In a much-needed break from all the pain of the current national tragedy of government, let’s take tea together. Virtually speaking, of course. Because in the UK, it’s Afternoon Tea Week!
That means we need to talk tea, for at least a little bit. Almost as good as drinking tea is talking (or reading) about it. Just Saturday, I had a nice visit with Jack, who is opening Tea & Jam here in Blacksburg, later this month. I saw his van parking as I walked up to the Farmer’s Market Saturday, and stopped to congratulate him on a great article, about his upcoming opening, in the Roanoke paper. We got to visiting about the health benefits of tea (numerous!), and Jack introduced me to a book I just ordered: Cancer Hates Tea. A family member is fighting cancer, and the book seemed timely.
But tea’s healing qualities aren’t just about polyphenols (one of the health-benefiting elements of tea). The magic is also, as tea drinkers know, about quiet. About the ritual of filling the pot (or cup) with boiling water, and taking a moment to let it steep. It’s also about spoiling yourself just a bit, and taking a moment ‘off’ from your daily grind, whatever that may be.
It’s about savouring the fragrance of peach matcha as you stir it, or watching milk cloud a cup of Earl Grey. It’s about a moment when the world stops whirling & settles, for a warm comfy moment, into focus. You, the cup, the tea. The old be here now thing. Almost impossible to achieve with even the best cup of coffee (which I also like, just fyi). Coffee lacks the magic of tea, I confess. And don’t we all need magic these days?
Sometimes folks ask me to ‘recommend’ teas. Unlike Jack, I don’t own a tea shop. More like a tea way station, where I try to bring order to fractious days. At my house, if you’re invited to tea, there will be a black tea (if you’re a newbie tea drinker, probably just a good China black or maybe Earl Grey). And if you’ve told me you don’t drink caffeine, there will be one of the tisanes or fruit teas I often sip in the late afternoon or evening. I’m partial to lemon verbena, or a fruit tea made with mango pieces.
But if you do drink caffeine, I might go with a flavoured or blended black tea. My favourites — especially if you’re adventurous — are Lapsang Souchong, and a blend from Harney’s tea, Victorian London Fog. Despite my younger son’s dismissal of any tea using vanilla, I adore the London Fog tea, which is basically Earl Grey with lavender & a tiny soupçon of vanilla. And of course Lapsang Souchong is smoky & a bit wild. Good for days when it feels you’re being smothered in everyday minutiæ!
There will be a tea tray w/ a tea cloth. Matching cups & tea pot, drawn from the far too many I own (and use!). A complementary creamer & sugar, as I like my black teas w/ both. And a little honey jar, one of 2-3 I have for various tea sets. And of COURSE there will be cookies! Maybe scones, too, if it’s a mid-morning or mid-afternoon tea, where we need more sustenance. Probably ginger scones, unless I made ginger shortbread. (Can you tell how much I love ginger?)
The whole point of shared afternoon tea is just that: sharing. And the nurturing comfort that comes from someone baking something tasty just for you. Of, as M.F.K.Fisher said,
I am more modest now, but I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.
Tea’s like that. A way to feed people on so many levels. And here’s the best part of this open secret: you can do it for yourself! You can buy a package of tea bags or sachets (it doesn’t have to be loose tea, if that intimidates you, although the ritual of scooping and filling a tea strainer is pleasant!), in whatever flavour you like, and pour boiling water into a cup where the tea bag nestles. Let it brew for a minute or two, and then add what you like. Or nothing at all!
Now: take a deep breath of the healing steam. Let it out. And enjoy your moment of peace & comfort.
I always have. Loved my students, I mean. N.B.: it’s not that unusual. It’s what teachers do. Daily. They enter their classes full of the girl who wasn’t picked for play yesterday, and the boy whose dad beat the tar out of him last night, and the girl whose brother died five years ago and who still grieves and the boy who wonders how he never noticed his brother was gay, and the girl whose mother tells her daily what a loser she is. Or the child whose parents are gone, one in prison, one just gone. Now s/he lives with an exhausted grandmother. Each of these needy, broken children is in multiple classes. And almost certainly, s/he has a teacher who LOVES. Classes are brimming with these students, and underpaid, overworked teachers who♥️♥️♥️.
It’s what they do. Each day. Exhausted as they are, every teacher I know loves. Daily. Hourly. Loves the slightly crazy, very needy girl in the front row who is a not-quite-recovering cutter. Loves the very needy boy in the back who wonders if he will ever be enough. And those who teach little bitties? They wipe noses, blot tears, kiss scrapes, tousle heads, reassure, listen listen listen. And LOVE.
