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.

Prada & a grapefruit tea note

24 February 2017 § 2 Comments

23 February

After a good night’s sleep and some studying, I decided to watch the Prada show, which happened at 6 o’clock Milan time, and needed a good cup of tea.  Fashion show as study break is lovely, a twenty minute foray into another world of colours, textures, movement, and music, and left me with energy and ideas.  I especially enjoyed the fur at the bottom of the coats and skirts (good for keeping one’s knees warm), the ever-expanding lapels (which I would decorate with animal pins), and the beaded flower embroidery (this can be my new project).

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Giant lapels, mixed florals, a coat for one’s knees  [all photos from Vogue]

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Fluffy sweater & bandeau: new way to layer in spring

Lack of an explicit plot is a delicious chance to let one’s imagination create whatever split-second stories it wishes, with a new situation every few seconds, leaving one with a swirling sea of narratives and new perspectives.  The pale coat with blue flowers is a dream in itself, perhaps a winter coat’s vision of how summer would be if it were ever allowed to venture out in the heat instead of being packed away in a closet, and the green coat with floral embroidery is a winter coat coming to terms with its own reality.  I know I shall never see blooming meadows, it says, so I will grow flowers made of beads on myself.

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A coat dreaming of summer

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A coat coming to terms with reality

It’s especially fun to create stories around something that pleases you but that you would never wear, like the massive coloured fur hats that were wafting in the air whilst enveloping the tiny heads of the models.  At first they made me laugh, but by the end of the show, I imagined how fun it would be to wear one on a walk in the snow…

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A green eskimo

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A red eskimo

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A blue eskimo

It was good to have tea since the show felt very domestic, with posters on the walls and lamps perched about the geometrically serpentine walkway that evoked thoughts of a home library big enough to explore.

White vanilla grapefruit (Harney & Sons)
This frivolous tea caught my eye when I was looking for white teas.  Palais stocks only a few, and though their bai mu dan is excellent, I finished it a long time ago and wanted something different.  Sometimes I enjoy tasting absurdly flavoured teas just to make fun of them, but this one is understated enough to drink about twice a month.  I do like to sniff it in the morning because the mellowed citrus wakes me up.  The grapefruit is tangy, and the vanilla provides a gentle counterpoint.  The result is a pleasant flavoured white tea, rather than a strongly fruity tisane with a sprinkling of tea leaves as an afterthought.  Make sure to let the water cool to about 80C before steeping, steep briefly, and drink it hot.  Three minutes makes for an intense cup, and anything more than that ruins it with bitterness, so I stick to two minutes.  I’m curious about how it would taste iced, so I’ll have to try it in the summer.

After I cycled to Reynolda to see a sea of daffodils, I cleaned up and returned to that side of town for a visit from l’orchestre national de Lyon.  Seeing Leonard Statkin conduct was a dream and reminded me of why I love being around a university, where things like this just arrive and give a golden glow to entire weeks (at least for me).

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Bow peeking out

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Silk tail

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Trusty loafers

 

 

Stars and a tea note

22 February 2017 § 1 Comment

22 February

Happy 222!  It feels a bit like a holiday, but maybe that’s just my allergies making me crazed.  Today the rain precluded the bike ride to Reynolda that I had planned, but at least I was spared the terror of sharing the road with the enormous metal boxes sometimes known as cars, and also my daffodils got to have a tea party of sorts.

My own tea party today happened alongside five hour exams in a row.  As I have a wine notebook, I noticed how silly it is not to have a tea notebook, given how much tea I drink compared to wine…or really compared to anything.  Bon, let the tea notes commence.

Satemwa oolong (Malawi)
A scent of hay welcomes my nose as I open the tea tin—it’s a pleasant, sweet hayness, to be sure, not an odour redolent of an afternoon in the horse meadow.  A satisfying, full oolong that somehow strikes me as delicately robust, this tea is not too strong to drink in the afternoon.  Only recently (ten seconds ago) did I read the entire label and realise they have a website, which means it may be possible to restock my Malawian tea supply without returning to the country.  It would, however, be nice to take a trip to the north, where the mountains and coffee plantations are, especially given that the label also assures me that Satemwa is ‘so proud to bring you this extremely rare African oolong tea’.  They also make an oaky, strongish black tea and a green tea that tasted like a humble/rustic sencha, but I finished those over a year ago.

I also had a refreshing mint green tea served very hot with a touch of dark brown sugar, which always makes me wonder why I do not live in Morocco, put on my stars shirt, and rode my scooter through the rain to the last clinical skills class of the year/forever.

