Weathering the Storm

Recently, I came across an abalone shell that called out to me. At first I looked for abstract patterns in its colorful interior. Then, a wind-blown tree came into view. There was no mistaking the tree that both stood strong and bent with the wind. It feels a bit like that now, I thought. We began to see patterns with COVID 19 that we did not understand. Now we find we are in a storm with no place to hide from the global wind. Is this tree in a storm image a warning, a source of hope, or perhaps both?

Learning to See

This paperweight was on the window sill for a while before I noticed its changeable personality. Two curved layers with outer films of dichroic glass reflected and transmitted light. Now that I looked more closely, depending on the light and the angle, everything changed.

I got out my camera to see what the super macro setting would capture. How could one small object do all of that?

Hydrangea Tea Hut

A tea hut in my backyard was my dream. I had become familiar with variations in layout, window style, and alcove placement from reading about the tea ceremony. One book that was particularly useful was Cha-no-yu: The Japanese Tea Ceremony by A. L. Sadler.

I wanted quality in materials and workmanship although I could not afford authentic Japanese tea hut construction, and I did not have the skills to build one myself. Customizing a high-quality garden shed seemed to be a workable solution. Walpole Woodworkers advertised a salt box shed. I liked the idea of this shape with its ties to New England as well as to Japanese tea huts.

A window on the long side next to the door came with the shed. I decided to retain this minus the window box. I also requested two rectangular windows with three panes side by side; one low down behind the tea preparation area and one centered on the opposite wall. Natural lighting is very important in tea huts both for aesthetic and practical reasons.

On a summer morning, leaf shadows fall on the main window due to the angle of the light. During the course of a tea practice, the shadows change continually and the leaves move in the breeze creating a most peaceful effect. The window appears very different depending upon the time and season. It is well worth planning for such effects in a tea hut’s placement and design.

I chose a site for the hut that would allow it to be viewed on edge from my large kitchen window but would provide privacy for the garden. It would also allow the patio under my kitchen window to be used as a waiting area. The small area in front of the shed was well shaded and already had a tendency toward moss.

The hut was small enough to be constructed without a poured foundation. The workmen carefully prepared the sloped site. They had stained the walls and door as requested and raised the door threshold to accommodate tatami mats. It took very little time for them to assemble the flooring, walls and ceiling. The roof was finished with cedar shingles. The unfinished pine interior of the hut, while not authentic, had a nice rustic quality.

A bamboo sleeve fence was added to visually connect the hut to the garden and provide privacy for the area behind. Smaller vertical poles through the larger ones made for a very sturdy fence. I added dried hydrangea twigs to the lower section. There are many possible charming designs for sleeve fences or you can design your own as I did. See The Bamboo Fences of Japan by Osamu Suzuki and Isao Yoshikawa for ideas.

Inside at the narrow end away from the door, I added an oiled maple board to take the place of the more usual tokonoma alcove. It fits perfectly with the three tatami mats at the same height. I found a three panel unfinished pine grid screen to hold the scroll and had a cabinet with many shelves made for storing utensils. Two low benches along the back wall provide seating for those with bad knees. Pegs behind the door hold coats. For a while, an extension cord snaked out the low window behind the tea kettle. Now, the hut has been electrified so I can use it with a small heater in winter.

Since my hut does not have a hearth, I use a kettle set on a furo heater at all times of the year. I often place wood chip incense in the furo (think of the smell of cedar). The “wind in the pines” sound produced when water is heating is central to chanoyu. Delicate steam curls up contrasting with the solid iron.

Normally tea utensils would be brought in from another room by the host, but since my small hut has only one room, I designed a corner staging area. A “clam shell” shelf holds the tea bowl and tea container. A square basket on the floor holds the lidded water jar, waste water container with a lid rest, and bamboo scoop as well as a container of tea sweets. The hot water kettle is left in place where it will be used on the host’s mat.

In the garden, I added stepping stones and a low basin. Guests gather on the patio. They follow the stepping stones to the basin before proceeding to the hut door where they leave their shoes on the large stone before entering.