It’s the job. And it’s HARD. But it’s also what makes teaching the calling it is for most of us. It’s at the heart of that calling, and why it’s soooo hard to evaluate — this recognition of the love at the heart of each teacher. It’s why teachers cover their children’s bodies w/ their own in a shooting (Sandy Hook) or a tornado (Moore, OK). It’s why they put up with the scorn of other professionals, the relentless paperwork, and the crappy pay. L-O-V-E.
I think of teaching — the decades I did it, at least — as almost a Buddhist practice, or a Christian offer of blessing. A Jewish mitzvah, a gift of compassionate love, sometimes even tough love. And yes: teaching is (obviously) also a means of helping students — of all ages — learn. But as I used to tell my own students, sometimes what you are learning isn’t the book, or even the content. It’s not how to write a research paper, but how to figure out a way to access the pain that wells up when you consider the things you care about, & might want to write about. For a Russian orphan, it may be foreign adoption. For the recovering cutter, it may be wrist-cutting syndrome. For the boy who is coming to terms w/his brother’s homosexuality, it may be how family can support gays.
A good teacher listens, and is, as Frost said, a gentle prod forward, along the path of self-knowledge & learning. Not ‘quail shot’! And even the teachers who may not be Pulitzer winners, or brilliant physicists, or theoretical research chemists? They know more than most folks ever will about how to love. And how it is love — old-fashioned love — that opens students minds. The way to the mind, good teachers know, is through the heart. A good teacher is, as Frost also notes, not simply a ‘teachers,’ but an ‘awakener.’ Smart man, that Frost. But then, he knew much about love.
And teachers deserve a LOT of ours.
I never take friendship for granted. As a child, a teen, and then an adult, I moved too often to keep most friends I made along the way. There is one man from my senior year I still correspond with, via FB. I’m sure he has no idea how dear he is to me, not only for this important singularity, but also because for some unknown reason he values my friendship, too.
Over the years, I have lost far more friends than I have kept, most from the attrition of too many moves and too little time together. My oldest dear friend and I have worked hard to maintain the precious friendship that blossomed unexpectedly as we worked together years ago: over the more than 10 years we’ve lived across the country from each other, we’ve scheduled visits, telephone calls, FaceBook messages & Google Hangouts. Sent cards & presents. Tried hard to safeguard the fragile cup that holds this infinitely precious elixir.
That’s what it is, friendship. A kind of magic draught that confers an inner sense of worth & comfort. Even if it sneaks up on you sometimes, blindsides you with how much you didn’t realise you needed it right that minute. In, for instance, a made-with-love&care box of biscotti, colouring book postcards carefully tucked in. Just because she can, a newer friend says in a short note (no effusiveness for this girl!).
Perhaps because I don’t take my friends for granted, I’m always surprised I have any! Please rest assured: I’m not playing the poor pitiful me card. I just know that I prose on far too much about esoteric subjects ~ tea, for instance. Who other than my younger son really wants to discuss the difference between a jasmine tea made with black tea leaves and a jasmine made with a far gentler combo of green & white teas? Who wants to hear me wax rhapsodic about an obscure poet, or try to process my dog’s brain tumour? Who cares that my grandson told me his newest great thing?
My friends. The infinitely treasured men and women who have managed to wriggle past my fairly strong external personality — the voice that can part a sea of supermarket shoppers, the highly opinionated newshound, the besotted grandmother, the horrible punster. To whatever it is they see beneath that fairly thick veneer.
There’s the man I met in a book club he started at my former employer’s: he let me in to his deep grief when his beloved partner died. The dear girlfriend I mentioned earlier, who solaced me during a very bad patch of life, but can also make me laugh until I snort tea through my nose. The woman I met in a writing workshop, the friend of another dear friend, who became my own friend, making me laugh when I needed to, bringing me homemade comfort treats because she could. The man who worked with me, who shared his dreams of home & happiness with me. The younger girlfriend who doesn’t take a busy ‘no’ for an answer, and cajoled me into tea at her house, with her adorable 2-year-old.
And of course there are my sisters. But somehow, you expect your sisters to love you. At least in my family we do, a family of 3 generations of sister/friends.
