Monday, December 25, 2006

A Mostly Mindful Christmas

As I had said that more would be forthcoming in my earlier, not-then-quite-finished post—an excerpt from Dogen's "Genjokoan"—I had best produce something quick. My intention was to type out more of the "Genjokoan" fascicle. Yet, I decided to hold off on this, at least for now, and to write something more personal instead.

It is 9:43 pm in England, and I am back from the family Christmas celebration at my in-laws', just a ten-minute or so walk from our flat. Luka's in Texas, spending a couple weeks with her grandmother, aunts and uncles, and cousins. So, Rebecca and I are on our own this holiday season.

I had my second late-lie-in in as many days this morning. It seems that there's nary a day that Rebecca and I can sleep in late. But with Luka on holiday, and there being little in the way of work or errands to run during the lead-up to Christmas, it seemed the right time to catch up on some rest, particularly given that we had to get up at 5:15 Saturday morning to drive Luka to the airport.

This morning, Rebecca sprang up perhaps a couple hours or so before I did. I continued sleeping, dreaming, and then rose sufficiently to read the last ten pages of Thich Nhat Hanh's Anger, a book which Rebecca had bought for herself but which we decided retroactively would be a good winter-solstice birthday present from me to her. But, of course, before giving her the book, I would have to read it myself so that the note which I would write on the inside cover would be relevant to the teachings therein!

I wrote this little love message while lying in bed, and then popped up, handed the book over to Rebecca, and was gobsmacked (not really) that she had already washed the dishes, done a load of laundry, prepared a chestnut roast, and dished me out a bowl of oatmeal with nuts and bananas for my breakfast. I love my oatmeal after it's been hanging around for a while, and gotten cool-to-cold and gloppy.

I added a bit of milk, mushed it up, and ate mindfully, while sipping a small pot's worth of organic green tea. I had brewed this in Luka's little midnight-blue teapot which I had given to her for her birthday this past autumn. And, much like Rebecca's book, I am by far the heaviest user of this gift too. Luka even refers to it, now, as my teapot. I do love it. It's beautiful to look at, and is just the right size to brew up a cuppa or two or three (in a small handmade Japanese cup given to us by our dear French friends) for one person (i.e., me).

After breakfast, and my typing out and posting the Dogen excerpt, Rebecca and I went for a long walk together. First, we walked through the village (we live just beyond the High Street), down into the woods, and out to the fields where Luka's horse is kept, along with his half-brother, and two others. The first two are chestnut with white blazes down their noses. Of the remaining two, one is black, the other white. We brought them each a little sumpthin' to nibble on as a Christmas tiding: a carrot and an apple. Then we dropped off a rather last-minute Christmas card to the folk who run the livery stable from which these horses emanate.

We continued up a country lane to a bridle path which dead-ends into another wood, through which a stream runs. I stopped to meditate upon a well-mossed fallen tree, while Rebecca continued on through the valley, over another stream, through another wood, and upwards to the village, and then home. I meditated for thirty minutes, and then walked out of the wood, and up the side of the valley to visit my dear oak.

I climbed into the tree, and meditated for another thirty minutes, ever so aware of the incredible silence of Christmas Day. Today's silent stillness reminded both Rebecca and me of mid-game Super Bowl Sunday in the US, particularly when we were living in the football-crazed Dallas/Fort Worth area.

So peaceful, so quiet, absolutely no one around. Just me and the ten-thousand non-human things. I relished each moment, one after the other. It had suddenly gotten very cold, and a heavy fog was rolling through the valley; yet, I somehow seemed to be warmed by the tree's cradling me between its trunk and a favorite bough.

While I was perched thereon, a kestrel (a small European falcon) swept down to hover, perfectly in place, above an adjacent field, its underside facing me with its tail feathers fanned out. He would hover, swoop down to a lower altitude to refine his hunt for unsuspecting prey, hover again, swoop down yet further, hover, and then fly away on the wind to greener, or more nourishing, pastures.

Then a flock of sheep in another field, just beyond a barbed-wire fence, came running from below the crest of a hill to shelter from the cold wind in the corner of the field closest to 'my' tree. As dinner was due to start in forty-five minutes, and I was about a forty-five minutes' walk to the dinner table, I regrettably climbed down from the tree, in which I would have been happy to have spent the entire afternoon, to head back toward the village, toward Rebecca's parents' house. I walked over to the corner of the aforementioned field, faced-off with perhaps sixty-odd sheep who watched me with equal amounts of interest and timidity, straddled the topmost barbed-wire, and strode down the rolling green hill to a couple of aluminum five-bar gates, one of which I opened and shut behind me, the other which I climbed over on account of it having an uncooperative latch.

This second gate opens out to the road which continues its steep descent to a fast-running stream and then back up, again steeply, into the village a mile or so on. While nearing the bottom of the hill, an unusually bouncy, bushy-tailed fox leaped out from the hedge onto the road, stopped and turned to look at me approaching, and then darted off into the wood opposite.

The remainder of the walk was uneventful, except for the still serenity of the virtually un-peopled afternoon.

I climbed up the other side of the hill, but instead of continuing up the road into the heart of the village, I shortcutted through the private girls' school campus on which Rebecca, Luka and I used to live (as Rebecca, a former student, worked there for two years while I was attending St. John's College), through the cemetery of the village Anglican church, and out to the street which runs past our flat and descends down to Rebecca's parents' house.

I did my best to eat Christmas dinner mindfully, but was rather outdone by the hunger stemming from my three-and-a-half-hour walk which ended at the Hurst house at 4:00 pm sharp. While that was the reported start-time, I noticed that the sitting room was empty as I walked past the picture window. This could mean one thing only ... I was, indeed, late for dinner. By the time I removed my gloves, took off my hiking boots, fleece and hoodie, and walked into the dining room, only one of the six persons sitting around the table was still eating. Thankfully, it was Rebecca, whose attempt to eat her dinner mindfully was obviously more successful than mine.

I had two rather heaping helpings of Rebecca's nut roast, two good-sized dollops of bread sauce, quite a few roasted potatoes, carrots and Brussels sprouts—all awash in vegetarian gravy—and one serving of red cabbage. Red wine accompanied this, what we'll call, "Course One and Two". After much debate as to whether to follow British or European tradition, Rebecca put forth the winning vote to have the cheese and fruit course before "pudding". Note that no discussion whatsoever ensued as to American tradition, though in retrospect, I appreciate the implicit recognition that Britain is, in fact, quite a distinct animal from Europe. True, this only holds relevance within the realm of conventional reality and human conceptualization; but, it is exactly within this realm that this rather unmindful debate persists!

At any rate, the cheese course was followed by Christmas pudding, and then coffee—only my second cup in over a month, though the two, disconcertingly, coming on successive days. I watched the others play a game of Chronology, and then as gracefully as possible (for me) excused myself from the fading festivities to walk home with flashlight in hand, to return to silence, and to this blog post—which I hope finds you and all of your loved ones well and in peace.

Mindfully and quite merrily yours,

Sean

P.S.

If you would like to read an account of a spectacular barn owl-sighting from 'my' oak tree, you may link out to the comments section of the December 9th post of The Blog of Henry David Thoreau. Perhaps needless to say, I spend quite a lot of time in this tree. Foxes regularly trot or saunter by just below me, as does the occasional Jack Russell terrier, but none of which seem to notice me.

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