Early August and Summer’s heat peaks. Out in the garden, daylight glows radiant orange, beaming off of the flat broad maple leaves, through skin of squash flowers, through vines that crawl over the wire trellis down onto sunburst tomatoes.
In the high heat of late Summer, 大署 Taisho (Dàshǔ in Mandarin, lit. “Major Heat”), the intense warmth of the day is inescapable. Tea practice, if in the environs of my makeshift tea hut, is limited to the very early mornings or late evenings when the air is cooler and the light is low. Otherwise, I sit by the glass doors of my studio, looking out on the garden, waiting for the inevitable rainstorm to grace me with a momentary respite from the heat.
Summer rain in the Hudson Valley is frequent, so much so that I’ve begun to sense it. Bright sunlight gives way to dark clouds and warm breezes kick up, pushing the canopies of trees in great green tumbles and swirls. Within minutes, a storm can swell and, for a moment, abate the heat of the day.
As I walk and wander through the garden, enjoying vignettes of flowers and foliage, daylight dims and the first drops of rain begin to scatter.
Quickly, I pluck small, ripe fruit from beneath jagged leaves and bring them with me back into my studio space before the downpour begins to swiftly overtake me.
In my studio, the air is sweet with lingering incense. The temperature cool. The smooth surface of the wooden floorboards invite me to sit upon them and set before me an arrangement of objects for tea.
It is an informal affair. The sound of water boiling echoes the sound of rain. The shuffle of my bare feet across the floor and the quiet landing of a lacquer tray upon a flat plank of wood. Tea and teabowl. A clean cloth and utensils of bamboo. A deep breath and I let thoughts and feelings fall away.
The neatly rounded edges of a small 平棗 hira-natsume feel slick in the hand. If left to wander, the plain curving pattern of time-polished wood grain would have me imagine the cool climes of an 縁側 engawa, the kind of enclosed porch I wish my own home had on days like today.
The cream color of the old bowl is welcomed and relaxed.
The soft crazing of the antique glaze feels at ease alongside Summer’s heat and the sudden showers.
I cleanse each object.
I cleanse the bowl.
Hot water from the kettle feels refreshing and cool as it sparkles translucent, catching sunlight as it filters through the rain clouds, through the glass doors of my studio,
…through the thin cut bamboo tines of the wetted 茶筅 chasen.
Even when wiped clean does the old bowl exude freshness. Even as it sits within the wide expanse of the shallow vessel does the white linen 茶巾 chakin feel inviting like a crisp breeze.
Tea is drawn from the wooden caddy and placed down in the center of the bowl where a circle of glaze sits, surrounded by exposed clay where once the bowl had been stacked with others upon it in the kilns of Vietnam perhaps as long ago as the 14th or 15th century.
The bright green mound of freshly sifted tea glows against the soft earthen colors of the old bowl. Three scoops. A sigil is carved.
The 茶杓 chashaku is lightly tapped against the inner edge of the bowl.
Shadows collect in the cool concave.
On the hottest of Summer’s days, I relish when I am given the chance to make a bowl of tea, when I can softly set the whisk’s tines upon the heap of powdered matcha, and delight as I pour water from my kettle down through their spindling structure.
Small beads of water cling to these thin cut tines, resembling drops of dew, glittering jewels. So refreshed I feel upon seeing these that I, perhaps just for a moment, forget the heat of the day and the worries of life. I sometimes struggle not to daydream, caught in the vision of being contained with such a dewdrop.
Hand to chasen, I center myself and whisk the tea. Soon, 抹茶 matcha powder, water, bowl, motion, and breath combine, giving rise to a fine light foam. The shallow bowl cools the tea and, as I lift the whisk, a slight dome rises upwards from the center of the 茶碗 chawan.
Light dims as thunder peals and the sound of rain surrounds me. I pluck a fruit that I’d picked from my garden and remove it from its lantern skin. Tart and sweet akin to the pressed sugar sweets I once savored in tea gatherings long ago.
I pause for a moment and let the flavor of the fruit fade. I observe the time it takes for the sensation to pass. For the light to shift.
For bubbles to burst within the foam that floats upon the tea. I note time in the space it occupied, in the shape of the tea bowl, the cracks in its glaze, the unevenness of its edges.
I breathe and lift the chawan, holding it wide in the palms of my hands. The heat of the tea radiates through the clay and glaze and out onto my skin, and, although warm, the effect it has on my mind is cooling.
I watch as the matcha’s foam crawls down the inner walls of the shallow bowl. Down the cream colored slope of the surface. Down until the ring of exposed clay emerges. Down until the tea reaches my lips.
Three sips is all it takes and then it’s gone, save for a bit of residue that has collected against bubbles and bursts in the glaze.
As the storm outside settles, I cleanse the bowl and objects once more. The bowl is wiped clean and the chasen is set upright as one does in my school during the hottest days of Summer. The scoop is set beside it.
The natsume is moved once more.
