Monday, May 1, 2017

Blog of the Week - Shaista Tayabali and the Wisdom of the East

My friends, I have a very special treat for you today. Shaista Tayabali, who inspires us with her writing at Lupus In Flight, is one of our early members at Poets United. Over the years, I have followed her uplifting and inspiring work with admiration, the more so as Shaista struggles with a serious health condition, as you might surmise from the title of her blog. This young woman has a radiant spirit, as you will soon discover. Recently, she wrote two poems I wanted to bring to you, and happily, she said yes to my request. Shaista lives in Cambridge with her very wonderful and talented family. So, for this visit, the best teacups and saucers must come out. The Earl Grey is simmering under the tea cozy, and there are small English biscuits on the pretty plates. Gather 'round.

There is a nun in South Korea
Who walked up the side of a mountain
To Baekyangsa temple, when she was
Seventeen, and her mother had just died.

You have come here to live,
Said the nun who opened the door,
Not asking a question. Just telling
A truth that had yet to manifest.

Jeong Kwan unpins her freshly
Laundered robes and whispers them
Around her shoulders. How old is she?
Only the mountain knows.

But the taengja tree outside her window
Is 500 years old. Hardy orange, it still
Bears fruit, and Kwan uses the sour juice
In her cooking.

She pickles lotus root three different ways,
Then checks on jars of kimchi. She never
Uses garlic, onions, scallions, chives, leeks.
Too distracting for a monk.

But soy?
Soy excites her.

Sometimes I agree with the world
That to be a mother is everything. Is the key
And the lock. Jeong Kwan vowed at seventeen
To not burden her children with the pain of her death.

There is something in that,
For me.

We can't all choose to opt out or the world
Would stop spinning
Around humans. Bees might take over. Or
Rats. Or better still, dust motes of light. Or dark.

Jeong Kwan unfurls petal after petal
Of the lotus flower, soaking the skirt
In water. Later, she will pour the water
Into a pot and you will want to gulp the tea

As though you are parched. You are parched
And this is the tea of enlightenment. The tea
That rings the bell of truth - life can be this
Way. An art. A craft. A discipline. A dance.

Three slices of lotus root, pickled
In an heirloom of soy sauce.

(c) Shaista Tayabali, 2017

Jeong Kwan is considered one of the finest chefs of this world by the finest chefs of this world, who are almost exclusively male. Life can be this way. Women can be this way. Happy Women's Day today and every day to all my friends and sisters, my mentors and teachers and heroes. We can be anything. We can do everything. Certainly, we can.

(c) Shaista Tayabali, 2017

Sherry: Shaista, I am transported by this beautiful piece, as I share your love of the mystical wisdom of the East. Tell us about this poem. We are all ears!

Shaista: For over a decade, I have been among the multitudes of admirers of Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh- not least because, aside from his charming ways and engaged Buddhism philosophy, he is also a beautiful poet. His style of writing with simplicity, musicality and yet profound wisdom and truth inspired me years ago to dispel any notion that I could be a poet of formal verse. Thây, as he is known to his students, taught me to follow my inner rhythm - not ideal if you want to be critically acclaimed or even published in the finer poetry mags, but exactly right if you are me, and need only to follow your art as it leads you to truth.

Sherry: I love that! "To follow your art as it leads you to truth!" And you had the good fortune, a few years back, to attend a retreat with Thay, which must have been amazing!

Shaista: I have long been an obsessive fan of a Netflix series called 'Chef's Table'. Some may think it pretentious or overly aesthetic... I think each episode is an extraordinary piece of film-making attempting to encapsulate the desperately - and I use that word with deliberation - stressful life of globally successful chefs. And then, in series three, episode one, there appeared Jeong Kwan. 'I am not a chef,' Kwan announces. 'I am a monk.' And so she is. Oh, but she is very much a skilful chef, too. It is just that out there in Baekyangsa temple, she is only cooking for herself and two other nuns. Or sometimes for outsiders, laypeople, visitors. And then last year, for New York's culinary critics, who were overwhelmed, transported, briefly enlightened. And wanted to travel to South Korea immediately to learn temple cuisine.

