Happy New Year to all my tea friends. I hope the year of the tiger brings you everything you could wish for.
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Here we are at the turn of the year. It is the winter solstice and once again we are facing a new virus variant that they say is more transmissible than the previous strains. Will we never be rid of this disease? Nearly three years of sickness, death, disruption, threats,and travel bans. We are all weary and tired of the vigilance and missing parts of our lives that we used to take for granted. Looking out to the future, it doesn’t seem like there is any hope that we can get back to the life we used to have. From here it looks bleak and depressing.
What can we do to counter these thoughts that weigh heavy on our mental health? One thing we can do is strive to be here now.
What does it mean, Be here now? What is this moment? It is not the future and thinking about what ifs that are unending. It is not to look back and wish for how things used to be. It is just this very moment. Cats and dogs are very good at be here now. They don’t worry about the future nor dwell on the past. Small kids are good at be here now. I look up into the night sky and the moon is so excellent at be here now. As is the garden, especially the garden.
It is mid-winter in the garden, not the spring nor summer. Bulbs are sleeping in the ground until it is time. They don’t think of the future growth. I have one camellia in full bloom that is bright red with brilliant yellow centers. It is not thinking of dropping flowers, or remembering before the buds. It is blooming now.
One of the questions I have gotten during a tea presentation is, How long did it take for you to prepare for today? Of course, at the time, it was tea presentation coordinated with an art gallery, exhibition opening, and a festival. It took six months of planning, several site visits an hour away, practice, packing, loading, unloading, unpacking and a couple of hours of set up.
But in reality, it took 35 years of preparation for the presentation. 35 years of training in tea procedures. At least 25 years of putting on presentations to know what type of presentation to do, what to pack, how to use the venue to advantage, how to talk with an audience, how to answer the questions in the Q and A. All that planning and yet, I had to be there at that moment, to show up in my entire being and make tea and try to convey to the best of my ability the essence of Chado.
I have a grandchild and she is totally aware when I am present and when I am distracted or not paying complete attention. I think other adults in her life have so much going on that cannot give complete attention all the time, even though they try. It is a gift to others in your life to be here now.
A young monk went to the Roshi and said, “I am discouraged with my practice. What should I do?”
”Encourage others,” said the Roshi.
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As the world begins to open up again after Covid, activities that we used to enjoy can be intimidating to start again. As I contemplate starting tea lessons in person again, I am thinking how can I ease the way for students who may be hesitant to come to class. I will do my best to put together some procedures for making and drinking tea together, sanitizing, clean up, and social distance for everyone to feel a little more comfortable.
As we have been practicing alone in our own tea spaces, making tea in front of other people can be scary and anxiety producing. Will other students judge us, have I forgotten how be a guest, what will I do if I cannot remember the most basic things?
Back in 2011, I wrote a blog post about starting over. But I have come to realize, when you return to tea after a break (no matter 1 month or 25 years), you don’t start over. You start again at a deeper level. Because you have experience in learning how to fold your fukusa, when you start to do it again, your body knows at a deep level how to do it. If you haven’t been on a bicycle in years and you go out for ride, you don’t have to start with training wheels and learn like you did the very first time. You may be wobbly, but instinctively your body remembers how to ride.
So we may be rusty for a few things as we come back to the tea procedures, but the greater challenge is how to be with people again. Some may have social anxiety or are reluctant to share. In the period of isolation from others, we may have forgotten how to consider others first. Osaki ni may not be instinctual before partaking sweets and tea. In bowing we may not be aware of when the other person is rising to match our movements.
But with practice and patience, it will start to come back. We should not expect to come back to the tea room and pick up where we left off as if nothing happened. There will be a period of adjustment in getting used to people and social situations. So it is really not starting again, but reviewing where we are and practicing diligently to move forward from where we find ourselves.
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I think one of the repeating themes of my tea study is how often I return the the basics. With every change of season, my students and I practice warigeiko. Though it has been challenging the last 18 months because of Covid-19, as we return to in person keiko, we will have to learn all over again how to be in a tea room and how to be with other people. So we can start again at the beginning and re-introduce ourselves to each other and to our practice.
