Friday Musings: Perfect Fall
Last week I decided to reread Ghostwritten, one of my favorite books by David Mitchell. If you’ve never experienced his work, you absolutely should. Very soon. This particular novel was his first, and although it has always been highly praised for a level of complexity and finesse not often found in debut fiction, the one fault expressed by critics was that it was considerably reminiscent of books written by the Japanese author, Haruki Murakami. Because I love Murakami, I’ve read a fair amount of his writing and could certainly see how the comparison was fair, but rather than dissuade me from reading Mitchell, just the opposite occurred. I have been a fan ever since. Ghostwritten is a collection of interwoven narratives placed in many different settings that are linked together in a way that creates a very satisfying puzzle with the just the right level of challenge. In the second chapter, two characters are having a conversation in a Tokyo record store when one of them looks wistfully out the window and says, “The last of the cherry blossom. On the tree, it turns ever more perfect. And when it’s perfect, it falls. And then of course once it hits the ground it gets all mushed up. So it’s only absolutely perfect when it’s falling through the air, this way and that, for the briefest time…” Mitchell’s language is extremely simple here, and the concept he is expressing is equally comprehensible, but something about these lines gave me pause, and I found myself wanting to think about their deeper meaning a whole lot more.
In the Japanese language, cherry blossoms are known as sakura, and the ceremony of gathering to view them in the spring is called hanami. This centuries old ritual is closely tied to the idea of mortality for the Japanese, who see the sakura as representative of the fleeting reality of human existence. This connection, in fact, was so prevalent that a fallen cherry blossom came to represent the death of a samurai warrior, and its image adorned the kamikaze planes of World War II. If we look in the complete opposite direction of this surprisingly violent symbolism, we soon learn that the sakura are also evocative of the concepts of living in the present and mindfulness, two Buddhist principles that are often thought to be one and the same. The truth is that while these ideas are similar and definitely related, there is a subtle and very important difference between them. The concept of being present means that we are active participants in whatever is occurring right now. I am writing this blog post. I am not on my phone, or watching TV, or listening to Harry Styles, although I DO love his music. I may be listening to Tibetan singing bowls because they help me to remain focused while writing, but I am most definitely engaged in this moment. The idea of mindfulness expands on the idea of being present in that it requires us not only to be immersed in the here and now, but also asks that we pay attention with focused awareness to our thoughts, feelings, or sensations without judgment. We tend to weigh every experience in life with evaluative thoughts: that was fun, that was awful, that wasn’t enough, I wish there was more, that wasn’t what I expected it to be. This constant measuring places our minds under a great deal of stress and leads us to believe that we have to react in some way. While the practice of mindfulness does not stop the judgments from happening, it does allow us to release the thoughts that measure our experiences, whether they are good or bad, and that lessens the likelihood that a subsequent reaction will occur.
There is no question that people seek mindfulness right now; in fact, it’s fair to say that it has become a bit of a panacea for all that ails us. The Buddhist monks might smile and gently remind us that their principles were never meant to bring great happiness. They were never meant to be easy. Instead they were intended to be a rigorous exercise of the mind that had the ability to shift our perception of our place in the universe. Eventually, with practice, grasping the power behind these concepts would become easier, but only if we learned the art of non-resistance. In the words of Eckhart Tolle, “We are the universe expressing itself as humans for a little while.” Every experience that we have is a manifestation of divine energy, and we take the first steps towards harmony within ourselves when we allow that energy to flow through us rather than push against it, attempt to shape it, or desire to confine it. When we master this skill, that harmony begins to flow outward, and we become a source of light and goodness in the world. But where is the connection to the cherry blossom that falls from the tree in its moment of perfection? If we consider the most profound instances of our lives, whether they brought great joy or deep sadness, it would be fair to say that they are almost always completely out of our control. We may have acted with certain intention and therefore had a hand in them, but it was only as an extension of a greater power. The moment when each of my parents died hung on the cherry tree in the form of a beautiful blossom. Although I had done all that I could to care for them and to prepare myself to usher them into whatever was next for them, the power of everything for which I could never be ready became abundantly clear. That blossom began its perfect fall and there was no resistance I could offer. I could only accept that they were never mine to keep. The great irony is that every day is filled with instances such as these, but we miss them because we believe that this moment of perfection can only be found in life altering events. Just the opposite is true. Each day presents us with the opportunity to move closer to mindfulness, but only when we realize that any power that we think we have does not emanate from us, but rather flows through us as a manifestation of a far greater intention.
For today’s cocktail, I could not resist the thought of going in a direction that was decidedly Japanese. Since this post centered around the idea of cherry blossoms, I needed to first find a way to work their flavor into the cocktail. I also knew that I wanted to use Japanese whisky, so I opted for a cherry blossom tea simple, instead of attempting another kind of syrup. The tea had tannins and deeper flavors that I knew would marry well with the aged spirit. Japanese whiskies are made in the Scotch tradition from malted barley, rather than corn or rye. This gives them a drier, mildly peaty flavor that allowed the sweetness of the cherry blossoms to shine. You can be satisfied with saying that peatiness is akin to smokiness, but if you really want to go all out you can embrace The Whiskey Advocate’s description of peat smoke as “a bewitching, earthy perfume of ancient moss.” That’s amazing right?? Because saké is symbolic of the concept of cleansing and renewal, I knew that it also had to be an ingredient. I chose lime for my citrus component and finished the cocktail with DRAM Apothecary’s Wild Mountain Sage bitters. I garnished the cocktail with a sage leaf to represent the wisdom gained from understanding the message of the cherry blossoms. Cheers everyone. Happy Friday! Thank you so much for reading.
1.75 oz Suntory Whisky Toki
.75 oz Tozai Snow Maiden saké
1 oz cherry blossom tea simple*
1 oz lime juice
2 dashes DRAM Apothecary wild mountain sage bitters
Long shake over ice.
Double strain into a coupe glass.
Garnish with a sage leaf.
*Steep tea for 6 minutes (1 bag per 8 oz). Remove and reheat gently with an equal part sugar until dissolved.