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These shoes were a gift from mother two years ago (hi mutti!) that I used to wear to work every day and have started wearing again

This is one of the most reliable skirts.  I like to wear almost any colour with it—most often a mossy green wool sweater—but it was pretty warm today, even if I hadn’t been wearing stockings (my legs are not naturally iridescent).  This is usually the closest I get to wearing a t-shirt.

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When you need a hug but no one is around, find a thick sweater whose arms are happy to envelop you

One of my preceptors made brownies, and we had a casual few hours of discussing our interview and physical diagnosis exams this week and looking forward to clerkships.  My other preceptor divulged that she used to have giggle attacks and had to leave the patient’s room sometimes.  Whether that resulted from lack of sleep during residency or the fact that she is a pediatrician was unclear, but it gave me hope for my own pathology of laughter…

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Holding my notebook because I left for school right after this

At this point, we have learned all of the basic physical exams and how to interview patients.  Somehow, slowly, I have grown more comfortable asking the most intimate questions I can imagine asking someone.  Over the past year and a half, I have just begun the lifelong practice of being present and open with a patient, who is inherently in a vulnerable position by sharing private information, whilst allowing a story to unfurl.  It is difficult to extract all of the information I want or need and to remain the guiding listener, rather than the interrogator, in the conversation.  It fascinates me that the real work of medicine is entering someone else’s narrative and welcoming (accepting? earning?) their trust.  Of course I will learn how to do lots of things in the future, but right now I have a clear vision of how the doctor-patient relationship ought to be, and that is a good starting point.

Now I will go eat a delicious bowl full of chicken salad that I made yesterday.  It has excessive amounts (the right amount) of toasted walnut bits, grapes, and very thinly sliced celery, and I used half sour cream and half mayonnaise, which makes it much better since I dislike the latter.  Have a grape day.

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Kristen gave an enormous glass bowl to me for Christmas, drastically increasing the average bowl size in my kitchen from minuscule to almost normal

 

Candy

21 February 2017 § 1 Comment

21 February 2017

I have been composing in my head a lot and then deleting or forgetting it all, which is surely a sign of failing to stop once and a while and write with my physical hands and a physical pen.  Studying for boards is an absurd, unnecessarily grueling process that perhaps deserves its own post—or rather, it deserves nothing, but this one thing represents so many things that are perverse about medical education, and an intelligent exploration of that is better than complaining.

In the meantime, I will focus on a fulfilling source of choice for me, which is getting dressed.  Especially when considering that the limitations on what I wear take effect in a few months, I enjoy putting together things that I usually reserve for completely separate ensembles.  Although I dress by intuition, and reasoning usually ruins the process (which isn’t necessarily art, but it’s a process that often stretches me, because I like thinking about what physical things say about abstract things), recently I have found that setting my intention for the day, or focusing on one emotion, or wondering what the sartorial equivalent of a cup of bancha hojicha is (more on that in future), has expanded that feeling of intuition and led me to find new ways of putting together old things.  This idea has given me a sense of being grounded, of the creativity that comes of the recombination of what is already comfortably in my life.  Native elements, rearranged, promise near-infinite variety and newness, in a comforting and somehow fresh way that actual new things cannot give.

In my physical body, fatigue is growing, and so when my homemade espresso—2 tablespoons of coffee and 2-3 ounces of water, made in a French press and sipped with a sleepy eyed gaze—was brewing at 7 o’clock this morning, I pulled out my Willy Wonka sweater and put on the sweetness I lacked.

 

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Come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination

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With a silk-cashmere scarf for a chilly morning

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Off to class

Dreams

8 December 2016 § 1 Comment

7 December

On Monday night, I was enjoying Christmas treats with a few other students at the home of one of the gastroenterologists who went on the Haiti trip in the spring.  His family has two cute dogs, and one of them scratched my hand.  It hurt a little, but it is a small scratch.  That night, I had a dream that I was in the hospital, extremely unwell with dog scratch fever (my imagination’s variation on cat scratch fever) and experiencing acute renal failure as a result of the antibiotics—a twist that doubtless comes from my chat with a patient last year who was experiencing that very consequence.

Scottish deerhounds: my future friends

I am tired from three hours of reading PE scans for a radiology project after a long day of class and wards visits, and I need a break before I return to renal physiology for a few hours before bed, so I’m thinking about some other dreams I have had during school.

Labels just in case you missed the enormous dark blob.

Labels just in case you missed the enormous dark blob.