Bowl and objects are placed once again atop the lacquered tray. At rest.
Summer rain and a bowl of tea. Shadows collect in concave shallows. Cool comfort and moistened surfaces. The lingering flavor of tea, of fruit from the garden, of fragrance of long faded incense. As Summer’s heat peaks, rain clouds come and cause reason for pause. As they part and the heat rises again, what did we glean from this momentary respite? Was it enough to cool the mind? Is this the first sign of Autumn?
Today thunder peals through the Hudson Valley and the heat of the day hangs overhead like a thick, heavy cloud. In early Summer, the garden blooms and bursts in bright colors of iris’ feathery flowers from every corner and nook. Spikes in heat are a reminder that the depths of Summer have yet to come, while the occasional rain shower refreshes the body and mind like a welcome gift to abate the swelter of an early Summer’s day.
Earlier this week I had received a gift of from my dear friend in Seoul, South Korea, and as the heat lingers, I choose to enjoy these by the open door of my garden studio. Packages of tea and a piece of ceramic ware come as a delightful respite and reminder of friendship’s power to assuage feelings of loneliness amidst a period of separation and isolation.
From paper of pink and white emerges a marbled and splashed surface of glazed ceramic. What is revealed is a fine piece of 분청사기 buncheong-jagi made by Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun.
While I have come to amass a small collection of this ceramicist’s work, I’ve not yet seen anything like this. Its form is similar to that of a teapot, save for the absence of a lid. Rather, it is a ewer, or, more specifically, a 숙우 sookwoo, a vessel to cool water before it is poured to brew tea.
Unlike the austere white wares I’ve come to associate with the artist, the glaze of the tiny vessel is brushed onto the ceramic body in exuberant splashes and scrapes of white and blush pink, revealing the grey, iron-rich clay beneath their undulating veneer in a style known as 귀얄 guiyal.
Turning it in my hand,
inspecting its foot,
I imagine my friend’s presence, her keen love for buncheong pottery, and her ability to affect my aesthetic with hers. I am reminded of when we first met and how she explained the qualities of Korean tea. The emphasis of naturalness and ease, both in the appearance of objects, but also in the manner one makes tea. Over the many years since then, I’ve come to realize that these qualities arise only with practice and sitting with life as it reveals itself through time.
The sound of the kettle boiling breaks my focused gaze and ceramic daydreaming. I set the tiny sookwoo down upon the broad expanse of wood beside my open studio door and begin to assemble wares to brew tea.
A joint of bamboo cut and cleaved to form a scoop for tea. A thin branch from a fruit tree to help push the tea leaves from scoop to pot.
A cup and wooden cup stand.
A flat black rock found in my garden to act as a lid rest.
Objects are wetted and warmed and the heat of the morning grows.
First the small sookwoo,
Tiny curled leaves of tea are pulled from a neatly sealed pouch and placed onto the upturned curve of the bamboo scoop.
Dark, blue-green buds of the year’s first harvested 우전차 woojeoncha (lit. “pre-rain tea”) picked in April before 곡우 Gogu (“Grain Rain”, April 20-21) shine like lacquer and curl like old, soft leather. Their scent when dry is sweet like guava or ripening loquat.
I lift and tilt the scoop downward towards the open mouth of the empty teapot, using the thin branch as a guide to move the tiny leaves along.
Resting within the dark hollow of the warmed vessel, the aroma of the tea rises and reveals notes both sweet and savory.
Water resting in the sookwoo is warm enough now to pour onto the delicate leaves.
As they submerge and saturate, they tumble and twirl in spirals and swirls until they float upon the bubbly surface, then sink.
The lid is placed atop the pot and, for a minute or two, I wait for the tea to steep. I wait and a thunder cloud covers the sun.
From sookwoo to pot and now from pot to sookwoo, I pour the tea. New fragrances emerge from the flared opening of the serving vessel. Sweet still, yet with hints of young grass and flowers.
Poured into the cup, the color of the tea is revealed against the matte grey and white background of the buncheong glaze. Vibrant golden green. A hue I’ve come to recognize from fresh Korean teas.
I lift and enjoy the aroma. Sweet. Delicate. Complex but not overpowering. I sip from the cup. Beautiful. Satisfying. Layered. Flavors from the air, from the rain, from the soil and stone that I’ve only found within the rocky and wooded slopes of 지리산 Jirisan decades ago when I visited the farms where these teas are grown and hand-processed. A sweet reminder of my life’s wanderings and the friends I’ve made along the way.
So small is the pot that only three cups are produced and easily savored. I return the kettle to a gentle boil and pour more water into the sookwoo to wait until it has cooled enough to brew the delicate tea buds. Once ready, I pour from sookwoo to pot again.
Leaves tumble and settle and begin to look as if they were alive again with varying colors of emerald and mossy green.
I place the lid back slowly upon the open teapot, admiring the leaves as they continue to unfurl.
