Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

Year of the Snake ~

I love Chinese New Year. And Buddhist New Year (and they’re not the same, just FYI). As a child in Việt Nam, I would tag along with Chị Bốn, our amah, to her family’s farm, or to temple. There would be great food, dragon dances, and the ceremonial burning of spirit gifts: the paper money & clothes, the papier-mâché furniture & food. All for the beloved dead.

It seemed to me the best kind of ritual: remembering those we love w/ the things they loved. And the paper money, clothes, & other gifts were sooo cute! To an eight-year-old girl, it was beyond memorable.

Each year, when the Chinese zodiac clicks over, I try to remember to send wishes for health, wealth, & happiness to my friends & family. I don’t send out the beautiful red packets of gilt, or burn paper money for my dead, but I remember. And I honour the 12 animals that mark the cycle of years.

Some translate well: Dragon & Tiger, Horse. And then there are Snake or Rat, those unloved-by-Americans years. Yet in Asia, Snake is known to be wise & sympathetic, while Rat is intelligent & brave. My own year’s cycle is over, Dragon’s flash giving way to Snake’s quieter magnetism. I’m fine with that. Animals we vilify in the US are respected in China, Thailand, Việt Nam, and the cycle continues.

This year, as the New Year dawns, I thought about what gifts I would ‘take with  me,’ knowing I can’t. But when I think of what I would burn for my mother, the actual burning is of far less significance — even to this Buddhist, who is more superstitious than she often acknowledges! — than the stopping to remember. Mother would want mocha hot chocolate, and watermelon hard candy. She would want clothes in vivid colours, and money for impulse purchases. In my mind I conjure up plants for her garden — iris & roses & peonies, flowers for a table, plenty of mysteries to read. And tea w/ too much sugar.

Me? I want books & tea, for sure. :) But I also want pen & ink, and journals to write in. Birds of all sorts, and a large garden for them to frequent. Sun & trees overhead, the sky filled with the movement of leaves. Cookies on a china plate and letters in the mail.

This life. This ordinary human life. Draw it on coloured papers, burn it, and let the smoke curl into the night. Whatever year it is, where ever I am in the cycle, I’ll be quite happy just to live it all one more time.

 

re- framing/claiming my mother ~

My mother would be so happy: TWO pink things came in the mail for me. Although orange & red were her favourite colours (w/ lashings of turquoise), she loved for me to wear pink.

When I was a little girl, she was always saying, “This would be so pretty on you.” And “Why don’t you try the pink?” I HATED pink. It was so… GIRLY. Nope, it was black, and navy, and the occasional cream or ivory as I grew.

But a couple of days ago, my favourite writing supply store had a sale, w/ NO SHIPPING! Online shoppers love those words. :) My iPad could use a new smart cover and sleeve — they get a LOT of wear — so I clicked in to see what was available.

Surprise! PINK! And somehow it seemed perfect — bright, cheerful, and proud to be female. Like my mother.

Digression: for years after my mother died, I could only remember her as she was during the last, awful years: her own ghost, haunting some dim empty room that used to be full of her bright wit & quick mind. All I could see, when I thought of Mother, was the wasting shell whose face would — too rarely — light up when I sang to her.

If you have lost someone to Alzheimer’s (or worse, are losing them now…), you understand all too well what a wicked thief it is. Bit by bit Alzheimer’s stole my mother’s memory, until before I knew it, mine were gone as well.

I don’t say this for sympathy, but because today I realised I’m remembering in other ways. Like the Buddha says, everything passes. It’s all change. But the heart-breaking change that was my mother’s piecemeal loss until finally she slipped completely into darkness also passed. And today, showing my pink iPad cover & sleeve to my husband, my ‘old’ mother returned.

This past week I’ve been going through boxes of old photos, letters, cards, & paper memories. Looking at photographs of baby showers & weddings & Christmases & births, I began to reframe my memories. My mother was beautiful. Far more beautiful than any of her four daughters. And she was whip-smart: top-secret classification during The War, as she called it. Majoring in French in her 60s. She deserves better (and so do I) than being remembered as the curled-into-herself shell of her last days.

In one picture, Mother is holding my elder son, who is wrapped in a blanket that matches her yellow hospital gown. My father stand next to her, dwarfing them both. Their faces are soft with the awe that babies bring. I wish I could tell her that Nathan is expecting his own first-born, another son. I wish I could share how happy I am with his wife, their marriage.

Christmas in another picture, and she is wearing one of her favourite holiday sweaters, vivid and vital. She is smiling there, too. Happy to be surrounded by all of us, too loud for her to distinguish who is saying what, but the best of chaos.

At a baby shower for my youngest sister,   Mother sits with her younger sister. In still another picture, she stands with her own three sisters, close together, as we stand now, her four daughters.