During one dream, I was at my cardiology professor’s birthday party, and, to imagine this properly, you must know who this magical manlet is.  Many an inch less towering than I, he is a wonderful professor, even if his trousers are far too long and his sneakers unnaturally squeaky and white.  He was wearing a party hat in my dream and I think there was confetti and some sort of pastel-coloured cake with sprinkles.  I don’t remember who else was at the party except for a lanky electrophysiologist who delivered one lecture to us at some point and one of my school friends, whom we are always trying to convince to marry our dear cardio professor (who cannot be more than 35 years old) so that his name and beautiful spirit may live on in even tinier manlets.

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Brought my briefcase just in case.

Another dream involved contracting the dreaded bladder cancer after years of failing to take praziquantel after unscrupulous days of swimming in Lake Malawi.  Luckily I awoke and promptly avoiding this catastrophe by having Grace send her extra drugs to me and checked the correct dosing before swallowing a oddly cut pill.  This incident makes it easy for me to remember the preventive treatment for schistosomiasis.

After a swim in the lake with Fitz, Grace's dog

After a swim in the lake with Fitz, Grace’s dog

There were several other silly dreams last year, and I have forgotten most of them, but one I remember clearly.  I was lying on my group’s table in the anatomy lab, second from the back left corner, draped in a blanket and feeling the cold metal of the table pressing up against my body.  My cadaver, whom we had named Larry (although I always called him Lawrence, much more dignified) was standing next to the table and holding my hand.  I actually treasure this dream; the hand to me seems the most human thing of the body, and I often gazed at and even rested my own hand upon Lawrence’s hand during lab.  Hands sense the lightest pressure, they are capable of the most delicate movements, and they can impart gentleness and warmth to others.  I think this fascination of mine made the limbs block full of wonder in that respect; it was an intimate partnership to hold another’s hand in my own and slowly explore all of the delicate workings of its interior.  I never offered my reflections at our ceremony at the end of anatomy for the cadavers who had generously given their bodies for us to learn from.  My quiet thoughts during lab, along with my dream, are enough to make me remember the vitality I envisioned in my cadaver, contemplating the long and, to me, unknown life he lived and seeing the sum of his years in his marvellously knitted limbs and organs that I held in my hands.

Cross-section through the mid-metacarpals

Cross-section through the mid-metacarpals

Political thought

21 November 2016 § Leave a comment

21 November

[written a few days after the election]

As someone registered as an independent and with an eccentric voting record (for the sake of transparency, although better if it were for the sake of hot sake: McCain + Romney + Bernie + Hillary; this is not a trend towards the liberal, but rather a careful weighing of issues and values for each election) (yes, I agree that voting for Bernie was dumb, but it was fun; I didn’t want Hillary to win the Democratic nomination; and I thought surely Trump wouldn’t win, so I chose not to vote Republican in the primaries), the drama of the past six months has been even more riveting, chilling, disturbing, amusing, et al.  I miss the time when watching Trump say ‘China’ made me fall on the floor laughing—no apologies for being a myotonic goat—instead of feel like a cold charcoal is sitting in my stomach.

I disliked HRC for so long.  I thought she negatively affected our country in so many ways, I thought she wasted time and energy crafting an ill-advised, illogical healthcare bill when Bill was president, and I thought she was too much of a warmonger and Wall Street confidante for the good of most of the country.

Over the past several months, she changed my mind in a few ways.  Her response to the disturbing presence of Trump gave me a new perspective regarding the Left, which, like the Right, I normally watch warily with side eye.  The idea of and commitment to running on a platform of love and kindness, in your words, is new, even if the person saying those words was, like every politician, a liar, a shapeshifter, a smiling slippery eel.  So much work that has taken so long to come to fruition can be easily undone, easily with terrible speed.  Will we destroy our own beautifully created world even faster now, the world that God created so terribly, lovingly, awesomely?  There is no long hope in earthly things, and yet the people of God are called to embody love and enact justice for others on earth and to live as good stewards of all things—our physical environment, the people around us, our minds, our energy, our time.  Little of that way of being is visible here.

Last night, I went to my pub theology group led by the young female priest at my church, just to be with other people; others who are feeling frustrated, who wanted both to vent and to make sense, or at least have a meaningful thought, about what is happening, what will happen, and what a realistic picture of our country is right now.  I guess it helped?  I don’t know.  I left feeling kinship with my friends there, but still shaken, adrift.  Nothing essential has changed, no cataclysmic event has occurred, and yet this sick feeling will not go away.


I have found the exit polls for this election interesting, and this essay to be a helpful meditation, if insulting to working-class, not-necessarily-anti-intellectual people.

Escapism: this dog is having an amazing birthday.

Escapism: this dog is having an amazing birthday.