Again, I pause and wait for the tea to steep. A cardinal booms his high-pitched call from atop a pine tree in the garden, its scarlet coat contrasting against the deep green of the conifer needles. Wind pushes through the pines. The sky grows darker and the heat rises more.
I lift and pour the tea from the pot into the empty sookwoo.
A second round of tea fills the small cup. The color is brighter, deeper. The aroma is thicker, more pronounced. The flavor is more pointed, greater clarity and bold. The finish lingers longer. Hints of limestone, mallow, clean river rock, the sweet taste of a forest right before a rain.
I stop and admire the leaves at this stage. The crackles and patterns and brushstrokes on the cup. The absence of glaze where potter’s finger gripped the clay. Spots where iron burst and pushed through the white and blue and grey of the fired slip.
Wind begins to grow outside my studio’s door. Whispering through flowering catnip.
Tossing umbels of tightly-grouped Spiraea blossoms against their bright green bases.
Inside, action and inaction meld. Practice is made of pauses, of stops and starts.
Water warms and is poured again from sookwoo to pot.
Leaves rise with the tide of liquid. Foam of oils and air collect and gather around exposed edges and against the round of the teapot’s mouth.
Light enters into this tiny vignetted world, eliminating leaves, sparkling against convex bubbles and the rough edges of exposed clay.
Lid placed back atop this shining world and the tea is left to steep once again.
Rain begins to patter outside upon the concrete flat, upon the leaves of bushes, between rocks in the garden as I wait for the tea to brew.
Moisture caught underneath teapot lid slowly evaporates in the growing humidity of the approaching storm. The heat of the day throbs less intensely now as rain drops’ cadence quickens, pushing cool air into my studio space, wafting fragrances of flowers, wet earth, moss on rocks, brewing tea.
The iron bell hanging in the garden gongs a low sonorous tone and I pour the steeped tea out from pot to sookwoo once more.
From sookwoo to cup.
The heat of early Summer fades and refreshing air wafts as water pools and rain crashes and thunder softly booms. I am reminded that today is 단오 Dano (lit. “the first fifth”, 端午 Duānwǔ in Mandarin), a day filled with 양/陽 yang/yáng energy, a day of ancestor worship, a day when members of the 조선/朝鮮 Joseon royal court would present the king with a book of Dano poetry (단오첩, 端午帖 Danocheop). In turn, the king would present his courtiers with special Dano fans made by artisans, which were in turn tributes from the provinces.
A fan given by a king to his courtiers as the yang energy rises. A sookwoo to cool water as a gift from a dear friend. Rain showers to allay the warmth of early Summer. Fresh tea to occupy my mind. As the rain breaks the heat of the day, a reminder of friendship breaks the feelings of loneliness.
Wishing everyone a beautiful International Tea Day! Drink a cup, bowl, or pot of tea and think of all that went into the growing, harvesting, processing, packing, shipping, selling, and sending of that tea so you can enjoy it! There are lots of people and beings that work towards making that little cup you and I savor. As they say, it’s all in the tea! So, drink up, give thanks to all the labor and love that went towards making this moment happen, and share!
Today, I brew up a personal favorite of mine: a 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá poetically named 《兄弟》“Xiōngdì”, “Brothers” which I and two of my own “tea brothers”, So Han Fan of West China Tea in Austin, Texas, and Steve Odell of Enthea Teahouse in Portland, Oregon, sourced while traveling in China in 2013.
The tea is grown, tended by, picked and processed by the 林 Lín family on the high slopes of 烏崬山 Wūdōngshān in 潮州 Cháozhōu, in northeastern 廣東 Guǎngdōng province.
The tea’s poetic name alludes to how it is made up of two distinct cultivars that are grown in a single grove, which when processed, maintain a unique harmony and balance in their flavor.
I brew the tea in a contemporary 汝窯 Rǔ yáo celadon teapot gifted to me by So Han, long before he had opened his tea house.
I brew the tea in a contemporary 汝窯 Rǔ yáo celadon teapot gifted to me by So Han, long before he had opened his tea house. The cup is one of a pair, a gift from 郑国谷 Zhèng Guógǔ of the Chinese artist collective the Yangjiang Group, whom I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with on several art projects, namely the 2016 site-specific participatory installation Unwritten Rules Cannot Be Broken at the Guggenheim Museum.
Using the cup today, I’m reminded of my time working and making tea with Guógǔ, who, while widely known for his art, is also a skilled practitioner in tea, often infusing tea and local tea culture into his art practice.
Flavors and memories always seem to mix and bring up emotions from the past.
Gratitude. Joy. Bittersweet remembrances. Longing to be with friends whose paths I’ve crossed a myriad of times or just once and never again. Teachers and students. Tea masters and aficionados. Farmers, artists, poets, musicians, and monks. Deepest of thanks and warmest of thoughts to all who’ve been part of my life in tea, each somehow pointing the way. So much to celebrate. Today, and everyday.