One of the good things about these times is that through technology, not only can we have local online lessons, but participation anywhere. And through the generosity of experienced teachers we are able to take in workshops, lectures, panels and chakai online. From seasonal lectures, to kaiseki demonstrations, these are opportunities that I would not have been able to travel to meet these teachers or hear them speak in-person.
I am an inveterate note-taker and with these online learning opportunities, there is so much material that I am still sorting out and trying to digest everything. Even though I can type almost as quickly as a person speaks, I read somewhere years ago, that retention of material is greater if the notes were written down in long-hand. The time it takes me to write a line also forces me to distill what the speaker is saying and think while I write. When I was typing notes, it was almost automatic. Typing the words as they were spoken would enter my ears and come out my fingers, bypassing my brain. Often, after a session, I could not recall what the speaker said.
So early last year, I rediscovered writing with old-fashioned writing utensils like a pencil. My favorite pencils to take notes with are a softer lead pencil that I picked up years ago in Japan, though also I use Palomino Blackwing pencils. The act of cleaning off my desk, sharpening the pencil, opening a notebook and writing the date at the top of the page is like a short version of preparing the mizuya to make tea, or grinding ink in preparation for calligraphy for me.
Recently, I also rediscovered the fountain pen. Even more care needs to be taken to maintain and use one of these writing utensils. And yet the results of writing with good pencils or a fountain pen truly satisfy me in a way that a convenient ball point or gel pen cannot.
My husband says that it is like tea. Sure, you can go for the convenience and low cost of a tea bag from the grocery store, but a good bowl of matcha served in a tatami room is so much more satisfying. You can drink box wine, too. Fountain pens are not for everybody, but there is also an enthusiast group of people who love and cherish fountain pens similar to those who love and cherish the Way of Tea.
All of these things take more time, more money, and more attention. As a result of writing more by hand, my handwriting has improved becoming more legible and yes, more beautiful. For my next project, I have bought some high-end stationery and envelopes and have dedicated myself to reviving the art of letter writing.
It is all the same. I consider it just an extension of living the beautiful tea life.
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This summer I had the good fortune to be invited as a guest speaker on the podcast TeaLife Audio. Many of you already may know of this podcast hosted by Marius Frøisland, Adam Sōmu Wojciński, and Anthony Crasso. It has been around for a number of years, and is about an hour long informal discussion of different aspects of tea with more than 130 episodes . There are many other guest speakers and interesting topics in the other episodes. You can check it out here: TeaLifeAudio.
The group was very congenial and I always have a good time talking about tea. The guys had many questions about my background. We had a good laugh about how I had a slow start and didn’t make tea for 6 months after I started. There were also many questions about my time at Midorikai.
One of the things I wanted to talk about was something that has concerned me for many years. It happens that I have been the youngest teacher in the Portland area, and really, I am no longer young. I do not see teachers coming up behind me, even as the current Tankokai teachers are aging or no longer teaching. In fact, in Portland we have had three very experienced and long time teachers pass on in the last 5 years.
Not only are there fewer teachers, but we are also losing institutional knowledge in the Tankokai. Fewer people know how to organize and put on Tankokai events, fewer presentations of tea, fewer students are studying upper temae, and fewer students being recruited.
About 3 years ago, I developed a master class for training new teachers from my students. To become a teacher takes commitment and dedication. When I began teaching, I did not have a mentor as my teacher, Minako-sensei had passed away. How I learned to teach the way of tea was trial by fire, and I made many mistakes. The class I developed was based on the mistakes I made and the things I wished that I had someone to mentor me as I began teaching. I have also brought some things from my corporate background on leadership and managing groups.
With the podcast the class was revealed. The class is easily adaptable to online teaching and I have opened it up to people who would like to take this Master Class to help the next generation of teachers of the way of tea. It is a 3 year long commitment to go through the entire class. You can listen to the podcast to get more of a flavor of the class. Those who are interested in the class can contact me about the requirements, class outline, and application. Permission from your current teacher is required to apply. (email: margie at Issoan dot com).
Hopefully we can seed the next generation of teachers, and continue to expand the way of tea worldwide.
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