Friday, January 30, 2015


THESE LAST FEW DAYS have tasted like spring. Branches are budding. Birds are busy building nests. Yesterday was baby blue and one thin layer was enough to keep me warm, so I decided to serve an orange blossom green tea to my Peaceful Habits group, to call attention to and amplify that feeling of spring we were all tasting. I served a jasmine green as well. This year I’ve started using two small teapots instead of one large one, a small ceramic one and a small cast iron one. I received the teapots as gifts for Christmas, and I’m glad I did. Now I can serve two teas simultaneously. Now the group is more like a tea tasting.
     Variety is an effective strategy for maintaining the collective attention of a group of people, especially if that group of people is particularly distractible, which my group definitely is — distractible and impulsive with shades of amnesia. Usually either their minds are wandering off somewhere or they’re blurting out whatever thoughts pop into their heads. There’s a sweet spot in the middle, when I have their full attention and they’re not blurting out anything. That’s what I have to work with. So variety is my friend. It helps me maximize that sweet spot.
     Its official start time is eleven o’clock, but the group begins in earnest with the pouring of the water. The basic point I try to get across to my group, or to anyone I’m serving teat to, is the reality of the senses. I try to get them to notice what it’s like to see, to smell, to touch, to hear and to taste. To tune into the senses — that’s my simple goal each week. And so the group begins in earnest with the pouring of the water, with me calling their attention to the sound of it. It’s like a call to prayer.
     My regulars look forward to the pouring each week. It’s a simple sound this drawn-out tinkle, but depending on the shape and size of the teapot you’re pouring it into, the texture of the tea leaves and how they rest in the basket, and the height from which you pour the almost-boiling water, the sound the water makes when it fills up the teapot is infinitely beautiful.
     One of my patients, a young man who came to our facility from North Carolina several years ago, has been apprenticing as my tea assistant, and today I let him do the pouring. He was so focused on getting the water into the teapot without spilling that he held the kettle too close to the tea leaves to generate an audible volume. “Pick it up. Pick it up. Pick it up.” Mr. Fernandez blurted out from his wheelchair at the end of the table in an attempt to get my tea assistant to raise the kettle higher as he poured from it.
     Part of me was slightly irritated that he’d barked orders over the sound of the pouring. Another part of me was tickled to realize what a connoisseur he’d become. When my tea assistant poured the water a second time, this time into a ceramic basket of jasmine pearls, I told him to try holding the kettle higher, and as he poured it no one spoke over the elegant tinkle.
     Since it was so nice out yesterday I propped the back door of the classroom open with a chair, and let the birdsong pour in. We tasted the two teas, each brewed twice, contrasting their aromas and flavors. The orange blossom tea was sunny, we all agreed, bright and springlike. The jasmine green was also springlike — Mr. Jones called it feminine and he was correct — but there was also a more mysterious quality we couldn’t quite put into words.
     JB said it reminded him of a locker room, and after we all stopped laughing — wow, we sure had a good giggle about it — it dawned on us what the difference was we were tasting but couldn’t quite put our finger on. The jasmine tea was more humid than the orange blossom tea, cloying like the steam in a locker room, like a humid spring midnight when jasmine vines unfurl their blossoms. Midnight — that was what we were tasting. The orange blossom tea was a sunny spring morning; the jasmine, a sultry midnight. 
     The few days a year it’s not too hot or too wet or too cold to take the group outside, I take advantage of the opportunity, so after tea tasting, in the spirit of variety, we moved our chairs and wheelchairs outside and formed them into a circle where the sidewalk opens up into a back porch of sorts. I selected “be with wild birds” from the list of options on the habit tracker and set the timer for six minutes, then we sat back in silence and listened to the birds. It was Mr. Jones who blurted out something this time.
     We’d just settled into our seats, the sun warm on our faces, and the birds were really letting us have it, when Mr. Jones blurts out, “Man, I can’t wait to do this with my girlfriend and my dog when I get home.” He was really feeling the moment and his filter wasn’t working well enough to keep it to himself. I told him I wanted to hear all about it when our six minutes was up, and redirected his attention to the sound of the birds. He did. The chimes sounded, and when we opened our eyes we all saw that there was a butterfly on Mr. Jones’ knee, flapping, flapping its wings, the delicate insect in stark contrast to the stainless steel staples holding his scalp together, glinting in the sunlight. Now that his skull is repaired, he no longer has to wear a helmet. He’s one step closer to home.
     I know it will be cold again before it’s officially spring, but spring arrives in waves, and this week was one of those waves, a hint of what’s ahead. The yellowtops have been in bloom since late December. Frosts have come and gone. Today it’s gray and cold again, and it feels more like early February. But when we were sitting in that circle yesterday, at the bright tail end of January, jasmine haunting our tongues, spring is what the birds were tasting.