Spring has faded and the first warm days of Summer of the old lunisolar calendar have arrived in the Hudson Valley. Birdsongs peal against the bright blue sky. Rhubarb flowers climb and explode in the garden and I don’t have it in me to cut them down.
Heat rises. So, too, does a wisp of smoke from my incense burner, filling my studio with the soft scent of 伽羅 kyara. The plastered walls and wooden floors remain cold to the touch. How long before these will warm as well and no cool solace will exist until Autumn arrives?
I pour fresh water into my kettle and sit myself down upon the floor before a sliding glass door that looks out onto my garden. Sounds and fresh breezes blow in, mixing with the incense in the air.
As the heat from the kettle grows, I produce a small ceramic container: a celadon jar originally intended for sweets turned tea caddy with a lid made of dried leaves, cork, and thread.
Inside are the tightly rolled leaves of a 大禹嶺高山茶 Dàyǔlǐng gāoshān chá that a friend gifted to me last Winter. Will their flavors be as tightly kept as their leaves are bundled? Or will they open as Summer has here in the river valley I’ve called home for these past few years?
I loosely arrange objects across the wooden plank I use for a tea table. Cloth. 茶船 chá chuán. A vintage 綠泥西施壺 lǜní Xīshī hú. A shallow 青白茶碗 qīngbái cháwǎn from the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279). Objects are kept informal, alluding to the feeling of the day.
I measure out a portion of tea and place it into the hollow of my warmed teapot.
I wait for a moment and watch the sunlight filter through the pines and maples that tower over the garden outside the open door.
Birds cackle and dogs in the distance bark but do not wake mine who sleeps beside my work desk. A relaxed state seems to settle all about me as I wait for the tea to brew.
Pot in hand, I draw it to the wide opening of the shallow teabowl.
With a simple downward tilt of my wrist and the pot and the tea pours effortlessly into the empty vessel. The color of tea is initially bright and clear against the pale blue-green of the qīngbái cháwǎn.
As the liqueur continues to pour, the color deepens and darkens, until jade turns to gold.
The light of the day is caught against the flat surface of the warm liquid. Blue sky against the crystalline tea liqueur.
As I set the teapot back down into the chá chuán and lift the lid off and angle it upon the open top, the distinctive scent of Dàyǔlǐng becomes present. Big, clean, a mixture of fresh vegetation and fragrant magnolia. Even before I let the liquid cross by lips, I feel as if I’ve already slacked my thirst.
As I take the first sip, I am met with minerality. Next, sweetness. Cascades of flavors followed by a pronounced lingering mouthfeel. Dàyǔlǐng is a unique tea.
Often harvested in Winter, the leaves produce a markedly sweet, if not cane sugar-like, flavor, which recede and evolve into notes of fresh greens and flowers that bloom on trees. The feeling left over is soft, buttery, almost chewy. The qualities of this tea meld into the environment of the cool climes of my garden-level studio.
I relax more and, as I do, so too does my brewing style. I let the tea steep longer.
The color, accordingly, darkens.
The liqueur seems to glow as the sunlight does against the trees and the mountains in the distance.
As the day fades, so too does the tea. Countless steepings have pushed this tea to evolve into a calm, crisp elixir. Still holding on to its Wintery sweetness, although, gone is the intense complexity that the first infusions produced.
Early Summer, too, feels this way. Gone are the radical shifts that marked the previous seasons. Gone is the ice and the garden locked with snow. Gone is the hardened soil, the bare trees, the dark clouds.
What has come is sweet, mellow, easy. The birds relax, as do the leaves in the breeze. The sound of a frog is heard nearby as creeks throb and gurgle beside willows and rocks in gullies and between homes and hillocks of the Hudson Valley.
The sun has woken this world around me and now it stands tall and shimmers in shades of green. The tea leaves, too, evoke this change, this quality, this coming to life from Winter’s hold.
Cool shadows cast darker and darker shade across the stretch of wood and floorboards of my studio. The ease of early Summer spreads and collects in the cooling vessels of my assembled tea set.
Warm winds and a shallow bowl. Winter’s tea and Summer’s flavor.
Today is the fifth of May. Ostensibly, it is the beginning of Summer on the traditional lunisolar calendar (立夏 Rikka). And, yet, all around me it still feels like Spring. Rain clouds gather overhead. New green leaves bristle on trees. Shoots rise from the earth. Peony bushes push upwards in the garden, yet their showy blooms have yet to burst. There is a feeling of anticipation, a longing for flowers to unfurl, for skies to clear, for the heat of the day to grow. Alas, the cool of the previous season still lingers and morning’s mist hangs long until noon.
In the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu, May 5th, the fifth day of the fifth month, is marked by celebration, flavored heavily by its culture of origin. Double five, or 重五 Chōgo in Japanese, is one of the five seasonal festivals on the traditional calendar of Japan, and is associated with a myriad of observances.
Today is 端午の節句 Tango no Sekku, which demarcates the beginning of the month of the horse (the fifth month). At this point in the year, one should begin to feel the heat rise. Yet, here in Upstate New York, a chill remains.
