn’t grow up with hate. As a verrrry lucky child, I grew up in the most diverse of environments: an overseas school. There were American military brats, expat brats from all countries (my 3rd grade best friend was from Sri Lanka, my 4th from Texas), and a generous double handful of local children. If you look at an old yearbook, you’ll see a UNICEF banner of children, gap-toothed & happy. So this whole white supremacist thing is something I flat can’t understand. What makes white people better than others??? In my world, we often aren’t even as good: we don’t speak any other languages, and we don’t know much about the world outside our hometowns. That’s GOOD???
As frustration begins to rise, I look over at the bird stations, where a crisply black, grey, & white nuthatch is feeding. He’s startled a red-bellied woodpecker off the seed cylinder. I take a deep breath, and reach for my (empty) coffee glass.
Life is soooo confusing. But it’s less so, I promise, if you can make it outside. Into the sun. Somewhere by flowers & birds. With coffee. It’s we who are the world, as the song reminds us. If we can get our own heads & hearts straight, we still have a chance to fix things.
If you don’t like poetry, this probably isn’t going to interest you. Unless, that is, you do like Buddhism. Or education. Or writing. Fair warning, right?
Because it’s a kind of once-upon-a-time story, of sorts. See, when you have an advanced degree, folks often ask you: what was your thesis/ dissertation/ publication/ whatever about? And I always want to say — breathing. In a manner of speaking — and not all of it metaphor — it was.
Poetry is about pause & effect. The poet leads the reader through the lines of the poem, using line breaks, white space, punctuation (if so inclined — a number of amazing poets are eschewing punctuation altogether, these days), and other strategies to focus attention here, and elide attention there. Words at the beginning & end of lines take on more prominence. Rhyme (internal or end-of-line), consonance, assonance, alliteration — all are ways to slow readers down, or drive them forward relentlessly.
In poetry, we talk about the breath pause: that place the reader naturally (or through skilful direction) stops to draw breath, when reading aloud. And here’s an interesting aside: poetry should — at least initially — be read aloud. Or at the very least, subvocalised. In fact, the readers of poetry whom I know ALL subvocalise and/or read aloud poems they’re working on. After all: poetry is a kind of music. It has rhythm (metre), and the same pauses for breath that a chorale arrangment does.
Buddhism, too, is about the breath. We focus on the breath as we meditate. When my brain is overrun with the day’s minutiæ, I turn to the comfort of noticing my breath: in out in out… And soon the day falls away, and I’m quieted. During the day, if the same thing happens (or grief, or physical pain, or anger red&white), I exhale deeply. Slowly. Then pause — like a line break. Then inhale, slooowly. Then pause again. Another line break. Not to mention that the air we inhale/ exhale is us. Our very essence — the infinitesimal molecules from our inmost bodies — floats on the oxygen-depleted air leaving us. We share each other’s breath quite literally.
So my dissertation — which was a look at my own work, which (surprise!) grows from the fertile soil of Southeast Asia & the Southeast Asian Buddhism I knew as a child — looked at how these two perspectives on the breath intersect. Become words, then lines, then poetry. Hopefully shared.
if you’re not bored out of your socks, you can see where I was going when I said I mostly want to say my diss was on breathing. Here’s another reason: to me, poetry is (almost) as necessary as breathing properly. Sure I can ‘breathe.’ We need no class in what sustains us moment to moment. And yet… To breathe ‘properly’ is to draw in from the gut, pull through the diaphragm, fill the lungs and almost the entire upper body. The shoulders relax, rise & drop. Exhaling is then a long, slow, reversal of the process. None of the quick, in-your-head pants we do when stressed! Far more respectful of the worlds each breath contains, right?
Poetry is like that. Like waiting for tea to brew. Like watching the sky darken slowly towards nightfall. Like a long inhale that calms & energises. Both a luxury and a necessity. I recommend you revisit it.