Labour and wait

30 March 2017 § Leave a comment

30 March 2017

It is a rainy, grainy, grey day.  Usually I go for walks in the afternoon, when I do questions and see which flowers are newly bloomed.  Today, since it was supposed to start raining at 10 o’clock, I went for a walk this morning, and the air was quiet and fresh, with a hint of anticipation of rain.

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I bought this cotton ikat skirt last summer at Toast in Oxford, and it always feels wonderful to wear, especially with my collared linen shirt, which gives comfort and freshness.  This combination of softness and structure lends a balance of calm and focus, which is ideal for long hours of any kind of work that requires concentration.  Perhaps its power is in making me feel like Karen Blixen working to save her coffee plantation.

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I like Toast.  They use cotton, linen, wool, and not much else to make lovely relaxed clothes that lend beauty in a quiet way, being reliable garments without calling attention to themselves.  There is little of the self-importance of the maker movement, at which George MacDonald would likely balk—how far removed from self-conscious expensive artisan-ness are his fairy tales, sermons, and Lilith.  They have a ‘coat’ which I think would be a good alternative to a robe, and if I needed a new actual coat, I would buy this one, whose sleeves are the best thing about it, ideal for walking down a street in the cold and then reading the newspaper with an espresso.  I don’t need a new coat, though, because my grey cashmere coat will probably hold up until I die.

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A closing thought.  I have been puzzling over why it is much easier to focus when my hair is tied back.  Putting it out of my way has the mysterious effect of clearing my mind.  I suspect this is a universal experience, but how to know?

Redress

25 March 2017 § Leave a comment

24 March 2017

Spring is here, and my afternoon walks have been a cool stream of water cleansing my mind.  The colours seem particularly bright, the leaves saturated with deep green and the flowers slumbering deeply each evening to turn out ever bolder each day.  Chill has returned, though, demanding versatility.  As I relayer clothes, I reorient my mind.

I have been wearing plaid wool trousers, because they remind me of Christmas and, thinking about Christmas is an exercise in hope.  They are a bit tricky to pair with things in a springlike way, but it’s been fun to wear them several times over the past few weeks and resemble a cosy blanket.

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I initially shied away from any sweater whose colour would make me feel like I was embodying Christmas and chose this beigey cream cashmere sweater.  I was on my way to vespers, though, and I dislike showing skin at church, probably an effect from a few years of wearing voluminous, blanket-like robe and cotta.  Giving in to my true nature as an elf, I chose a green but kept more to spruce than pine.

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Unfortunately my hair was still drying, so I ran out of time to weave that yellow scarf on the doorknob into a diaphanous halo.

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On St Patrick’s Day, I donned a green cotton blazer, sat down to study, and probably saw no other human that day.  Cheers.

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My clogs wanted to play, and their burnished brown complemented the greyish background of the trousers.

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Then, I turned into a latte.

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That was an especially chilly day, yet it soon warmed up again.

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Wearing monkey socks made imprisoning my feet more acceptable.

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I recently dreamt that I was taking the boards, and it required that I invent and write the questions and their answers, choose the correct answer, and then provide explanations of all of it.  This would actually be a less nightmarish version of the actual thing, and I could even get some writing practice.  I have amassed many facts, most of which are boring by themselves, but there are a few things that actually make me think.  One of these is proposagnosia, caused by a stroke in the posterior cerebral artery and resulting in the inability to recognise faces, even if they are quite familiar.  Patients afflicted with this post-stroke gift often use clues such as clothing, hair style, or voice to determine who is in front of them.  Their sight is unaffected; it is the interpretation that is flawed.

When I read this in a question explanation, it fascinated me.  Imagine having no idea how the people around you relate to you, wondering if the person standing in front of you could be perhaps your spouse of half a century or a complete stranger, seeking any hint that might help you grasp the reality of the people around you.  Summoning this state of mind is impossible, but in some ways it seems an exaggeration of what we already do every day.  Of course this is untrue of people we see every day, whose faces are as intimate to us as is the geography of our own thoughts, but think of someone who is an acquaintance, walking into work with a new haircut—and you scarcely recognise them.  Or think of the singular experience of leaning your head back against the wall and closing your eyes after having a few glasses of wine whilst out with friends; your auditory sense, elevated almost to hyperacusis, drenches the landscape of your senses.  And everyone knows the experience of enjoying a meal, especially in the company of friends, to the exclusion of the entire rest of the world—sometimes so complete as to produce surprise when realisation of the outside world returns.