The hut has been in use for thirty years. The roof has been replaced, and the interior and exterior protected from the elements and insect damage. The garden grew and changed around it.

I named my tea hut, Ajisai-an which means Hydrangea Hut in Japanese. The humble building has gathered many wonderful memories. During its naming ceremony, the crickets began their song as we started at dusk. After tea, we brought in metal lanterns from the garden and wrote haiku by flickering candle light. A “flower arranging” tea started with various flowers and containers as options and each guest’s arrangement was displayed in turn during the practice.

Another unusual tea had a small American quilt instead of a scroll, pottery made at Sturbridge Village, and a Native American basket to hold maple sugar tea sweets.

The hut has also seen many gatherings with old and new friends that were simple, quiet, and restoring. These, together with the excitement of bringing the hut and garden into existence, are perhaps the best memories of all.

This article first appeared in the May/June 2004 issue of the Journal of Japanese Gardening which has since been renamed, Sukiya Living; The Journal of Japanese Gardening.

Fallen Branches in Snow

The pond was covered with snow during my last few walks. It was popular now that the ice was thick enough to be safe. But the path around the pond had been compacted to ice which made for slippery walking. It was the fallen branches that caused me to pause. There was something about the contrast with the textured white snow that made these complex objects stand out so I could notice them and see that their beauty deserved my attention.

Beauty on Both Sides

I have always been attracted to abalone’s iridescent interiors, but I had no idea about the range of patterns and colors that nature creates on their outsides until I started collecting these shells. Although there are commonalities among the suborders of the Haliotidae family, each individual shell is unique. And the outsides of the shells can change color based on the types of algae the abalone has been eating.

There is often a beauty to both sides of natural objects. In these days of deep divisions, I find that to be a most refreshing idea to keep in mind.

When More Is More

Arranging rocks so shapes, colors and patterns complement can be an interesting and absorbing challenge. In times of dramatic change, that can take me beyond our limited human perspective on time.

All of the rocks in the arrangements below are agates. The first photo shows a bowl with small cut and polished agates from around the world. The next three show specific types of agate – bubblegum, Fairburn, and Lake Superior agates, respectively. For the most part, these agates were left as they were found with colorful patterns natural on the surface or revealed by abrasion. I find the matte finishes and rounded shapes of the natural stones to be particularly appealing.

Take your time with what can be a visual adventure. You can learn something about agates, of course, but also about your particular tastes. Perhaps you will catch a hint of the slower “life” in these stones that might provide a bit of calm in these turbulent times.

Mixed cut and polished agates

Bubblegum agates – you can see how they got that name

Fairburn agates

Lake Superior agates

A Virtual Concert with Quilt Eating Holes

No live Christmas concert this year. It was simply not safe.

Park Avenue Congregational Church’s (PACC’s) Christmas concert had been going on for 29 years now as a gift to the community. Even though contributions were voluntary, it always raised funds for the maintenance of our treasured Skinner pipe organ and music program.   Doing something now seemed all the more important. Christmas music could bring light to this particularly dark season during a global pandemic.

So we two coproducers put our heads together.  A virtual concert might work given we had a great archive of music from past Christmas concerts.  CDs and DVDs have a certain appeal.  They can be given as gifts.  Attending to them feels more grounded than clicking around in cyberspace, even though great music is certainly available that way.

We decided on “A Christmas Quilt” for this virtual concert’s theme; something you could wrap up in while social distancing at home, maybe with a favorite drink by a fire. The quilt image worked for the diversity we wanted and DVD images could be substituted for quilt squares. 

But would people send in enough photos?  We needn’t have worried. Photos poured in;  children making snow angels, pies being baked, Christmas trees and sheep (we needed sheep). There were photos of the church decorated for Christmas, of choir singing, of our music directors playing instruments.  Snowy landscape paintings by the father of a church member seemed perfect.  We also found charming public domain art, period Christmas cards and images of composers and their scores.

The practical logistics seemed to be coming together as well. Or so we thought.

