In a world that daily seems to shatter along new fault lines, tea may seem a triviality of little consequence. But some days, I swear it saves me.
Today isn’t a particularly bad day. Or even a hard one. Still, it’s made better by the cup of masala chaiI just brewed, the tea a holiday gift from an old & dear friend, whom I see far too seldom. Now, however, as the chai’s warm & comforting fragrance wafts from the cup, it’s like she’s here, and we’re having a visit. There’s a kind of olfactory music, if that makes sense – a way the blend of cinnamon, cardamom, & ginger blend into a lullaby for grownups.
Tea is magic.
This was the Christmas of tea. I both gave it and received it. There were tea boxes for sons, daughter-in-law, and sister. Filled with what I either know they like, or enticing new options. For me, there were different chais, and a rosegold thermos to carry them in. There were stocking stuffers of sachets for busy office hours, and tins of loose tea when more ritual is desired. There were black & green & white & herbal, chai & matcha and more. We drank tea every day!
On a bad day, however, when I’m worried about the health of loved ones, or the lives of the next generation, or when I’m just missing old friends, I can brew a small pot of tea and it all seems to matter less. I can pour the water, and let the leaves steep, and soon a hot cuppa, as the English say, is ready to take me away.
It is, of course, a material joy. Although not beyond the reach of most. Decent tea is surprisingly affordable, considering it’s still (mostly) harvested by hand, and has to be shipped from faraway places w/ names that are as wonderfully exotic as good chai: Kagoshima, Nilgiri, Huangshan. Malawi, Paris, London & Ireland. There is history in each sip, if you care to learn it. And if not? The tea is enough on its own.
It is, as noted, a bit of a foolish thing, this worship at the cup. But there’s the health benefits, if you insist on being pragmatic. Not to mention the æsthetics of teaware through the ages. There are tea cosies, and matcha scoops, and the small washi-paper covered tins I filled w/ bits of leftover loose tea. There are spoon rests, and trays, and beautiful tray cloths. There is quiet comfort and beauty. (Don’t even ask how many teapots I own!) And the warmth that spreads like tangible comfort with each sip. That, it seems to me, isn’t foolish at all.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m working on being happier this year. Not that I wasn’t pretty happy last year. I just want it to be more…conscious this year, I guess. More intentional, since last year’s was in large part the result of non-repeatable actions. Moving 1/2 way across the country, downsizing to a new house… That accounts for a great deal of my excitement last year!
This year, however, we’re living here already. And have more or less ‘settled’ in. We’re (literally!) putting down roots: planting trees & shrubs & flowers and garden beds and swing sets. Well, if digging holes and filling them w/wet cement to ‘plant’ swing set legs counts…
It seems like I’m grownup enough (finally!) to work towards happiness, if necessary. And it appears that’s actually not a bad plan. Last week’s prompt asked me to consider what I do well. And how much of that comes naturally, compared to what I’ve worked to grow better at. And it turns out? There is very little I think I’m ‘naturally’ good at.
This week’s prompt asks me to list ‘what things do you do that take you out of your head?’ Good question! And many of them are the exact things I listed the week before, that required me to study them, practice 🙂them, learn them.
I wonder how many of us still believe the happily-ever-after stories of our childhood. That we would somehow just ‘become’ happy…? That it would descend upon us like a warm sunbeam, and wrap us in light.
Instead, it’s beginning to look as if happiness is more like the garden bed I put in last fall: I had to dig out the execrable red clay (down 10+ inches!), mix peat moss & manure & dirt together, and then put it back in the bed. My beloved had to put in edging to hold the newly raised bed surface in (N.B.: other folks aren’t responsible for our happiness, but they can help!). I had to plant seeds I bought into tiny peat pots, and put them under the lights on the light table, and water them until they were ready to transplant outside. And then I had to mulch the little plants, watering when it was dry weather. But by October? The bed was so lush & lovely no one could believe it! See above. And that was in autumn, when gardens are supposed to be winding down!