子供の日 Kodomo no hi, or Children’s Day (historically 男の節句 Otoko no Sekku, or Boy’s Day) also falls on this day. The birth of the new season, rites of passage, youthful vigor, 鯉幟 koinobori fluttering atop homes with children. All around boasts the promise of great things to come. Alas, here, Summer’s throb still feels faint.
It is also 菖蒲の節句 Shōbu no Sekku, referring to the practice of hanging shōbu (sweet-flag, Acorus calamus, or Japanese iris, Iris ensata var. ensata) and 蓬 yomogi (mugwort, Artemisia) from the eaves of one’s home (which were believed to ward-off evil spirits and fire).
Here in the Hudson Valley, the iris have yet to bloom, although I still manage to create a bundle of mugwort and iris leaves, which I hang-up against my makeshift tea hut.
With such a multifaceted day, it might feel overwhelming for a tea person to choose what they will do. So much expectation on just one day. For me, it offers a unique meditation, one which I infuse into today’s tea offering.
Setting off across my garden to the dark interior of my weathered shed, I’ve created within it a space to ponder time. Outside, purple-capped deadnettle and broad-leafed garlic mustard grow high. Remnants of Spring.
Inside my hut hangs the soft scent of 白檀 byakudan. The sound of water boiling within the bronze and iron kettle is faint but audible.
Summer in the world of tea is marked by many aspects. One major event is the closing of the 炉 ro and the beginning of the use of the portable brazier, the 風炉 furo. 初風炉 shoburo (lit. “first furo”) marks the first use of the furo. Today, I will use my furo for the first time, in anticipation for Summer’s emergence.
As I look forward to the new season, I also look back time. The bronze and iron 風炉釜 furogama are of an ancient tripod form, akin to those used during the 唐 Táng (618-907) and 宋 Sòng (960-1279) periods.
Beside it sits a square-shaped 鬼萩水指 Oni-hagi mizusashi, and before this I’ve placed a small round 茶入 chaire, enrobed in a blue and silver brocaded 仕服 shifuku, emblazoned with a design of peonies.
As I place a peach-hued 茶碗 chawan beside the tiny tea container, I recognize the significance of the choice in wares I’ve made.
In the practice of tea, we sit and hope to become connected to the moment. “Now”, as a distinct moment in time, is fleeting.
The instance we recognize it, it has passed. Rather, the moment we find ourselves in is often experienced tangentially.
The peonies on the brocaded pouch refer to a flower that has yet to bloom.
The tradition that associates this aspect to Summer is based on an understanding of the peony’s significance in ancient East Asian culture.
The presence of the flower woven into silk, which I splay open to reveal the ceramic chaire it contains.
Angles shift in the tearoom as object are oriented and reoriented based on their action and function.
During the furo seasons, objects are typically set in line with the brazier.
Then, as each object is cleaned, they reset again against the line that runs parallel to the mizusashi.
The bowl remains between host and furo.
The lid of the kettle is removed.
The 柄杓 hishaku rests against the open mouth of the steaming 茶釜 chagama.
During Kodomo no hi, or, more specifically, Otoko no Sekku, references to ancient 武士 bushi (warrior) culture abound. As a rite of passage, it marked a moment in time where a child could take on the affects of a 侍 samurai. In the realm of tea, the hishaku becomes an arrow, the iris becomes a spear.
Here, too, future and past oscillate to triangulate the present. A child assumes the role of an adult, even if just for a day. The adult longs for the carefree nature of when they were a child. Objects used to mark the coming of a new season are imbued with ancient connotations. Between these vectors exists, somewhere, now.
The lid of the tea container is removed and tea is heaped into the center of the peach-glazed teabowl.
A small mountain to climb rises within.
Hot water is drawn from the boiling kettle and poured atop the bright green 抹茶 matcha powder. The tiny mountain collapses, sinking slowly into the warm sea.
As the kettle murmurs and birds call, the tea is mixed in a slow, methodical manner. A slight breeze kicks up outside and I can hear the leaves of shōbu and yomogi beat against the exterior of my tea hut.
In the darkness of this tiny space, I make a single bowl of 濃茶 koicha. An offering for the season to come. A medicine of the past to fortify me as Summer arrives.
Drinking the tea down and concluding my lone tea session, I am yet again drawn to ponder time.
A shallow teabowl is employed as a 替茶碗 kae-chawan to cleanse the whisk. Perhaps I will use this piece for a future tea gathering.
I observe the angle at which I place the bowl down and arrange the cleansed objects upon it and within it.
These angles point towards the heat that will rise as Summer continues.
Cold water is added to the chagama and the bronze lid is placed back upon it.
The bamboo ladle is laid across the rim of the 建水 kensui.
A final 拝見 haiken is prepared to mark the first use of the furo.
Light from the small window beams and catches against the gold foil beneath the lid of the chaire.
