Tea Leaves and Transitions: Finding Grace

Seated on an upholstered chair near the fireplace, I stare into the depths of the porcelain cup cradled in my hands, contemplating the patterns of broken tea leaves.

I adore this Asian-style vessel, simple and unadorned, round without a handle, with a ceramic infuser that rests inside and removed when the brew has steeped. I own two such cups actually; one is celadon green, and this creamy white one that looks as if it were fashioned of glossy bone. Both are finished with a crackle glaze that the tea over time has stained, giving the effect of fine brown spiderwebs within the cup and infuser. Despite the very small holes of the insert, little fragments of leaves manage to slip through and end up resting at the bottom where they dance and swirl as I drink, briefly settling into curious patterns before they shift again. And again.

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Jasmine Chung Hao in a favourite cup

In the quiet of a December afternoon, two English Whippets asleep for their fourth nap of the day and my partner elsewhere with his mum, watching a cold grey sky beyond the windows, in the tranquility of the cottage I find my gaze drawn by the broken leaves in the depths of my dear cup. Contemplating them as if I might somehow augur the future from their seemingly random arrangement, at first I see a hare leaping over the moon. Then a griffin embracing Europe. With each sip and swirl, the vision changes. 

The past weeks have been a time of change, both within and without, as gilded leaves fall from the trees, the very heralds of transition. I have the strong sense that a chapter of life is soon ending and a new one beginning, and though I perceive the door swinging closed I do not yet see one opening in its stead. Here on the central coast of California there are moments when I feel a bit lost or stuck, as if the silver fog has rolled in again and the track we’ve been following is suddenly obscured or vanished, with only the ghostly silhouettes of Monterey cypress trees to comfort me.

My partner is preparing to leave his job in the coming months, and it is uncertain whether we will remain in this little rented cottage near the sea or move on. And as for what lies ahead in my own work—books, blogs, teaching, and healing arts—as I deepen into my apprenticeship with plant medicines (a path I began following after my illness last spring), I wonder about that too.

At odd moments throughout the last couple of weeks, whether washing the dishes or walking the Whippets, I have found myself musing on the nature of transition. Do we always recognize beginnings as they unfurl? Or endings, for that matter? And can we lean into the challenges and changes to welcome them, rather than attempting to hold fast or push them away, wishing for something different? Easier, perhaps.

As Thanksgiving rolled past—with a very non-traditional dinner at our house, serving apple and Stilton pockets of puff pastry garnished with cranberry-ginger chutney, a glorious duck with Port-soaked prunes and rich sauce, a jumble of red cabbage and pancetta alongside, all followed by a peerless pumpkin, ginger and molasses tart—I reflected on the importance of being grateful for our challenges as well as our blessings. Pain, struggles, loss and seeming failures offer profound opportunities for us to grow and transform, and they are often our most powerful teachers.

I sense and hear new ventures calling like voices on the wind, just ahead yet out of sight, and I feel the readiness—an urgency, almost—to move on to meet them. Tangled in this is my ongoing longing to finally stop roaming, to settle on some little patch of earth with tall trees, and sink roots into dark, rich soil (and soul), knowing that my next work, or the emergent expression of my current offerings, can only grow from that place—like C.G. Jung and his stone tower at Bollingen, or O’Keeffe and her house on the mesa at Abiquiu. It is a feeling that has haunted me since May, and even earlier, but now its weight feels nearly overbearing. [Read “Roots for the Soul“, from May 2016] My partner, too, is ready for the change and though we are both weary of life in the painted gpysy caravan, ever rolling on to a new campsite, we share the sense of hovering at a threshold; a chapter closing and something new arriving, albeit still unformed.

Even for travelers and nomads, transitions are not always easy. To simply be in a place of uncertainty, to trust that a portal of opportunity will open or the bridge appear, requires its own measure of psychological maturity and faith. And though the sacred spark of intention seeds the Field of Possibility, there still ensues a period of gestation and growth, the time needed for manifestation—a “sacred waiting” that, even with one’s focused intent, cannot be hurried or rushed.