A monk's life is not easy. Especially if you began novice life as a child or teenager as Kwan did. Not enough sleep, endless rounds of prayers and meditation, ceaseless repetition of daily chores. In the midst of such cycles, grace can also be found, and beauty. And a kind of courage. The courage to step forwards every day without needing outward validation, or the stamp of success. I am not a monk, nor do I live as one - but there are limitations on my outer life because of the illnesses I live with. So a figure like Jeong Kwan is deeply moving to me.

Sherry: Your recent poem "Blue" describes this so well. Let's include it here, shall we?

If you were to ask me
What my favourite colour is
I would have to say blue;
Even though blue is the colour
Of the plastic curtain my elbow keeps brushing
As I type this poem
Leaning towards the closed hospital window.

They've painted the edges of the buildings outside
The shade of my first bedroom in England -
The Blue Room, I called it, not inventively.

Which came first? The chicken or the egg?
My niece Eva says, 'Chicken.'
And we all marvel.

Which came first, the blue paper curtains,
This long marriage with hospital,
Or my love of blue?

Hard to tell.

The sun is up. The kind of torch light bright
That hurts your eyes but does its job
Matter of factly. Some nurses are like that.
Others make room for hugs and jokes; jokes
That are a nimbus around a heart of compassion;
A beady eyed watchfulness for when things
May suddenly turn serious and need an
Oxygen mask, an ECG, and more of those curtains
Whisked around quickly.

The quietly fainting patient must be revived
At all costs. They save lives in here.

(c) Shaista Tayabali, 2017

Sherry: Beautiful, Shaista. I can see those nurses, with their sharp eyes, and warm smiles. I so admire your compassionate nature, ever present in your work, and the way you always see the good, those small, human moments,  in every situation. 

Shaista: I was diagnosed with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus when I was a teenager although it had reared its head earlier, when I was a child growing up in Bombay, India. I have done the rest of my growing up in and out of hospital. One Cambridge hospital in particular - the one where Quentin Blake did an incredible series of and poetry are displayed on many of the corridor walls. I keep hoping I'll find a way to include mine!!

Along with lupus, there is glaucoma, and a host of what the medics like to cheerily call the "co-morbidities"...or what I might call Fifteen Ways in Which I Might Die. Title for a new poem perhaps?

Sherry: I admire your courage, and your humour, my friend. If the people who decide such things read any of your poems, they will go on the wall for certain!  

Shaista:  I meet all sorts of people in hospital. I am a friendly sort and life histories unravel themselves at top speed. Clive James, the Australian poet and critic, and I have befriended each other on the ward where we meet for our three weekly infusions. 

Sherry: I remember the lovely piece you wrote about this gentle man, called "Gate of Lilacs." I loved it. "Life is everything. Now."

Shaista: It is a strange life - difficult to explain or describe. People on the outside want to know if you're getting better. Does it hurt? What happens to you?

So I started a blog and called it Lupus In Flight. Was invited to speak several times on BBC Radio, and interviewed for the Cambridge newspaper. Then I completed my Masters. And then I wrote a book. Am in the process of querying agents for publication....a memoir about a mysterious and terrifying illness is not generally click bait. I have written and edited for medical journals and invariably am asked if I am a medic myself.

No, No, I say. I'm on the other side of things. The helpless side. Except, of course, a writer is never helpless.

Sherry: I love the stories you tell through your writings. You always leave your reader feeling uplifted. Blessed. You have a beautiful heart, my friend. Do let us know when your memoir is accepted for publication, and we shall celebrate with loud hurrahs!

Thank you so much for this lovely visit, kiddo. We appreciate it greatly, and we wish you improved health in the months ahead.

Sigh. Shaista is pronounced "Shy-sta", which is very close to Shy-Star, a name by which she is known by those close to her. It is appropriate, as she is a radiant being. She glows. Do come back and see who we talk to next. Who knows? (for I don't, at this moment, LOL.) It might be you!