Light catches against the curved surface of the tea container.
Against the carved tip of the 茶杓 chashaku.
Against the woven fibers of the shifuku pouch.
Future, past, present caught in light.
Exposed. Laid bare. There to be pondered.
As Spring shifts to Summer. As the portable brazier is used for the first time.
The last few days of 穀雨 Gǔyǔ (“Grain Rain”). Here, it feels unfathomable that we are on the precipice of Summer. How would you know as it is raining today in New York? Yet, hints of the incoming warm season are all around.
Blossoms on trees burst. Leaves shine an emerald green. The earth is warm and wet. The insects abound, soon to chime and chatter as they do in the Summer months.
Today, as the world feels cool and refreshing, I sit by my window and enjoy the sound of rain pattering on the plants outside.
Ferns and hostas.
Lilacs and budding flowers.
Water droplets become small jewels as the collect and form bright prisms on velvet foliage.
Old teaware accompanies new vegetation and the awakening of the latent season.
An antique 石灣 Shíwān pot and blue-and-white cup.
Roasted tea beams bright gold liqueur.
Low light filtered through the trees.
The feeling is calm and casual as I spread my wares and body across the surface of my wooden floor.
Birds call outside.
Reflections fade and evolve across the crackled surface of the iridescent glaze of the old teapot.
The flavor of tea lingers even as the scent of it flags.
Cool breeze and the emptiness that’s caused by the sound of raindrops.
Finally, Winter’s cold seems like a memory as Spring’s first warm day is here. Birds call and breezes push through the trees whose branches now brim with red and green buds of the new season. April’s air is fragrant and fresh. So, too, is the soil, waking from its hibernation.
Shoots and seedlings push up from the wet earth, soaked and saturated by the weekend’s rain.
Stepping across the garden to huddle in my makeshift hut, I dust-off the floorboards and bring with me a bowl to make tea.
A 棗 natsume.
A wooden scoop of speckled bamboo that looks like dew, that looks like intermittent showers.
An old thermos filled with hot water.
A 建水 kensui to collect the dregs.
Sitting in my hut, I meditate. Wisps of incense smoke fade and the sound of a bird scratching at the moss upon the roof wakes me, rousing me to make tea.
I arrange the wares to make an informal bowl of 薄茶 usucha.
The silk of my 袱紗 fukusa is folded and pressed against the lid of the tea caddy and then again against the spotted surface of the tea scoop.
Bowl and whisk are warmed and in the sunlight that pours through the one window of my hut, steam is seen rising from wetted objects as they wait to be used to make tea.
Unlike Winter, the world of Spring throbs with life, pulsates with energy, and booms with noise and sound from all directions. The ring of the 茶杓 chashaku against the inner edge of the grey-glazed clay of my 井戸茶碗 Idochawan pairs with the sound of a robin digging for worms outside my garden hut. The rush of water from the thermos into the bowl harmonizes with the song that the wind and the trees sing above me.
The back and forth of the whisk as bright green foam rises creates a rhythmic tune that syncopates against the hum of the warbler’s whistle, the crow’s caw, the horn of the train along the river’s edge, and the din of the town in the distance.
I am reminded that what we often call peace is just another word for chaos. What we often label as silence is just a cacophony of sounds that blend and meld together.
Spring in full vigor is activity emerging from below the soil, from the wooded husks of once dormant trees, from the silvery swirl of clouds against a bright blue sky.
Tea alone at this moment is just that. A moment borrowed from an otherwise busy world, on an otherwise ordinary Monday.
Time taken to reinvigorate the heart and remind the soul that the seasons are changing constantly.
Momentarily replacing the glowing screen and clicking keyboard for the dim light of a tearoom and the sparkling foam of 抹茶 matcha radiating from within a matte grey teabowl.
For this moment, the only thing I have to examine are the last drops of tea that remain.
The unctuous glaze that has collected and congealed along the 高台 kōdai of an antique chawan.
The rippling lacquer that shimmers atop a natsume.
The speckled pattern of black dots that nature has arranged upon the skin of my bamboo tea scoop.
As the incense burns down, the light of the day shifts, the call of songbirds collect and crescendo, I take my cue to gather-up my items again.
Dregs in a teabowl are wetted and wiped clean. Water evaporates off of the thin tines of an old and broken 茶筅 chasen as it’s set upon a folded 茶巾 chakin. The tea scoop is dusted-off and laid across the chawan’s ceramic rim.
Tea caddy and chawan set side by side before they are put away.
I screw the cap back onto my old metal thermos and open the door of my garden shed to walk back across the stone path that leads to my studio.
Birds call. Wind blows. Branches shift. The soil softens and the first leaves of a radish pushes up to greet the sun. All of these moments combine and culminate together, contributing to April’s air. Fragrant and fresh. Sweet and fleeting.
For several days now I’ve been traveling with my wife to see her family in the Philippines. We’re both jet lagged, her more than I. Regardless, I don’t know what day it is. My body is still using New York time as its tether, a bellwether guiding me but in a way that no longer makes sense.