Another metaphor (you knooow how I love metaphors): aging is like autumn — full of brilliant light, even when the leaves are falling and the air is chilling. Even on the days when arthritis is a royal pain, and other attendant challenges rear unreasonable heads, I’m grateful to be here.
That too is a part of the whole happiness thing, I’m learning. Gratitude. Another thing I’ve been practicing, writing regularly in my gratitude journal. With entries that range fom the chickadee on the feeder outside, to my elder grandson telling me you’re the best, GiGi!
So here’s my prescription for you and your future happiness: practice it. Treat it like a skill that you can learn. Because it is, I promise. And the more you practice, the better you’ll get at it. Honest.
The journaling project I’m doing to ‘practice happiness’ asked, this past week, what currently makes me happy. I had a lengthy list — more than 20 things! I guess that’s good (or else I’m woefully shallow…) One, of course, was tea.
I try to have tea every afternoon. It’s not my morning drink; espresso is (a Mexican café con leche, w/ condensed milk, cayenne, & cinnamon). (I’m bi-beverage-al.) But after a morning spent going through email, setting up the day, making lists if necessary, and getting some exercise on the recumbent bike, tea is perfect.
It’s a way to calm and breathe. Just the ritual in choosing a tea, a pot, a spoon (I have several different ones for fun), a cup. Then filling the glass kettle for the leaves. Pouring the water over the leaves in the filter, waiting while the tea steeps. It’s such a soothing ritual. If I time it right, the afternoon sun slants through the window in warm honeyed comfort. I can consider the hours ahead w/ calm & anticipation, not always the case in the early a.m.
It isn’t much work, but it does take 15 minutes or so — more if you aren’t organized! Me? I have an entire shelf of teas for every mood & occasion. A drawer filled w/ scoops & spoons & filters & coasters. A cabinet where various pots & sugars & creamers live happily awaiting use. So it doesn’t take much work, but some.
And I’m coming to think that’s true of happiness in general: we have to be willing to plan a bit. Work some. Even organize. But then there’s that lovely moment when you stop, and take a slow deep breath. Calm & happy. Ritual and practice in a cup of white peach oolong!
I made a commitment more than a year ago — 89 weeks, but who’s counting? — to keep a daily journal. Morning pages, as Julia Cameron calls them in several of her books, most recently It’s Never Too Late To Begin Again. Verrry quickly they became daily pages, and then more like weekly pages. Nothing like a move halfway across the country to upend your routines!
But I’ve kept up, in a too-desultory-but-still-trying way, the habit. Because it’s good for me. Not only as a writer (obviously), but as a person trying to make sense of an increasingly complicated world. This next year, however, I’m trading in my. beautiful pink leather-bound journal for a hardbound best-seller: 52 Lists for Happiness. There are several listing journals out, but this one drew my attention: who doesn’t want to be happier??
I know happiness requires practice. One of the perks of aging, and being a Buddhist is that you realise you can create happiness. A big part of it, research shows, is gratitude. Acknowledging the happiness we already have. As someone who spent a LOT of her life where water didn’t run hot (or sometimes at all!), where there wasn’t reliable heat or air, where mod cons, as the British call modern conveniences, were often completely missing, I never forget how nice it to have hot water, dishwashers, dryers.I’m grateful for holidays w/ family, for farmer’s markets, for cats & tea & chocolate & fresh flowers, too. I’m also enormously grateful for my 2nd generation: my 2 wonderful sons, my amazing daughter-in-law, my nieces & nephews. And of course what would my life be w/out the grandsons we moved to be closer to?? AND my funny, loving, slightly crazy, & enormously loving sisters! Not to mention my far better half — my best beloved.
So this seems a logical extension of writing I already do in small gratitude journals I’ve been filling for a few years now. This new year, however, I thought I’d use my found spare time (nothing like having almost no local friends to free up hours!!) to reflect in a structured fashion. Hence the happiness journal. Good way to augment Buddhist practice, too, right? Live in the now of my happiness?
