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.
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.