Things arrive, or ripen like sweet fruit, on their own schedule, not ours. And curious blessings exist in this, too.

During the past month, moments of uncertainty have found me outside, inhaling the coastal air, bare feet on the earth for my daily Qigong or simply laying hands upon the rough grey bark of the Grandmother Monterey cypress that watches over this little cottage, gently coaxing myself to open the tight places of constriction still held by rusted, iron fingers of doubt.

Be here. Now. All weather passes eventually, and you are always guided and cared for.

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Holiday clutter and festive cheer

Here. Now. My eyes sweep the familiar space of our front room recently decorated for the winter holidays, with stockings hung upon the brick fireplace. I try to breathe more deeply into chest and belly, attempting to see my environment as “festive” rather than simply cluttered, while reminding myself that it’s only for a few weeks of the year. George Winston’s classic piano album “December” plays softly in the background, the house smells of incense and spice, the old furnace rumbles loudly as a tank, and beyond the windows the great trunk of the Grandmother is streaked darkly with rain. 

With a last sip of fragrant Jasmine White Monkey, my gaze drifts to the dark green bits at the bottom, considering them, as if through their arrangement I might decipher the way forward—or at least the shape and nature of this current transition. I swirl the nearly empty cup a final time, rearranging the fragments and deliberating their placement, looking to change my own fate and future with such a facile gesture. Yet I know the only real movement that needs to be made is an ongoing, humble opening of the heart, saying yes to the path ahead wherever it may lead and whatever it brings. 

Autumn draws to its close, the painted time of harvesting and letting go, while the slow turning inward continues, spiraling us deeper into shorter days and lengthening darkness, and I am searching for the blessings in this, too. All things turn and pass away, and I know there is no point in holding on as the wheel revolves; one’s palm must be open for anything to be placed within it, and a hand cannot be open if we are clinging to something. Too, I remind myself that the path is simply to appreciate beauty every day, and if we cannot find it where we are, then to go in search of it, while striving to create something of beauty in return, offering it selflessly and shamelessly forward. 

For us, the road ahead remains unclear and the moment feels fraught with uncertainty—like a leaf still attached to a bare branch, wondering when the conspiracy of wind and gravity will help it to let go, to then spiral down and land gently upon the patient earth—yet there are too many blessings each day to count.

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Winter beauty in the garden

I am celebrating another holiday season with my beloved, two and a half decades together. A ray of golden light streams suddenly through a break in the clouds and illuminates the silver-green hands of the Grandmother like a gorgeous painting. In the depths of December, a pink camellia blooms unabashedly just outside in the front garden. An organic apple tart bakes in the oven, scenting the house alluringly with the promise of tasty things to come. I have recently completed editing the manuscript for my next book, and an emerald hummingbird hovers at the red glass feeder just beyond the window, a miniature emissary of joy. Stockings are hung by the chimney with care, there’s a stack of good dried firewood, and a free-range goose is ordered for our holiday supper. Senses are enlivened by the zesty scent of a shiny mandarin, peeled slowly and eaten segment by juicy segment, and there is fine green tea in a favourite cup, savoured while watching the low clouds trail by. And all this is only the very beginning of my list of soulful treasures and blessings, here and now.

Friend, here’s hoping you will find the gifts in your challenges and the grace of transitions, while welcoming the simple, ordinary minutes of the day. Turn off the so-called news; it fills the world with angst. As I have so often encouraged in this journal over the years, may you create little rituals that anchor you in the beauty of the moment, like a tranquil cup of tea, or a deep breath where your heart opens and blooms once again to the myriad blessings that surround. You can be an offering of goodness, in return. Considering that the entire Universe has conspired to bring about this wrinkle of spacetime, then perhaps you are precisely where you need to be—challenges, uncertainty, and all—even though the reasons may be unclear from your current vantage point.  

Spiraling onward, leaning into mysterious grace, and season’s blessings.

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