The Pondering Grapefruit
a blog of moments
In some ways, I think we are lucky in the Boston area to have such harsh winters because it makes the arrival of spring that much more precious. After the last frost, people immediately fill their plots with dahlias, irises, rhododendrons, dogwoods… the soil erupts into blossoms overnight. The building where I work is nested in the middle of a neighborhood with many such gardens. Often, I will take walking breaks to clear my mind, spending about fifteen minutes strolling down the streets, admiring the different mosaics of flowers lining each home.
When I first started taking these walks, I spent most of my time in the visual realm, admiring the shapes and colors of the flowers, noting how they waved their heads in the wind. One day, it occurred to me to touch them too. As I reached out a finger to stroke a petal of a tulip, I could almost feel it giggling in delight. When I came back from my second retreat, my communion with plants increased even more, and with my newly refined sense of smell, I began to also engage my nose in appreciating them.
A good friend once told me that the smell of flowers is one of the most divine things in the world. I found this an interesting but didn’t think more of it until I took my first botany class in college. I was astounded by how plants can take sunlight, air, and minerals from the soil and alchemize them into the loveliest smells. There is indeed something magical in the nature of plants.
The concept of divine smell also brings up another association—that of my grandfather’s death. I had never really gotten to know him, or any of my grandparents to be real. My mother’s parents died when I was very young, and my father’s remained in Vietnam when we moved to the US, and I only saw them a couple times in my life. However my parents have told me many stories about my grandparents. From that I know that my paternal grandfather was a monk.
My grandfather became orphaned at a young age and joined the monastery at the age of eight. The monastery was a natural home for him. He had always been a sickly child, but his health did not improve with any medical care. However, when he stepped foot into the monastery, his ailments immediately left him. After he turned eighteen, Vietnam went into political turmoil. Once of his aunts advised him to return to lay life for his safety as well as to protect the family land. He did as she told, married my grandmother, and with her raised twelve children. When he was sixty, he went back to the monastery, where he lived the rest of his life. By the time of his death, he had become very well respected and honored in his sangha. On the day of his funeral, hundreds of monks and venerables linked up in a long procession stretching through the green rice paddies, towards the raised grave where he would be buried.
Though I had never been close to my grandfather, my dad tells me that we have a lot in common. About ten years ago we visited him in his monastery in Vietnam, and his room was filled with many trinkets and objects. My dad tells me that he and I are the same in that we keep everything and fill our rooms with little objects.
When my grandfather passed a few years ago, my dad, uncles, and aunts all flew back to Vietnam. In the videos that they recorded, I watched dozens of family members gather in a room, day and night bowing in unison. They did this because among Buddhist practitioners, there is a ritual of bowing and praying for the loved one’s soul to reach heaven in the final hours of their life. Sometimes the screen would shift to the face of my grandfather. As I kept watching, I caught the moment of his death: in one shot he was still breathing, and in the next sequence, his face had turned gray, he was unusually still, and the crowd had stopped bowing. When a group of serious-faced monks started pouring tea leaves around his body, I knew that he had truly gone, and I cried.
My aunt was one of the people who prayed the longest. When she came back after the funeral, she told me that she had no doubt his soul had gone to heaven. I asked her how she knew, and she said it was because of the smell.
In the moments right before his death, late at night when everyone was exhausted from bowing, she suddenly smelled sweet perfume unlike any she had ever known. The smell lingered for a bit and then disappeared as suddenly as it came. Afterwards everyone reported that they had also caught the same incredible perfume. In the moment between its arrival and passing, my grandfather left. In that brief moment, heaven had opened, and angels, carrying their divine fragrance, came to bring him home.
One of my friends practices Shabbat closely and told me that it exists to prepare us for heaven. The practice gives us space to work on enjoying the wonders of heaven so that we may appreciate them when we do arrive there. After hearing my aunt’s story, I realized that heaven must indeed smell like heaven, and for that I must begin observing the heavenly aromas here on earth.
Smell is a unique sense to me in that the perception of it is not always voluntary. One can intentionally look for things, feel things, and listen for things, but smell more often than not just happens and overtakes the senses. Walking down the street and passing lilac bushes, I am transported, momentarily, to somewhere else completely. Now, when I walk around and sniff the flowers, my grandfather comes to mind. I can’t see him or talk to him, but I like to think that by smelling flowers, I can, for a moment, find some hidden connection--a secret passageway, perhaps leading me towhere he is right now.
My apologies for not writing these past few months. A lot has happened, most of which were beautiful and exciting things. From February through April I was tied down studying for the MCAT, and then at the end of April I went on my second Vipassana retreat. They say the second retreat is the hardest, and I found this to be true, for a very deep incision was made. My dreams felt more real than my waking life, I existed in a sort of haze-like state with heightened senses, and memories from early childhood, which I had completely forgotten, came back to me--at one point I could remember every single detail of my childhood home. When I came back into the world, everything was different—because I was different. I am still discovering just how of a cut was made.