How do we allow our environment determine which senses rise above others?  Is this an essential part of dealing with almost limitless stimulation to all of our senses?  I wonder how our brains decide which details to rise to the surface of a picture we examine or a room into which we walk.  How, too, do we study others, and which parts of them impress us enough to stay in our memory and to be drawn up again when we next see them?  The scientific answers to these questions are, I am sure, numerous and possibly intriguing, but I think the questions, and most of all the act of this questioning, will always be more interesting.

To accompany my thoughts, I started drinking a new coffee.  Dark and delicious, it exudes richness and silkyness, and it reminds me of the French roast I picked up last year at Porto Rico, an excellent unpretentious wooden closet of a tea and coffee store that feels like wandering into the store room of a ship that has visited distant lands.  Giant burlap sacks of coffee beans lounge on the floor, veritable robber barons who seem to be discussing which tea lady on the shelf is the finest.  Back to the current bean: often, after I have finished my one very strong cup—more than one cup would probably throw me into a panic attack—my French press keeps the scent around for an hour, and it smells so good.  If someone made a Frenchy French candle, I would consider buying it, but I will probably just tape a coffee bean to my upper lip instead.  If I manage to make it to the Sylvan Esso concert in Pittsboro this summer, I will stop by their roastery and take a nap on a pile of beans.

Usually after that coffee, I must drink plain green tea, but I am running out of that and oolong is quite gentle, so here is a note about a particularly good one.

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If the Satemwa oolong smelled like hay, butterfly is like someone washed the hay, lined up the strands, set it on a Delft plate, and brought it to the parlour for me to sniff.  Pure, clean, and bright, this tea may be the perfect oolong.  It is the colour of honey and probably what honey would choose to be if it were a tea.  The tasting notes aver that the tea liquor has an aroma of ‘waxed wood’, which I do not understand, but otherwise I agree with the seemingly random adjectives that somehow make perfect sense after you taste it.  In this way, tasting tea differs from tasting wine.  If someone told you that a wine was redolent of ‘quince cheese’, you would look askance at the dotty and possibly intoxicated speaker, but I am sure there is a quince for every tea, or something like that.  Another advantage that tea has over wine is the various entities—the leaves, infusion, and liquor all demand their own description, and thinking about them separately gives insight, perhaps, into my habit of sniffing tea.  (I am not sure why I am bashing wine, except perhaps that it is absent from my table these days.)  The tea notes also say that it pairs well with pies, quiche Lorraine, and plum desserts, so I will be waiting if anyone wishes to drop one off for safekeeping.

Soolong!

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Lace up

15 March 2017 § 2 Comments

15 March 2017

Yesterday was pi day and I did not make time to bake a pie, which was sad.  Today I am also not making time for much beyond studying, but it is cold and I rummaged round for warm clothes to wear on a walk.

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I normally wear this silk shirt to bed, because it is cold in winter, because you can see through it, but mostly because I am not much of a lace person.  With just a bit peeking out, though, it makes for a warm and pretty layer over which to swathe myself in cashmere.

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I found a scarf shortly after this, as my neck has dependent personality disorder and needs a blankie to be wrapped round it at all times, or else it cries/catches a cold.  My head feels similarly and requires a lamb fur topping whenever possible.

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Robbins is saying hello from the far right.  Snagging a coat, bye!

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I took my rabbit to dinner

8 March 2017 § 1 Comment

8 March 2017

It seems last week was a happy one; I was happy even in the solemnity of Lent beginning.  On mardi gras I went to Spring House for the first time.  I had been meaning to go there for a while, even just for a drink, but the idea of being a gold dust woman or sipping smoke signals whilst sitting across the road from the shambly communist-industrial skeleton of the destroyed public library depressed me.  On a warm rainy spring evening, though, the fast caught up to me and I was ready for a real meal.

My green trousers (and their best silk friend) made their first appearance of the week.  I’m surreptitiously wearing earrings, but you can’t see them.