I haven’t found time to sit for tea, save for right now. An aged 肉桂 Ròuguì seems to taste of the flavors from last night’s dinner of braised meats, steamed fish, tamarind soup, shrimp paste, buko pie. The wine here is sweeter. The beer, lighter. The weather joyously warm but not hot. It snowed today in New York. Today, there are white, billowing clouds set against a bright blue sky here in the highlands of Tagaytay.
While my wife sleeps and works-off her jet lag, I’ve found a moment to spread out a small tea cloth and prepare a series of steepings of dark oolong that I’ve tucked-away in my carry-on bag.
A set of vintage white porcelain made up of one small 蓋碗 gàiwǎn and four 品茗杯 pǐn míng bēi from the 1980s. Tea from the mid-2000s. Water boiled and stowed in a travel thermos. No flourish. More of a fix.
As I sit, the act of making tea is still meditative, set to the sound of the air conditioner mounted loosely in the wall beside me, to the sound of vehicles of all types zooming outside of the walls of the garden, to the irregular cry of a cockerel somewhere nearby.
The soft gurgle of water and the light clink of ceramic lid against ceramic cup.
Tea steeps and settles in as I do into the concrete and stucco home of my wife’s mother, built on land their family’s owned for centuries.
Outside our room, orchids grow in the inner courtyard and geckos find their homes between the cracks and crevices of tiles, worn brick, and the joints between walls and ceilings.
Inside, the relative quiet allows for momentary respite and another cup of tea brewed.
My wife wakes and wanders into the shower as I pour my third or fourth cup from a third or fourth steeping.
The color is still dark but waning as I pour out the sixth or seventh steeping.
I turn over a second cup to offer to her as she walks from the bathroom, the sent of shower soap now blending with the aroma of tea.
I drink the first of the two cups. The second waits idly for my wife to dry off in the humid air. I breathe over my tongue with mouth closed and taste the lingering 回甘 huígān of the Ròuguì tea. The 岩骨 yángǔ, the “rock bones”, the meat-like quality of this tea is still here.
I pour more tea into my empty cup and the difference in color between the last steeping and this marks the passing of time. Darker is the subsequent. A bit deeper in flavor.
The warm water kept in the gàiwǎn pushing more color and tone from the leaves that continue to brew. The flavor is softer, more complex but gentle. No hint of bitterness, just the spiciness of this particular kind of tea, with just the slightest hint of age. 活 huó, it is still lively in the mouth and the mind.
The last steepings of tea continue to come but, as travel often does, I am pulled away to the work of travel, of coordinating the next thing-to-do, the next stop in the list of stops. Wind blows harder outside in the garden of my wife’s mother’s house. The winds of the Tagaytay are locally famous, peeling and pushing up off from the placid surface of Lake Taal.
I pour the remaining tea and liquid into a cut crystal tumbler glass with the hopes of saving what’s left. I empty the small cup my wife never got to. I pour-out what’s left in my thermos. It all amounts to one more cup to save for later.
As I did before but in reverse, I pack away my tea set I’d made to travel with.
Gàiwǎn wrapped in a pattern printed cloth. The four white porcelain pǐn míng bēi set around it. Box closed and wrapped-up tightly. Stowed away until next time, whenever that will be.
The roar of vehicles of all types zooming by. The hum of the air conditioner set loosely in the wall. The irregular cry of a cockerel somewhere nearby. Sweet wine. Light beer. The spice of tea and tamarind still lingering. I close the door and my wife and I continue our travels.
As I write this, it’s late February and the air is still cold and wet. A week ago, the ground was still covered with snow, but with the recent rains and the passing of 立春 Risshun and the arrival of 雨水 Usui (February 19-March 4), the earth has begun to thaw, the ice has all but melted, and the flowers of early Spring have begun to push up in small clusters beneath the trees around my garden. But in this liminal period, even as Winter feels long passed, reminders of the season that once was still abound.
A cold and windy morning brings rain that turns to snow. Its transition happens over a course of an hour, marked first by the tapping of raindrops against my studio window, then a sudden drop in temperature, followed by an occasional snowflake passing by, carried upon a strong breeze. Light showers transform into flurries of white against the grey sky. Pools of water that have collected on the concrete flat outside my studio door freeze and are slowly covered by thin layers of mounding snowflakes.
In the world of 茶の湯 chanoyu, none of these events come as a surprise. Tea people of Japan have noted such atmospheric anomalies for centuries, giving them poetic names such as 余寒 yokan, a “lingering cold” that suddenly returns just as Spring begins to warm, 春雪 Shun-setsu, the snow that comes in Spring and quickly melts, or 淡雪 awa-yuki, light snowflakes that fall, producing a pleasant sound that harmonizes with the wind blowing through the pines (松風 matsukaze).