  1. Thanks to you both for this lovely start to my day, here in Australia. I am glad to be made so much better acquainted with Shaista and her writing. Not so long ago a friend sent me a link to the TV program about Jeong Kwan. I was very impressed at the time, by her artistry and service, and it was lovely to read the poem here with that background of knowledge about the subject. Another friend introduced me to the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh some years ago, and I agree they are both lovely and inspiring. My late cousin, who was brought up almost like a sister to me, had lupus for many years, most of her life, so I know something about that (although I am glad I don't know it at first-hand). If I add that my favourite colour is blue...! Oh, and of course, as both an Australian and a poet, I do read Clive James although have never met him in person. (Saw / heard him host a session at a literary festival, once, on one of his visits back here.) All in all, this interview and these poems are rich in associations for me. I hope and intend to see more of your writing, Shaista.

    1. I knew you would love her, Rosemary. Shaista has inspired me for years. I adore Thich Nhat Hanh, another way Shaista and I have connected. She attended a week long retreat with him at Plum Village some years back, and sent me a few stones painted with lovely words like Love, Breathe and Joy, painted by the children there. They sit on my porch now, beside my potted tulips, to celebrate the connections we make with beautiful people all over the world, through this magical blogosphere.

  2. Shaista I so much enjoyed reading your beautiful poetry. You are talented,wise and spiritual which is a wonderful combination. I am in a hospital right now with my husband who's been pretty sick lately so I will show him your poems. Here there is no color blue nor beautiful art adorning the walls but it is a good place for which I am grateful. I look forward to reading more of your work and am very happy to meet you here where Sherry has done such a fine introduction.

    1. Myrna, I pray your husband recovers. You both have had a difficult year. Thank you for taking the time and care to make this visit in the midst of it all. Shaista and I both send you some cool blue vibes, to breathe peace upon your situation, and wish you the best outcome.

    2. Myrna Where is this hospital?

  3. Thank you both, for allowing us to sit-in on your quiet conversation. Several things drew me in, let me relate, even though I live in the U.S., and in a state that is mostly known for its cows and dairy products. My first spiritual guide was a Catholic nun. It was her quiet wisdom that drew me in and later led me to read Thich Nhat Hanh, and find another guide into the simple wisdom that has drawn me all of my life. Now, in my seventies, I believe that anyone who is drawn into the solitary life of an artist, be that writing or any form of art, has found and entered into a cloistered sort of existence. Words can and do become walls which both define and shelter us in a very similar fashion. Helping us to express the simple wisdom of our truths and giving us the ability to share that with the world around us. I found that same essence in your poems Shaista, and can only be glad that Sherry was wise enough to allow the rest of us to become better acquainted with your work. That first poem hit me deeply, as I too, have been dealing with physical disabilities since the age of 17. I also have a peculiar affection for the color blue, but for very different reasons. And thank you again, Sherry for bringing another light into our seemingly darkening world.


  4. Oh you are so welcome, Elizabeth. Yes, Shaista shines a radiant light, always. It is what draws me to her work, over and over again...........shine on, Shaista, as your gift of relating those small human exchanges reminds us that people are so good, at heart, even in the midst of fears that so much darkness surrounds us.

  5. Hello Shaista I must confess I had a little weep at your beautiful poem Jeong Kwan it is one of the best poems I have read in ages. My own wife was in and out of hospital for 12 years with a difficult cancer and I was amazed at the care and friendship she was surrounded with both by the staff and other patients. I too have glaucoma which probably runs in the family which is not much of a legacy! I do hope that Sherry is persuading you contribute to Poets United blogs in the future as I would love to read more of your work. It is so good to have met you and thank you Sherry for finding Shaista for us

  6. Shaista, i have followed you for a while and have contributed a few words here and there on how inspirational you are to me, to my soul. when i read your words, your journey, i am humbled. life is a challenge to the soul within that awaits patiently to transition to its realm. the pains our bodies, our heart witnesses while we reside in the mundane can only prepare us for the next journey. Gracias for sharing with us a moment of your time and Gracias mi amiga, Sherry, for once again offering yourself as a conduit.

