Be Oatmeal, My Friend

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one. Voltaire.

The mid-afternoon sun was a lemon smudge in the sky as I pushed open the heavy oak door and stepped over the threshold. A bell tinkled. The manic Shanghai traffic dulled to a soft hum as the door swung shut.

A small man emerged from the dimly lit shelves. Glass jars filled with leaves of mossy green, nut brown and ochre crammed every nook and cranny. I asked for ginseng and hibiscus. Master Li smiled, and gestured towards the leather covered armchair beside the tiny tea set in the corner. The next train left in thirty minutes. I had little time for fripperies. My face spoke my frustration, a frown, a pout. What happened next was magic.

When you are present, the world is vibrant. When you are absent, it is as though you sleep through life. When we think of magic, we think of unicorns, witches with cauldrons, hubbling and bubbling, toiling and troubling. Maybe we think of pre-pubescent British kids larking around in the Scottish Highlands. Few of us leap straight to washing the dishes, cleaning up the rubbish juice from the bin grooves, or weeding the garden. And, in fairness, why would you?

Chores. The bane of our lives. Gobbling up valuable free time, with which we would otherwise be producing works of art, or the novel that’s been on the back burner since little Bruce was born last…decade. Or maybe we would be out flying kites in the park, or jogging (I actually snorted some coffee, there.) I don’t know about you, but whenever I have a decent chunk of free time, it seems to go by faster than a Nanjing Spring; and my novel just as ephemeral as it was when I was happily grumbling about dried-on oatmeal at the kitchen sink.

But lately, lately, the oatmeal has begun to speak to me.

Ok, calm down. Not literally.

It speaks to me in the same way that Master Li did, softly; slowly. His words flowed like the water that splashed over the leaves as he prepared a pot of ginseng tea. A smile lit up his face as he dashed the first pot of water into the bucket at his feet.

“Wash them, first,” he said, winking. The dried ginseng spun and whirled under the delicate stream from the teapot.

He showed me how to boil the water once more, just ‘til the bubbles were mere suggestions of themselves on the surface.

“Watch them,” he said, his face calm now. We waited.

We shared three cups of tea. We did not speak of much. The leaves fleshed out and released their elixir. Hot and spicy, the ginseng glowed inside me as I made my way back outside. Dusk had fallen and the streetlamps shone with fuzzy auras in the misty evening.

What the oatmeal, and Mr. Li are pointing at is this - being present doesn’t mean sitting in the lotus position, legs crossed and smiling benevolently at all and sundry. It doesn’t mean being good - the stubborn oatmeal has no intentions in its barnacle attachment to the bowl, it is simply being. And it doesn’t mean removing oneself from the everyday magic of life.

Being time conscious creatures, we are bound by the clock. The ability to reflect on past experiences allows us to make predictions about the future, and plan accordingly. This is what makes us unique as a species, this awareness of the passing of time. It has allowed empires to rise and fall, and for a catalogue of fear and anxiety to amass, should the lens of perception get skewed too far outside the here and now. Such a weighty trickle, the sands of time, if they accumulate upon our shoulders.

I am not just who I am right now at this moment, they whisper. I am a culmination of all events that have led to this precise moment in time embodied in me, myself, and I. In this world view, personality is cumulative, and all happenings are interrelated, informed by the past, conditioned by events outside of our control. This personality is also limited in what it can be or do, operating within such a narrowly defined parameter. I am what I eat, and say and do. Or rather, what I ate, and said and did.

Carrying the weight of this baggage, as well as fending off wild and unruly attacks from the barbarous universe is enough to make anyone feel worn out, the exact opposite of OK. Incidentally, that would be K.O., Knocked Out, flattened, defeated. And even these words are only pointers towards a deeper sensation of hopelessness, abstractions reaching in vain for a concept; a state of being. Living in the past or future frequently results in this overload of negative emotions. We cannot see the woods for the trees, so to speak. It all seems so complicated, so heavy.

Worldwide, suicide rates are rising. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), almost 800,000 people die due to suicide every year, which is one person every 40 seconds. They also estimate that for every one suicide, there are 20 attempted suicides. Suicide rates increased by 25% across the United States over nearly two decades ending in 2016, according to research published in June 2018 by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lead researcher, Dr. Deborah Stone, says that while there is no overall cause to explain the drastic rise in self- harm, relationship issues and financial troubles seem to crop up regularly as main causes of suicide.

Last year alone, it knocked on the door of three close friends, their lost ones all male, all in the highest risk category which is males between the ages of 15 and 44. Two were prompted by broken hearts. One was a mystery, left to scratch at the door of those left behind. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for males in this age group.

Depression and mental illness are also on the rise. As GDP and standards of living rise, so too does the Black Dog, and its shadow is hard to cast off. Anyone who has lived with depression, or watched a loved one in its clutches, knows the devastation it can wreak on a person, a home, a family. The Black Dog that walks in the shadow growls at those who would help. It is a vicious circle of isolation, loneliness and misery.

The Greater Good Science Center emails me once a month to remind me of the courses it has on offer on The Science of Happiness. Is it now necessary to study kindness, compassion and resilience in the 21st century? Is happiness becoming a new skill to be learned and mastered? I consider taking a module on the science of happiness and well-being. I have a vague understanding of how serotonin makes us feel all warm and fuzzy. But then I stop, and ask myself, if I NEED to look so abstractly, through the veil of words and teachings? Isn’t it all supposed to be simpler? I look at the rows of eager faces in my classroom on this dull Friday afternoon, and a part of me hopes so, sincerely.

And that is what my oatmeal started to articulate, as it clung to the side of the breakfast bowls, day, after day, after day. Just be here, it said, like me. There is a peace in just being. Let the future take care of itself, let the past rest in peace.

The control freak in me laughs derisively, sitting back, arms folded, waiting for this all to go horribly wrong.

And Harry, our Hogwartian jock, in his ability to resist the temptation of the Mirror of Erised in The Philosophers Stone. Finding himself drawn to the mirror night after night, he follows Dumbledore’s advice to resist the temptations of the mirror, (I show not your face but your heart’s desire, reads the inscription on the mirror.)

“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live,” says Dumbledore. Harry, despite his overwhelming desire to be with his parents, to live in the past, succeeds in dominating the urges of his mind, and living in the moment. And it is there that he finds true fulfilment. The lures of the past, nostalgia, regret… The oatmeal clings on, worrying not.

Similarly, the future is an irresistible bauble, almost in reach, forever just out of grasp. Yet no matter how hard we work, how much we sacrifice, how hard we strive, we never find contentment. Like the donkey chasing the carrot, we run until there is no breath left, never catching the moment of pride, of pleasure in achieving our goals. If we are forever chasing down the future, the warm and fuzzy of the present is lost. What a great loss that is.

As with so many things in life, I am drawn to The Bard when faced with a question. Shakespeare, like Harry Potter, showed tremendous resilience- “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

* First published in The Nanjinger, May 2019.

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