On the final day of the final year of the decade, I find myself not wanting to celebrate in a bombastic manner. In stark contrast to previous years where New Year’s Eve was cause for loud, raucous festivities, my partner and I decided to make the journey from the clamor of New York City to the quietude of rural Delaware and the comfort of a close relative’s home on the banks of the Mispillion River. The attitude here is laid back, calm, pensive. The only thing that seems to shift is the wind that pushes through the pines.
Rather than stress about celebrations, I opt to make a simple bowl of tea for my partner and her aunt to mark the passing of the decade. Wishing to enjoy the waning light of the day, we decide to hold a small tea gathering in the chilly December air.
Upon a small table which has been built out of the scraps of an old wooden fence, I place a simple 盆 bon made of carved burl wood. Atop this are arranged the implements for tea: a vintage 益子焼茶碗 Mashiko-yaki chawan, an old bamboo 茶杓 chashaku, a red and black lacquer 甲赤棗 kōaka natsume.
Angular shadows of the late afternoon and Winter’s sunlight create a shifting landscape across the uneven surface of the old wooden table.
The kōaka natsume, which I tend to only use on days of celebration, looks like a large bright red sun against a pale blue sky.
Once opened, it reveals a low hill of bright green 抹茶 matcha.
As I move from cleansing the lacquered natsume to the implements within the teabowl, I move tea objects around the horizontal plane of the table, from table’s surface to bon.
For my partner’s aunt, who is new to the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu, these actions seem as if they are part of some mysterious ritual. However, after the many years I’ve been practicing tea, they are nothing special. My movements are straightforward and direct, without flourish. Nothing fancy. Just enough. Everything I have prepared before, natsume, chashaku, tea whisk and tray are all I need.
The teabowl, the vessel which will convey the tea to my guests, is just that, a vessel. Nothing special.
I draw forth three scoops of matcha from the kōaka natsume, tapping the chashaku along the inside of the teabowl to remove the residual tea powder from its curved tip.
Pouring a measure of hot water from an antique cast iron kettle into the chawan, I whisk the tea into a thick foam.
Passing the bowl to my partner, I pause, listening to the wind pressing through the trees. The soft hum of pine needles shifting in the wind and the sound of an iron bell striking in the distance.
In the last days of the year, we can often feel as if we are working towards some sort of momentous climax. Even more so, we see the end of a decade as some final chapter closing. However, time rarely seems to work this way.
When we make tea, we begin not with the whisking of the tea or the heating of the kettle. It doesn’t even begin when we set up a tea space. Instead, it begins years before this, when we first learn how to make a bowl of tea. Perhaps it begins even earlier, when we first awaken to the mere idea of having tea.
Similarly, the tea gathering does not end when the guest finishes their bowl of matcha nor when the final bow is given between host and guest. It doesn’t seem to ever end. Instead, the tea further seems to meld seamlessly into one’s own tea practice and one’s own life.
Like layers of sand being pushed up, one on top of each other, by the continuous forces of the ocean. There’s no distinguishing between one layer or another. They just create this thing we call a beach, and this is only something that we can immediately perceive. There is much more sand on the bottom of the ocean. Time is rather like this.
We believe we see change and abruptness, and yet, when viewed in its totality, the change is regular, nothing special. We revel and rave at the shifting from one year to another, one decade to another, and yet, this, too, is nothing special.
In the practice of tea, my teacher has told me to learn the forms and then forget the forms. In learning the forms, we forget the self. When we forget the forms, we find that the once perceived barrier between form and self was merely something we had constructed, something we pushed up against. Much like how New Year’s Eve becomes New Year’s Day, this too is 無門関 mumonkan, a “gateless gate”.
When I cleanse the teabowl one last time and we take our last bows, the tea gathering doesn’t end, it merely transforms. When we forget time (年忘れtoshi-wasare, lit. “forgetting time/forgetting the year”), perhaps we can see what we get so worked up about. A year’s end. A decade’s beginning. Nothing special.