  7. Shaista, I remember you and your insightful poems! Your words gentle unfold and transport us to other worlds~
    I loved watching the Netflix series-Jeong Kwan was my favorite! It was poetry to see her make Lotus tea~

    Your Blue poem resonates with me-on many levels. I am sorry you are struggling. Writing helps us cope with life. I wear prayer beads every day and chose the charm of the Lotus-they grow in the mud. It gives me courage to think of something growing and blossoming among difficulties. You are a Lotus, Shaista and so, am I. I struggle with Type 1 Diabetes. Thank you, Sherry for sharing Shaista! I have missed Poets United and all the lines of awe and insight~ I am so, glad I decided to stop by~

  8. What a wonderful interview! Once again, you have amazed me, Sherry, with your commitment to sharing the work of our follow poets. And it was a pleasure to be introduced to you, Shaista. I so enjoyed learning about Jeong Kwan, as well. We live in times where we are bombarded by media coverage of outrageous conduct by mean-spirited people. It is such a joy to be reminded that there are fascinating, courageous, loving and giving human beings here, on planet earth, as well. My Mom had lupus. It is a harsh disease - in her case - often upsetting plans for birthday celebrations and travel: life's little 'perks'.

    I truly enjoyed your poetry, Shaista. It has a lovely clarity - clean, uncluttered lines that cascade with wisdom and soul - and I look forward to reading more of it.

    Great job of this, ladies. A pleasure to read!

  9. Thank you, friends, for your lovely comments. I know Shaista will appreciate them. She is not feeling well at the moment but I know she will come in and say hi when she is able to.Meanwhile, I hope your words warm her beautiful heart. I am so happy to bring her gifts to you. I have followed her work since 2010. I never want to miss a single post!!!!

  10. oh...I just loved the poems and this post really took me in...such a beautiful person! Thank you for introducing such a fine person! no more words...

  11. Shasta, you are indeed a brave soul. I don't know there were lady monks. Happy to meet you. Enjoyed your poems and your outlook on life.
    Thanks Sherry for this interview

    Much love...

  12. What a wonderful post! Thank you so much to both of you. To be ill, is to not be at our best? Or maybe it is the opportunity to actually be at one's best? I am looking forward to your recovery, that you for sharing your brave spirit and your lovely poems! What a wonderful way to start the morning!

    1. I meant to say, thank you! My fingers have a mind of their own in the mornings.

  13. Yes, I re-read it again this morning and begin my day uplifted. Thank you, all.

  14. This is a beautiful exploration. Hopeful, inspiring, peaceful.

  15. Brilliant and brave writing... more power to you.

  16. If asked blue would be my favourite colour too - even as you transport us to that hospital chair..

  17. Oh, the tea we share here! You knocked my socks off with "JEONG KWAN." Please keep writing! I'm paying attention, and also holding you in the Light you help to shine.

    Thank you both!

  18. Hello everyone! Thank you all so much for your beautiful comments - have been sitting together at the dinner table with my parents, Mum reading aloud everything you have all written - to myself and to Dad. It gives them pleasure as much as it does me - perhaps more - to be appreciated. Isn't Sherry amazing?! She makes us all sound special by painting us in the best light possible. I love getting the Sherry Blue Sky treatment. What a deeply fortunate thing to be considered one of her friends. Will write to each of you individually but this is just to say a collective thank you. With love, Shaista

  19. Shaista, I am so happy you popped in. Happy your mom and dad are enjoying the warmth as well. What a wonderful family you all are. I am always happy to peek into your loving world, so alive with the young ones these days.............I LOVE giving you the Sherry Blue Sky treatment. Thank you for allowing us this lovely and inspiring visit with you!


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