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I studied the wine list ahead of time to let the choices decant in my mind and was already looking forward to the Crossbarn pinot noir.  Ordering pinot always feels a bit risky, but this one was fruity and quenching, and structured enough even for a cabernet devotee.  (I also tasted the Atlas Peak cabernet, which was good, but I wanted that pointed pinot to go with my pork…)

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This sweater has been my favourite over the past few weeks.  It’s rabbit angora and feels like wrapping a sleepy pet bunny round my neck.  It also happens to shed rabbit hair everywhere like an actual pet.  I think I acquired the headband sometime in college; it is a good way to wear flowers in the winter and is a sort of everyday fascinator.  Zigzag socks are an important antidote to feeling saccharine.

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I ordered bread with pimento cheese, although the real star was neither the cornbread nor the miniature buttermilk biscuits nor the stretchy incredible foccacia but rather the beraisined bran bread with butter, small shy slices humbly sweet and dense.  Next, the wild mushroom toast was a rich, figgy mess masquerading as a salad; a thick slice of (again) foccacia with mushrooms and bits of leaves strewn over its surface would have amused me, but the taste of goat cheese and the fig sauce lured me into a caramel dream.

I was already pleasantly satisfied by the time the pork tenderloin arrived, but I took a rest and a sip of wine and dove in.  It was the best kind of southern: wrapped in bacon to create porkception, with thickish mango-rum-ginger-macadamia ‘sauce’ in artful blobs here and there, and broccolini proud in its slender tenderness waiting patiently to provide a solid salty counterpoint—whilst somehow also flirting with the airy cloud of sweet potatoes.  The roasted tomatoes were little and quite the jester of the meal, jaunty dots just making a waggish honest living on my plate.

At this point, the redolence of my meal had displaced my perfume, which floated out of the window, into the aerosolised rain that hovered, each minuscule drop suspended, outside.  Swirling the last of my wine, I listened to the conversation of three men dining at the other table in the room.  They were discussing their trips to New York, their children…they sounded relaxed.  I was, too, for the moment.  Regardless of any frenetic burden that could descend the next day, nothing could disturb the soft rest that enveloped me after a lovingly made and slowly eaten dinner.

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News & leftovers

Dream of green

7 March 2017 § 2 Comments

7 March 2017

Last week, I felt like a leafy spring plant all week—drenched in verdance, with some warm brown there too, it was time to spring forth with energy.  As I headed to my last block exam ever (endocrine and reproductive), I felt like celebrating, so I turned my legs into leaves and made sure my pockets were big enough for several dual-language dictionaries.

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Loose wool trousers are a good mix of warm but airy, good for a day with boomerang weather.  A collared shirt, wool vest, neckerchief, and warm socks are all essential for staying warm whilst sitting still in the Siberian chill of school.

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This cotton scarf with butterflies and leaves on it inevitably cheers me, and I had to don my hat in order to give the lepidoptera a jewel bug companion.

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Later in the day, I was on a walk and found these flowers.  The richness of the brown is comforting, while the green feels vibrant, deep, earnest—and alive.  I was tempted to lie down next to them, but though I would have been remarkably well-camouflaged, I was not in a trespassing mood.

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I think I baked bread and went for a run after this, but the evidence suggests rather that I dashed off to solve a mystery.

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Bancha

6 March 2017 § 1 Comment

6 March 2017

I have a bancha things to say, yet I will limit myself to a small musing and a tea note, which will illuminate which tea I prefer to drink on Ash Wednesday.  Thinking about bancha leads me to thinking about the point of thinking about tea at all.  Without consideration—a leisurely earnest contemplation done in one’s real or imaginary silk dressing gown—tea doesn’t matter at all, and one may well drink hot water infused with caffeine.  This is the same way I think about getting dressed; the clothes themselves can be lovely, yes, but without a setting and a story, a background and a trajectory, they are simply random pieces of material.

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Bancha (Japan)
This tea smells like dried grass, which I suppose is not too far from its actual essence.  I enjoy drinking bancha because it is a reliable old friend, with the perfect comfortable strength, slightly less than robust so as not to distract you while you’re reading the newspaper or writing or drawing or whatever.  It is good, but not too good.  Not delicious, yet satisfying.  Palais describes it as both robust and delicate, and that is just like an old friend—someone who brings beauty to a day and who also holds up to the day.  Its delicacy, I think, comes not from a flowery evanescence or a quality of refinement, but from its understated leafyness.  Drink it when you feel ordinary (and are enjoying that feeling), when you are focusing calmly on one task, or when you are having a wild day and are seeking some anchor of comfort.

