Today I took out a camera after months of not being able to touch one, and felt like I do after an illness: hungry but still nauseous, yearning for food but simultaneously unable to eat.
The winter is a dormancy for me. I get certain kinds of work done in winter. I’m often very productive in late December and January, when the cold settles deep and begins to grip harder. But it’s the productivity of doing, consumption, and facts. Grocery shopping, laundry, books cover-to-cover. I run low on creative energy. There is a vital withdrawal from the faculty that writes or makes pictures, and I end up feeling like a twig, dry at the end of both myself and the season.
There are crocuses coming up the front yard. Purple arrowheads on green shafts, close to the ground: I am pierced by them, and miraculously I bleed with receptivity and response. It’s spring.
In my class on ancient Chinese literature, we briefly discussed the “Summons of a Soul” poems of the Chuci. One of the students said, “I don’t understand how a soul can be tempted by bodily pleasures.” She was referring to the enticements of food and pleasure listed in the poem, and she sounded somewhat indignant. For her the soul and the body were strictly discrete and of distinct hungers, the soul for the “spiritual” and the body for the mundane remainders. I was shocked. I wasn’t shocked that for her the soul should be drawn to soul-things and the sensorial pleasures of the body are gross aspects of lesser corporeality, but that when I read the same poem I had no such reaction. I’ve spent nearly a decade now laying feasts for spirits; the spirits in my world are always hankering and yearning and lusting. We routinely feed and pacify them. We entice them to calm them and sometimes to guide them toward more metaphysical truths—but never without the bribe of a good meal. “The “Summons” was foreign to my classmate but familiar to me, so familiar I didn’t even question its most basic premise about souls and their appetites. I felt betrayed by myself. There’s been a thinning of my original cultural framework, and overlaying it like new text of a palimpsest is the world I made my own. I made it mine to such an extent I’ve forgotten what I changed it from.
Later the same student asked about moxibustion, which also appeared in the poem. Immediately I thought the Korean word for the herb used in moxibustion, ssuk. It took me a moment to translate the word in my head, mugwort. She wrinkled her nose. “What’s that?” “A weed,” said another student, and I wrinkled my nose. “It’s also a food, and a medicine…and a weed,” I conceded. It felt disrespectful to reduce mugwort to that last, when it is also so much. In Korea ssuk is a small low-growing plant whose new leaves we harvest in spring and make into soups and sidedishes, whose flavor infuses teas and rice, which is curative and nutritive. Its sight, fragrance, and taste have been a part of every spring of my life for eight years.
It is a weed here. It has a mean name, mugwort, to go with a mean understanding. I felt lost again. The smell of burning mugwort is reminiscent of cannabis, although ingestion of the former has none of the latter’s effects. I used moxibustion to deal with the cold numbness which crept into my fingers and belly in Korea. Small rounded balls of dried mugwort had been used to make the precepts’ burns on my arms. I associate burning mugwort with acupuncture and repentance rituals, since I’ve been enveloped in its smoke at acupuncture clinics and during ordination ceremonies. The first student shook her head and frowned. “I still don’t know what mugwort smells like.” I know exactly what mugwort smells like. I was the only one.
I wandered around for a bit just off the campus this afternoon with a camera in hand, shooting black and white film. It’s an early birthday present to myself. I’ll take a longer walk as is my wont on my birthday next week. But the day was so nice and the feeling in me after so long, I thought: yes. Today.