March 4, 2007

Tea and impermanence

My Sunday’s have become fairly predictable this winter. To break the routine, I took the bold step of ordering a tea at Sharazade’s that I’ve never tried before: Smokey Russian Caravan, a blend of China black and Lapsang Souchong teas. When the pot was set in front of me, I poured a cup and let it sit to cool a bit while I waited for my food. Just before my fritatta was served, I became aware of an unusual odor and wondered if they were burning a pig in the kitchen (nothing on the menu would indicate this as a possibility, though). Then I picked up my cup and took a few sips of the tea. The taste was a fairly typical tea flavor, mellow and smooth but with, as the name suggests, a definite smoky element. And then I realized it… The smoky odor I had noticed was coming from my tea. I sat there trying to think of it as the smoky aroma of burning wood, but just kept coming back to that first impression of burning pig flesh, kind of sweet & smoky at the same time. It made for a very weird tea experience, to munch on an English muffin with jam and a sage-sausage fritatta, while occasionally getting whiffs of that perfectly acceptable-tasting tea that smelled vaguely of a charnel ground. Was it perhaps highly appropriate to be drinking and smelling this tea while reading a Buddhist magazine? Didn’t Siddharta Gautama, on his way to Buddha-hood, practice with monks who, inspired by the Hindu god Shiva, meditated in charnel grounds in order to fully grasp the concept of impermanence? Don’t Hindu monks still smear their bodies with cremation ashes as a reminder of the impermanence of all things? (And yes, I realize that I’m blurring the lines between Buddhism and Hinduism. For me, interest in the latter led to studying the former, so they’re inextricably linked in my mind.) I don’t know that I could ever acquire enough of a taste for Smoky Russian Caravan to make it a regular part of my tea repertoire, but it might be a good one to drink every now and again as an alternative to smearing my body with cremation ashes in a charnel ground…

Noticed an ad in the magazine for a book titled The Cosmos in a Carrot: A Zen Guide to Eating Well. The pairing of the words "carrot" and "eating" caused me to grin, seeing as how I’d just the other day been listening to T00l’s "Disgustipated":

And the angel of the lord came unto me, snatching me up from my place of slumber. And took me on high, and higher still until we moved to the spaces betwixt the air itself. And he brought me into a vast farmland of our own Midwest. And as we descended, cries of impending doom rose from the soil. One thousand, nay a million voices full of fear. And terror possessed me then. And I begged, "Angel of the Lord, what are these tortured screams?" And the angel said unto me, "These are the cries of the carrots, the cries of the carrots! You see, Reverend Maynard, tomorrow is harvest day and to them it is the holocaust." And I sprang from my slumber drenched in sweat like the tears of one million terrified brothers and roared, "Hear me now, I have seen the light! They have a consciousness, they have a life, they have a soul! Damn you! Let the rabbits wear glasses! Save our brothers!" Can I get an amen? Can I get a hallelujah? Thank you, Jesus.

You really have to hear the perfect mid-western preacher twang with which Maynard delivers these lines to get the full impact of "Disgustipated." The above is followed by a minute or so of Maynard chanting "This is necessary… Life feeds on life feeds on life feeds on life feeds on life feeds on…", etc, etc.

I’ve decided that I want a t-shirt that reads "Let the rabbits wear glasses!!"

After breakfast, I headed back across the Potomac River for a hike around The Cornfield at Antietam National Battlefield Park. I’ve been coming to this battlefield for years. Surrounding the town of Sharpsburg, MD, it’s a beautiful area of rolling hills between South Mountain and the Potomac River. The driving tour is excellent for bicycling and the hiking trails, while short and easy, make for some great meandering. This history of the place is not nearly so pleasant. The battle of Antietam began at dawn of September 17th, 1862, north of Miller’s cornfield. Over the course of the morning, 15,000 Federal soldiers converged on the cornfield. As they filed through the 6 or so foot tall stalks, they met the Confederate army, approximately 9,200 men, on the other side. Within four hours, roughly 10,000 of all those men were no longer standing. Union General Joseph Hooker later wrote in his official report, "In the time I am writing, every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before." There were two more phases to the fighting at Antietam that day in other areas of the battlefield. By the end of the day, more than 23,000 men had died as a result of the battle. The official website for the battlefield puts it in perspective:

Not only was this the first major Civil War engagement on Northern soil, it was also the bloodiest single day battle in American history.
To view the magnitude of the losses, consider that Antietam resulted in nine times as many Americans killed or wounded (23,000 soldiers) as took place on June 6, 1944--D-day, the so-called "longest day" of World War II. Also consider that more soldiers were killed and wounded at the Battle of Antietam than the deaths of all Americans in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, and Spanish-American War combined.

And that’s not even taking into account the toll this battle took on the citizens of Sharpsburg. Apparently, before, during and after the battle, there were almost 1,000 soldiers in the area per each resident of the town. The day after the battle, Lee’s troops packed up and headed back across the Potomac into Virginia. McClellan’s troops, though, remained in and around the town for two months, in order to "rest the army’s horses", as McClellan put it in a communication to President Lincoln. First, the battle ravages and destroys the majority of the farms in the area, then the town and local homes become a great big field hospital, then 80,000 soldiers take over for two months. It had to be a harrowing experience that left many citizens in ruin and poverty.

I followed up my hike by heading back to Shep’town. I had noticed as I was heading to Sharazade’s that the local movie theater (and we’re talking a real theater here, not any behemoth multi-plex) was showing Pan’s Labyrinth, a movie that I’d been hearing a lot about. If you have the chance to see this film while it’s still in theaters (or multi-plexes, if that’s all you’ve got access to), do so. It’s engrossing and beautiful and gory and disturbing and moving, and it deserves to be seen on a big screen. I’ll probably end up buying the dvd anyway, though, when it comes out, ‘cause it’ll still be good on a small screen. And it was a fitting way to end the afternoon, considering it was yet another exploration of impermanence (though the ending really goes both ways, with impermanence contrasted to everlasting life…).

And now it’s time to once again celebrate impermanence, by ending this post.

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