During the retreat, and for weeks on afterwards, I kept feeling tight, crackling sensations in my throat. When I tried to make them go away, my resistance to them only made them worse. Once I accepted that they were here to stay, they began to fade in intensity, though it took weeks. I think that this jaw tension came from a release of anger held in the body.
As my awareness continues to deepen, I connect more and more of the ocean of anger that had been dammed up inside me. While before I was frightened of it and avoided it, I realized during retreat that it comes from a place that is trying to protect me. Knowing this, I was able to greet it with more kindness, and that kindness un turn allows me to channel it in less destructive ways. As a result of all this, my voice has changed dramatically, delivered now with a new ferocity.
It takes time for a voice to liquify and then recrystallize, and for me it has taken these past few months. I did not want to write anything because I did not want to pollute this process. Thank you for your patience as I gave more attention to this inner work. I'm excited to be writing again, and to see what manifests.
To start again, I am sharing a letter. I was originally going to adapt it into a more traditional blog form, but I thought that would damage the essence of it. Part of me also believes that letters, when written out of love, can be received by anyone. And perhaps any sort of writing, is a letter to a reader, taking different forms. And so, my dear reader, here is my letter to you.
hello my dear,
it's 8 pm, and i'm at a cafe being productive. just finished registering for the conference in arizona, starting to work on secondaries, editing some essays that people have asked me to help them with (one is an old high school friend, younger than me, who is applying for residency, and the other is sharing a part of her book that she's submitting as features to magazines), and looking at bus tickets. i think my preference is to take the shorter one, because we'd ultimately arrive to your home faster, and i get to spend an extra hour with you, enjoying the moon, and the stars without light pollution. let me know what you think, and i'll buy the tickets soon.
today in the conference i learned that gratitude is a form of meditation, because it requires one to be aware of what currently exists to be grateful for. i've been trying to build my gratitude very slowly over the years, and it seems today it has matured a little bit more. today i had dinner at a hibachi grill supreme buffet about a ten minute walk from the air bnb. suburbia is scarier than the city, i find. i feel like a deer in headlights trying to cross a giant intersection, surrounded by nothing but cars. at least in the city, despite its shit and crowds, i am suffering together with those around me.
just a few minutes ago, the sun was casting a golden glow on the staples store across the street. everything is slowly cooling down now.
but, i felt a lot of gratitude when i was eating at the buffet. i think, for the past few days, since i've been travelling, i have been eating very little and very simply. my body seemed to know that it needed nourishment and took me there after exploring several other options. i had several different salads, all kinds of vegetarian sushi, chinese donuts, mousse cake, cookies, mandarins, custom fried teriyaki vegetables, hot and sour soup, steamed clams, olives, pickles.
my family and i went to a lot of these buffets when i grew up. there are a lot of them where we live, mass suburbia with a lot of immigrants. when i went to college i was ashamed of how i grew up, because it seemed so uncultured, such a wasteland. the trendy, stylish hipster, environmentally conscious, classy establishments i visited once i went to college seemed so superior. but now, i have found another place like where i grew up, in a part of the world that i thought was devoid of such things.
as i ate in the buffet, marveling at how many different kinds of food i could eat (and for a good price too), i looked at all the families surrounding me. they played the happy birthday song three different times for various children who turned a year older on this date. i felt how cruel it was for me to degrade the living conditions of where i grew up, to be shunning these lifestyles, because ultimately they are just doing what they can. people just want to live their lives, love whom they love, and be safe.
in the background were many televisions playing sports, news broadcasts, i saw that the soccer team in thailand was slowly being rescued, and on the spanish news, reports of american police brutalizing children. and then, at my side, children were excitedly walking past me to get food. a family settled down with their grandmother in a wheelchair, and the daughter stayed behind with her while everyone else got food.
the world seemed to be falling apart, but these people were so, together. the care that they had for each other touched me. seeing them helped me see how i grew up from a distance, and i saw that it was very warm, certainly not illegitimate, and just as full. perhaps it's my compassion expanding too. to be compassionate to things that i hated before: suburbia, parking lots, useless sidewalks, wasted intersections, impersonal typography.
and i am grateful to be grateful.
i'm grateful i met you. i am changing all the time, sure, but i think you have changed my life in some way special.
i'm really happy, and still buzzing slightly from our conversation we had last night. i miss you lots. tomorrow after the conference i'll probably go for a walk in the state park nearby, and will probably have some time to talk in the evening.
the conference is going very well. i feel very aligned with my thread in the fabric of things. i feel very natural in the role of a mindfulness teacher, like i'm connecting to some very ancient part of me that's just been waiting to be activated.
i also ate pineapple at the buffet :)
more later. xoxoxo,
About this Blog
I have no idea how to describe what my writing is about. I just write. I post when I can, which can be weekly or monthly depending on where the universe is taking me. As for the Grapefruit, my Vietnamese nickname, Buoi, means grapefruit.