Small acts


July 7, 2019

Beauty must grow from the realities of life

Ice Brewed Shincha from Cultivated Days

I scoop a pile of tea leaves the shape and color of delicate evergreen needles into a glass katakuchi and cover them in ice. Only the rich and clear flavor of ice-drawn green tea can pierce the heat and humidity of high summer. My beloved tools of tea infuse the act of steeping with a certain ceremony. To close the chazutsu tea container I align the lid and let go. Turned with such precision, it floats down on a film of air and settles gently back in place. Handling it draws me wholly into this time and place. It could have easily gone a different way, the flavor of the moment lost to a wandering mind.

I’m inclined towards a devotion to beauty and it’s encouraged in Japan. Here I find not only its eloquent expression but meaning and value in beauty beyond simple pleasure. I’m granted permission to consider it essential. I surround myself with beautiful objects, their quiet and regal designs an unending source of inspiration. If elegance is the only beauty that never fades, as Audrey Hepburn said, then the fine crafts of Japan are elegance defined. Their beauty grows. The wood and metal of my beloved chazutsu collection deepen to become more beautiful with age and use. In a year or two of handling wood darkens and takes on a subtle sheen. In four or five years time polished brass mellows into a lustrous rosy gold. And if I live a good long life, I can hope to see my tin container transform from sparkling silver into coal black over the course of half a century. These evolving patinas prove that a piece has been loved, has been reached for time and time again, throughout the seasons over so many years. I can think of nothing more elegant than beauty elevated through purpose that ripens with time.

Summer days are so full and sweltering that we can find our reserves empty when evening descends. At such times we mustn’t overburden ourselves and expect each meal to be elaborate. Summer asks for something easy and uncomplicated. Just the simple act of setting the table, of choosing a place matt or tray, of choosing chopsticks and hashioki for them to rest upon, or of plating whatever we have on hand, be it only the remnants of last night’s meal alongside cold rice and a few pickles, of taking them out of their glass or plastic containers and arranging them intentionally in a handmade dish, these gestures slow us down just enough to not take it all entirely for granted. Small acts at the start of a meal lead us back into the moment, back into our senses and back to ourselves. Beauty must grow from the realities of life, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki writes in his seminal work, In Praise of Shadows, and I live by those words. Beauty surrounds us, available always if we seek it. It grows both out of and into the rhythm of our days, rooted in function and purpose and play, and evolving in conversation with the efforts of the day.


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