The folks who do such a great job of printing posters and programs for our PACC Concert Series had ordered blanks to print stick-on disk labels for the CDs and DVDs.  The forms they ordered had a large hole that would land plunk in the middle of the square quilt “logo” that was centered on the disk labels. 

With orders still coming in and time slipping away, the coproducers declared the larger hole DVD labels to be fine. But the Concert Committee member who had designed the labels, responded (and I quote),  “We can use the wide, gaping, cavernous, quilt-eating, big-hole labels if you want ;-). I’ll Just close my eyes ;-).

A new supply of smaller hole disk label blanks arrived in time. We also had some of the large-hole labels printed just in case.  The DVDs were proving quite popular.  In the last few days before Christmas, we were still burning DVDs like crazy, and then Christmas eve was upon us. 

I was very touched by the two who volunteered to hand deliver CDs and DVDs around our town on Christmas eve in the middle of a pandemic when they could have been at home with family.  But I will also never forget that wonderful comment about the cavernous quilt-eating holes.

Place as Winter Guide

I wondered what the beginnings of winter would look like on this crisp morning in early December. After several inches of snow followed by thawing and freezing, I expected snow on the pond banks.

As I entered the park, I noticed certain rocks were beginning to become familiar friends. But I fought against all such expectations, all such stories. Walking for my health here in these times of pandemic provides opportunities too precious to waste. Most of all now, I long to be open; to not even know where I am going.

I noticed the pond had a skim of ice, but only in certain places. Scattered ice fragments captured light. The few dog walkers I encountered understood the preciousness of solitude. Offering quick greetings in soft voices, they did not disturb the infinite sweetness of the melancholic luxuriance.

As the place, itself, took over as my guide, shifts in light and mood signaled when to stop and look deeper. I aimed my camera with awe and humility knowing I was a participant observer, not separate from such generous grace.

Silent Tea Music

I find music in the largely silent flowing motion of Japanese tea ceremony. It came as a surprise, however, when my involvement with that art played a role in a musical instrument finding its way to its rightful owner. After hearing the shakuhachi played by a master at a gathering at my tea teacher’s home, I obtained a student version of the bamboo flute, thinking I might learn to play it. However, the shakuhachi was relegated to a drawer when I had no luck finding a teacher.

Several years ago, I was introduced to a fellow student in my graduate mindfulness studies program who had a deep interest in Buddhism and an advanced meditation practice. He shared my passion for tea and wrote about the social dynamics of how tea is shared in China for one of his papers. When I learned he had never tried the powdered green matcha tea used for Japanese tea ceremony, I invited him to my tea hut so he could try it.

After declaring the flavor to be “very silent,” he asked if I knew of any shakuhachi teachers. His flute was broken and he greatly missed playing it.

I asked him to help himself to more tea while I went to get my long-neglected flute. I found it where I had placed it in a lovely small chest of drawers. When I returned, my guest told me he had drunk three bowls of tea. Evidently he really liked that matcha!

Fortunately, the long dormant student flute was still playable. When I presented it to him as a gift, he seemed delighted. He asked if I really meant for him to have it. I told him, “Of course the flute is yours.” In fact, I told him that this match gave me great joy. It seemed wonderful that the flute’s voice would be heard in the world after all this time. My new acquaintance later informed me that he played the flute on a daily basis.

My suspicion that the shakuhachi was used for meditation was confirmed by a little research. In fact, it is associated with particular Zen monks where playing the flute serves as a spiritual practice. Shakuhachi playing can be remarkably haunting and expressive with qualities unlike any other kind of flute music.

So my tea hut gathered to it another wonderful memory and a hint of distant shakuhachi playing from a flute that had found its rightful owner.

Pond Reflections

Now that the peak leaf colors and our election in the United States have passed, there is a softer, not so urgent feeling. The burnished colors have their own appeal as does not knowing yet what will happen. Come with me on my walk. Everything can change with just one small foot step.

It is hushed and quiet by the pond at this early hour. You can hear the ducks’ small sounds. And perhaps notice that reflecting on reflections is nothing new.