So here’s to friends, who don’t just tolerate our idiosyncracies, but celebrate them! Who talk too loud with us, bake for us, share their kids with us, show us their cat & dog pics, recommend books, send us music… In other words? Here’s to the friends who share their lives with us. I don’t deserve mine, but I’m profoundly grateful they don’t seem to know that.
When I was a little girl — about 8 years old? — I remember thinking all I was very good at was love. It sounds more profound now than it was then. Mostly I just wished there were jobs for lovers (the legal kind ????). I loved everything, passionately: my grandmother, my great-aunt. My sisters, my teddy bear, my dog. The trees I climbed, the room I slept in. The way the wind lifted my hair when I held my head out the window of the old blue Buick. The fragrance of rain on hot grass. I swam in love, like a fish breathing water.
As I’ve grown older, I believe even more firmly that my assets aren’t material, although I can cook. And garden. And ‘m good w/ most animals and small children. Parrots and snakes love me. So do bees.
But none of the above ~ or even reading & writing, both of which I’m also pretty good at ~ bring in bucks. If you’re fortunate (and I have been), you can make a modest living. Nor are such talents easily ‘quantifiable.’ Look at the huge hoopla over how to evaluate teachers! We pay lip service to how valuable the non-material things in life are, but as Doc & Steinbeck note in Steinbeck’s masterpiece The Log from the Sea of Cortez:
We have definitions of good qualities and of bad …. [a]nd yet … the so-called and considered good qualities are invariable concomitants of failure, while the bad ones are the cornerstones of success. A man … while he will love the abstract good qualities and detest the abstract bad, will nevertheless envy and admire the person who through possessing the bad qualities has succeeded economically and socially, and will hold in contempt that person whose good qualities have caused failure. (p 80, SoC)
It doesn’t matter to most Americans how ‘good’ you are if you make $$. This is just the cultural mindset, identified decades ago by a scientist and a writer. The recent controversial ad from Wells Fargo is an example of this attitudet: actors & ballerinas are inferior to botanists & engineers, it implies not very subtly. Even though (kudos to @DLChamplin for pointing this out) the highest paid actor in 2016 made $64 million, and the highest paid botanist only $165,000-ish. But there we go again, reducing things to $$ and ¢¢. Who is to say what is more important, ultimately? Some days I want botany — the names of flowers & trees, details on what to grow where. Other days? I want refuge for my weary mind: a farce, a comedy, two hours away from now, in the hands of master craftsmen. But I will confess: most days? I want ART. I want beauty, even if it terrifies; writing that may break my heart; dance that makes me catch my breath. Still — I can’t live w/out engineering ~ the structural soundness of my deck enables me to watch the birds that bring me such joy. The botany explicit in the successful farming of the CSA I buy my tomatoes from is why they taste so very fine. The water that sluices from my shower is the result of advanced schooling, to make it all work.
In other words — like most of life, binaries are pretty damn reductive. Which leads me back to love… We say we respect it, admire it, wish to emulate it. But one of our candidates for president belittles it, rolls his eyes at the idea of political respect for other nations & backgrounds, and foments the very opposite of love. Or even respect. And millions of American admire & follow this man. Because he’s ‘successful,’ he says. And because you cannot measure good, or kindness, or love. You certainly can feel them, but it’s like trying to count the wind, or hold sunlight in a bottle. You can tell how fast the wind blows, but you can’t really count IT. You can tell how hot the air is, but you can’t hold sunlight in your hands. Money? That you can count. Success in material goods? Those you can measure (but not realistically, if you don’t include the ‘collateral damages’ of unfair practices, theft, cheating…). And those you can aspire to. There is, we believe, no ‘luck’ about them. They are achievable by all.
Except, of course, they’re not. More on that another time. Suffice to say that the deck is loaded against many Americans.
When the world breaks your heart — as it does mine at least twice a day, chipping away at the my thin candy shell — you have two choices. Love or removal. A temporary bridge into love for me is anger — I am quick to anger. Because of love, paradoxically. All I can do when I don’t know how to take the next breath is try to return to love. And while I”m still good at the easy kind of love ~ the sturdy delicacy of a fly landing on my page as I write outside, laughing as the dogs chase each other ~ the ‘returning to’ part of it, coming back from the incandescent rage I feel at injustice? That’s verrry hard! Still, I believe in it, love. Fiercely. The child of a mother who believed, literally, in the power of love. If you just love enough, she would say. Love can do anything. And so it can, I still believe, as my mother did before me. I just have to practice, that lovely Buddhist word that says I can keep trying; it doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, there is only the expectation of continuing, not perfection. So I just have to learn how to return to love, to employ it even when the objects of the exercise are sooo very unloveable!