Sitting at the threshold of the sliding glass door of my studio that overlooks the garden, I see all of these before me. Rather than wander out into my garden hut, I decide to sit beside my boiling kettle and enjoy the dance of snow, as it turns the waking garden of Spring back into a Winter scene for perhaps the last time for a long while.
I gather objects from their hiding places. An old carved circular lacquer tray.
A bamboo teascoop with emerging sprout on its 節 fushi. A 茶筅 chasen whisk made by a master based in Nara. A cream-white teabowl, the shape of which is perfect for this sudden cold.
A 棗 natsume tea container, the surface of which is made up of layers of interchanging red and black lacquer.
I set the objects upon the tray and bring them to the large plank of wood that has sat beside the window door of my studio all Winter and into early Spring. The feeling is markedly informal, quick to assemble, sudden like the snap of cold that has come and may soon fade. Unlike the more formal and structured temae, 盆点前 bon temae for the 宗徧流正伝庵 Sōhen-ryū Shōden-an school is remarkable for its simplicity and directness. There is little flourish, just enough action to allow for one to sit and make a bowl of tea. The motions, while not abbreviated, are contained to the space of the tray and to the area in front of the kettle and brazier. When moments immediate such as a chance snow flurry come by, I favor this temae most of all.
The pace of making tea is like the snow outside. Intervals of fast and slow. Of space and closeness. As snowflakes tumble slowly, with a measured grace, I try and let my movements mirror this. The objects and tray are come to rest in a smooth downward motion, hovering momentarily above the wooden surface of the table and then placed just to the right of the 鉄瓶 tetsubin. Body and tray move down in one motion, with one out breath.
The 茶碗 chawan and its accoutrements are lifted and moved, from left to right hand and then down on the table before the kettle. The natsume follows and is set before the bowl. Items are lined up along a central axis before they are cleansed, one-by-one, and placed to rest before being called into action.
The natsume is first. The grooves of the 漆雕 qīdāo cut lacquer prove difficult for the soft folds of my purple 袱紗 fukusa cloth to fall into. Their many layers of red and black echo the layers of ice and snow that have been accumulating outside the doorway to my garden.
Cut at curvaceous angles, alluding to cloud mushrooms, bats, and foliate forms, the feel is balanced, organic and mechanic, archaic and modern, flamboyant and austere.
Next comes the 茶杓 chashaku.
Bright bamboo set against the white glaze of the teabowl, the low light of my studio during Winter’s last gasp, against the swirling grain of the tea table that I’ve laid across the wooden floorboards.
Three passes within the folds of the fukusa and I set it upright atop the natsume. For the first time, its fushi visible, appearing like a bud that is about to emerge from a dormant tree.
Finally, the whisk and 茶巾 chakin are removed and set upon the tray.
For a moment, the bowl sits empty, cold to the touch.
Both whisk and bowl are cleansed and warmth returns to the chawan, not used since last year. The tines of the chasen spread from the heat of the water.
The center whirl of the tea bowl becomes more apparent as the water glistens off its rounded edges.
I lift the tea scoop and remove the lid of the natsume and as I place tea into the warm, white interior of the chawan, snow begins to fall more steadily.
The dance of snowflake produces a silent symphony, one in which the mind can easily lose itself.
A quiet quality of peace that hold, if only for the space in time when the eye first catches sight of snow falling to until it lands upon the ground, lost in the mound of a forming snow drift.
As I write now, recalling this moment, the world in which I live in still seems at peace. How tenuous a last snow feels, how fleeting.
A bowl of tea comes and goes and the sensation of it quickly disappears, dissipating like Winter into Spring, Risshun to Usui, and swiftly soon to 啓蟄 Keichitsu (lit. “Awakening of Insects”, the period from March 5-19).
Peace, as defined by snowfall, might feel like a long time, but when one recognizes that this moment is the last day of snow, that peace feels fragile and forlorn.
February 19th, I sit down for tea. Come the next day, the world is changed, a palpable heat returns to the Northern Hemisphere, a thawing of something that laid cold and dormant has re-emerged, and the anxiety of what’s to come arises.
As I sit, now, at this time when whisk meets tea, whips it into a fine foam, releases sweet aromas of 抹茶 matcha into the air, and stare out into the white abyss of this last snow day, my breath does, for the while, seems smooth.
The pit in my stomach, the pang and fear that will come the next morning is not here.
Instead, I let my heart become full with the last layers of snow. 雪見 yukimi.
Layers of snow. Layers of time. Soft snow followed by hard ice rain and back to soft. Layers of lacquer, of growth on a bamboo stalk.
Layers of glaze that cover the foot of an old chawan.
From these layers, newness emerges and ultimately becomes the harbinger of things to come.
While the last snow may seem sad, while the passing of peace may bring fear, the heart carries both as if they weighed the same, not knowing how long one will last, not knowing when one will return, just hopeful that life continues on until the next day.
In this, there exists a knowing that this last snow may not indeed be the last. That peace as we know it now, may return in the future, although different, and at what time.