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One thing I am enjoying very much these days is the isolated stripe.  Bold stripes overwhelm me and my rose-ivory complexion, but gentle stripes or, here, a few slim stripes, elegantly underline whatever I am doing.

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The order of hungers

6 March 2017 § 1 Comment

5 March 2017

I just returned from vespers, which settled the tea leaves of my mind so much that a teapot worth of limpid liquid now sits in my mind, just being a jewelly clear space of contemplation and focus.  The priest was talking about how Lent is not a time of restriction, of resisting temptation but is rather a time of reordering our hungers.  That necessitates resisting temptation, but the point of Lent is not to resist—it is to open, to open the heart to grace.  If the point of dying is to advance (being pushed, being pulled, walking oneself, no matter how it happens) towards an everlasting pool of love, then the point of living is to open always to the life of grace.  The only way discipline is helpful is when it is a tool.  Seeking or enacting or even desiring discipline is not always healthy, just as efficiency is not virtuous; it simply is, an neutral thing, that can help or not.

She used doughnuts as an example of temptation.  She set a box of them in front of the altar and for the first ten minutes of talking, she did not mention them; when she did, she asked if they had distracted anyone.  I had forgotten about them, because I was focused on listening and sometimes getting distracted by the beautiful watercolour lights on the wall, which the sun casts as it streams through the stained glass, in the high ceilinged airy minimalist chapel.

The point, though, was well-taken, and I remembered her homily from the early morning service on Ash Wednesday a few days ago, which was this: distraction can be sinful.  This cuts to my heart, probably because I think of distraction almost as a friend: I never grow bored of thinking new things in my mind and letting my imagination wander, and this sometimes occurs at the expense of distancing myself from the present moment.  Other people getting distracted by concrete things annoys me, and yet if my mind wanders off, I feel no twinge of guilt.

This is not exactly the distraction she was discussing, although my usual way of pondering it is a good starting point.  On a larger scale, distraction leads us away from the essentials of life.  It lures us to wanting and seeking things that offer us nothing but, eventually, emptiness.  What distracts us tells us much about how exactly we are unhappy.  Craving a certain experience tells us, perhaps, that we have not examined our present experience of life and weighed its value.  Craving a thing illuminates a sense that gaining material novelty will assuage the deep longing we have for meaning.  Craving certain people or the lack of certain people points to our conception of how we value people and their needs.

Craving is the more obvious side of distraction, though, as wanting something is often obvious, even if we do not grant to ourselves the true reason for our desire (and sometimes this is even obscured from us despite searching for reasons).  Allowing things is more insidious and, in many ways, more telling, of how we wander astray from goodness.  Allowing the mind to drift into patterns of thought often leads to patterns of thought; this is good when the patterns are good, and bad when the patterns are bad.  Allowing the mind to think of what needs to be done is good when it happens in a confined period of time and bad when our default way of thinking is to plan and chop the time in the day so much that we are left holding a pulverised mass of minutes and tasks in our hands, wondering where the meaning went.

Allowing the mind to dream is a double-edged sword, temperance in dreaming both grounds us and murders our visions of the future; it can make us falsely hopeful and despairing at the same time.  Allowing the mind to wish for something gives us direction and clear goals, but it can also cause us to forget what is around us at this time—both our blessings and our hardships, both the beauty around us and the struggles of others.  Allowing the mind to block out distractions can give us a straight path and easy boundaries that help us to accomplish things, but this solitude can cut us off from others, causing isolation and loneliness.  Allowing, then, is also neutral but can lead us wrong when we give it freedom over us.

Is it right, then to seek balance, another quality that is elevated to a virtue yet which is also, in fact, a neutral thing?—or is it better to focus on sorting out our hungers and desires, sorting through what is good, and what brings joy, and how we can love others?  I am choosing to focus on reordering, taking stock, settling my mind, and then inspecting what has emerged from the order.  Setting boundaries, quieting the mind, and then focusing with care on one thing at a time has given me more space in my mind over the past month, and that space, I think, is essential for the careful reordering that so fits in the season of Lent.

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