Today is my parents’ 70th anniversary, if they were still alive. My mother would be 92, my father 99. Hard to believe it’s been that long. Their marriage wasn’t perfect. Not their first one, nor the 2nd, when they remarried each other following a divorce. As beautiful a couple as they were — and they looked like movie stars of their era: the tall war hero in his dress whites, the breathtaking bride in her perfect white suit — they often didn’t ‘fit’ together.
They rarely ‘talked,’ in the sense we use it today. Oh sure: they talked about old times, or where we were going for dinner, or what to do on Sunday. But communicate about dreams, hopes, worries, and all the things I share w/ my beloved? I don’t remember any of that. When my mother first sued my father for divorce, she had him served w/ papers — didn’t discuss it first. He just opened the door to the papers. I do remember that.
Were they happy? I know they were, many years. They were happy when I was small, on the Christmas I still remember when despite our straitened circumstances (my father was on retiree pay, 1/2 his paltry light colonel’s salary, with a wife & 3 small kids), my father bought my mother a diamond she wore ever after. I’ve no idea how he paid for it, probably traded it for one of his (many) rare guns.
And they were happy ~ I remember my mother reminiscing ~ when they were first married, living in a treed villa in Baguio, northern Philippines. My mother — in her early 20s — would talk of the shining teak floors, waxed by a maid younger even than she was, who skated across the floors with waxy rags tied to her feet. My father was overseas, his favourite place. I see this nomad’s heart in my younger son, so much like his grandfather’s. They pulled up roots routinely, resettling every few years.
Because of my father’s jobs, my mother learned early to be a hostess, despite her working class background. She could make base housing into something comfortable & cosy in a matter of days, pulling together a home from a bleak series of rooms. Soon there would be fresh flowers, and a few potted plants she picked up at a local market. Linens would drape the scuffed table, and she would sew pillows for beat-up sofas & chairs.
While my father would go off to do what fathers did then ~ mostly travel for the government, in his case. Always there were hugging reunions on his return, and a long retreat to privacy. Passion, it seemed, was not a problem.
Still, I never wanted a marriage like my parents. Nor do I have one, despite certain superficial similarities (travel, moves, a long time not working outside the home, & passion, of course). I wanted more talking, more sharing, fewer secrets. I modelled love not on the ersatz storybook romance of my mother & father — so very beautiful — but on my beloved in-laws, who were beautiful in their own understated fashion. In the way that movies are never as complex (or as good) as the book, I wanted the messy, nuanced, complicated book. Not the preoccupation with roles and expectations played out in my parents’ double marriage. I wasn’t certain why they bothered to divorce (they still spent holidays together), nor did I ever really get why they remarried. I suspect it was the embers of that passionate early love: my father wanted, still, to take care of that beautiful girl he married. And my mother wanted, still, to care for that gorgeous hero.
Me? I wanted someone real, someone I could talk to. I don’t remember my mother & father laughing together the same way I do w/ my beloved. And though they did many things together — entertained, traveled, made a family — I don’t remember them talking books, or ideas the way my in-laws did.
What my parents’ marriage did for me was show me that love comes in all colours and shapes and sizes. It can be friendly, and sharing, and entertwined like vines, as my in-laws’ was. Or it can be full of drama and movie-star glamour, as my parents’ was. That doesn’t include the marriages of aunts, whom I watched like hawks to see how they too navigated the seas of love & marriage. I never intended to get married, to be honest — I didn’t see my parents as all that happy with the institution. And then I met my beloved, and his parents’ very different marriage. For years I revised what marriage could be, according to this very different story I learned from Mom & Dad.
Next month I will have been married 40 years to my beloved. We aren’t a movie, by any means (we never were!). Nor are we the hard workers my in-laws were. We have created for ourselves our own version of love & marriage, inflected by both sets of parents, by the marriages of aunts & uncles & even books (well, at least I have!). And today, that seems like a huge deal, looking at pictures of that young couple so full of glowing promise. There has to be more than just the storybook romance, I learned watching my parents. Despite what my mother told me, I don’t know that love really is enough, all alone. There have to be shared ideals, values, goals, even tastes, at some level. I don’t know that Mother & Daddy shared those things. Luckily, what they did share was enough to last them through some rough times. And I guess, ultimately? That’s what really matters.