There are other new projects I’ll be starting, sharing here as the year unfolds. Most of them involve a kind of journaling, coincidentally (or not, for a writer!). There’s some research to enable me to do a lengthy poetry project, some spiritual meditation focused on visual cues, some gardening. I’m teaching a class, and figuring out another one for next fall. Each will require exploring, brainstormiong, something I do best while writing. To paraphrase Forster, how do I know what I think until I see what I write?
What new projects are you planning for the new year? Nothing as elaborate as ‘resolutions’; just what you hope to explore! Want to share…?
Despite what we thought would be the case, we’ve had several visitors to our new home in Virginia. And that’s GOOD! In part because not only do we love them all, but they’ve all worked hard to be great house guests. Want to know how to ace that rôle? Listen up:
The biggest help is to be sure the folks you’re visiting adore you. That’s been the case with all of our guests: my three sisters — one with beloved partner; my younger son; my niece & her wife, plus friend; and a very dear old friend of mine. Each is a pleasure to visit with, and a necessary element in my very happy life. So that’s #1.
#2: Give your host and/or hostess some notice, so they can anticipate! Not to mention do the sheets in the guest room… 😉 In our case, it means we can also make reservations for Sunday brunch at the coooolest little restaurant in the Blue Ridge Mountains!
#3: Let them know if you have dietary issues. A couple of old friends are coming in a few weeks, and she was thoughtful enough to let me know they all have celiac. So I can show off our amazing local bakers, who do GREAT gluten-free! And I was able to send her the link to a great local restaurant that has a lengthy gluten-free menu, as well. We all win!
#4: If you’re staying for more than a few days-ish, pitch in. My younger son is the king of this — he takes out trash; he empties wastebaskets; he goes to pick up last-minute necessaries when I’m cooking. It’s also nice if you ask about stripping the bed when you leave, but not critical. Still, when my girlfriend did it, neatly folding the dirty linens on the ottoman, I was sooo grateful!
#5 is optional, & dependent on finances, obviously: Take your host/ess out for a meal. My sisters aren’t particularly flush — one is retired, another in FT grad school, and the 3rd unemployed. Yet each found a way to take us out, and it was such a thoughtful gesture!
Finally? HAVE FUN! If you’re at my house these days, chances are we’ve picked up some creeping bug from the grandsons, and are lower energy than we’d like to be for guests. Which means I’m über paranoid that you’re bored! If you’re obviously enjoying what we do most days — drinking tea or coffee, watching birds, reading, just talking — then I’m happy. And while it’s NOT all about me (honest), it’s sooo much more fun for ALL of us if I know what you enjoy, from the food (if you don’t like cornbread, be sure to let us know! We eat a lot of it!) to the bed (close the door if you don’t want the cats on you!) to the weather (we can’t fix that, so just enjoy it — our town is gorgeous!).
In other words, just be your normal kind & thoughtful self. Having fun! How hard is that??
Yesterday was a son date. Meaning, I had lunch w/ one of my two amazing sons. Earlier this week I had lunch w/ the other. Interesting detail: each picked the same restaurant, a small Asian café we all three like. They always have the pho (a ViệtNamese soup), minus the tendon & tripe. I have any of a number of things — I’m far less predictable in my tastes.
But each time we shared a green papaya salad (a favourite of ours), and talked. The main course, as it were: conversation. Without work, or two grandsons, or other interruptions. Just me & a son, over food. It doesn’t get a lot better…
Too often, we expect love to flourish w/out any nurturing. Or, more likely, we consider the daily things we do for each other to be enough. But really? You can’t have quality time w/out a fair amount of quantity.
Neither son revealed anything earth-shattering. I see them both, in this golden period, frequently. But rarely, as I noted, without the hubbub of daily life as a backdrop. And often — to be fair! — the hubbub takes precedence.
Here’s to time spent with loved ones: friends, family, colleagues. Folks you’d like to know better. Because sharing food, as M.F.K. Fisher said, is about more than just the meal:
It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.
Try it. A date with whomever — I happen to be lucky to have my sons nearby! — over shared food. I promise it’s worth the effort.