This is how I am reframing that most difficult year — my mother’s last. As I culled the boxes — part of a long-overdue closet cleaning — I laid first one, then two, then three and four and finally a small stack of pictures of my mother on my desk. Along with my sister’s wedding shower table, at Mother’s house. A table laden with my mother’s silver tea set — my own so like it — a basket of roses — like the ones on the deck – a tablecloth – one we bought her in Hong Kong. All this time I grieved, angry that Alzheimer’s had stolen my mother? It’s over — passed. And ultimately, like the Buddhists say about our inner Buddhist nature, the bright colours of the stone are washed clean, and shine again. One of them is pink. It is not my mother who has changed.

 

 

just for grins ~

I love foxes. And I love goofball humour — I am my parents’ daughter. :) So this seems particularly appropriate ~

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As for how it ties to Buddhism? Think about it for a moment: it’s on the same wavelength as the famous Zen koan Mu. Fox, window in/out, Buddha nature… Well, it makes sense to me ~

tea (again) ~

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I drink alot of tea. I like everything about it, except the colonial exploitation thingie… And I confess: I love the whole ritual of tea and tea time.

When I’m tired, a cup of tea will work as a gentle pick-me-up. Sure there’s caffeine — theine — but I suspect that the slowing down necessary, the focus inherent in putting it all together, is as important as the  theine.

You have to put the kettle on. It has to boil — that’s a couple of minutes, even w/ the glass fast-boil kettle we have. In the meantime, you have to get the tea tray out (well, you probably don’t have to, but what fun would THAT be?) and put a cloth on it. And that means choosing a tray, if you’re a magpie. And choosing a cloth for the season, and your mood. Then you have to pick a tea. AND a teapot. Unless you’re only wanting a mug, a different proposition entirely.

Some teas, I would argue, just don’t go w/ mugs. Who can drink darjeeling out of a mug? Even a pretty mug. Darjeeling begs for the gracefully curved handle on a teacup, nestled in a saucer. Lapsang souchong? That will work in a mug: it’s strong (stout, even!), and quite happy you’ve provided it more … expansive digs.

Then, if you’re not being matchy, you need a creamer & sugar (at least at our house — we’re milk drinkers, most of us). Or a small honey pot.  If sugar, you need tongs. And you need a teacup. And then a spoon ~

This will take several minutes, obviously. During which time your water has come to a boil, and you’re ready to pour it over loose tea in the filter in the tea pot. And then it has to steep… See what I mean? This is focused stuff!

But every time I do it, it rewards me even more than the first time. If I manage to set my attention on the process, the bubbles roiling in the glass kettle are so lovely. And everyone of my teapots (yes, plural — there are at least a baker’s dozen) has a story: who gave it to me or where I bought it or from whom I inherited it. I have my grandmother’s handpainted tea set, complete w/ individual tea trays that hold a cup & treats. Another of my grandmother’s handpainted sets that my great-aunt gave me. A pot given to me by my girlfriends in Saudi Arabia, several pots my husband has bought me over the years… Every one of them reminds me I’m loved… :)

And teas? What mood are you in? Do you want something strong & comforting, served from a mug you can clasp in both cold hands? The Keemuns and Lapsangs or even the Puerhs. Or something soothing on a hot & fractious day? How about a light green tea? Not to mention the cosies! Why don’t Americans appreciate the functionality of tea cosies?? One of the problems with a mug is you have only your hands to keep it warm…

An old friend recently asked me to recommend some books for a Mormon beginning to explore Buddhism as a way to practice his own faith. There is no disconnect there, despite what some might think. (Kind of like being both a coffee & a tea drinker) He wanted to know how to begin to live a more contemplative, reflective, compassionate life: how, in other words, to follow the Buddha’s recommendations. Which is, ultimately, all the Buddha left us. Not rules, certainly not commandments. Just advice given to other seekers, from someone who’d spent a lot of time doing that, being there.

And if this isn’t like tea, I dunno what is. There are so many parallels between tea & following a spiritual path that I’m not even going to point them all out — they’re pretty obvious. Do you HAVE to warm the pot? Of course not. It’s not a law. But if you don’t, the tea doesn’t ‘bloom’ properly, and you miss out on some of the ineffable fragrance. Do you HAVE to follow right speech? Nope. But if you don’t, you end up saying things you can’t unsay, and you miss out on a lot of connection. Neither will kill you, obviously. But both are… recommended. By folks who’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these things.

I’m not saying tea will cure everything. But it sure does help. You might want to fix a mug if things are crazy. Listen to the water singing. Take deep breaths of the steam. Enjoy a moment of calm. Who knows what your tea leaves might tell you…?

 

 

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