This past year has been fraught with … perhaps peril isn’t the right word, but certainly rife w/angst. Tea has been a great comfort. Writing has not (ergo: no entries on the blog since February!).
My beloved was ill for more than a year – beginning February last year. It was spring of this year before we were out of the woods. I use we intentionally: it seemed as if I too was hurting from chemo, as if my own body was eating away at itself… Mortality had breakfast with every morning. Only a ‘good’ year in that he made it. I’m much lighter in spirit these days!
Writing was nothing I wanted to undertake: too much reflection, too much energy. It was all I could do to get through the days. As a result, my happiness journal project – supposedly a year of lists – isn’t finished 162 weeks in, what with the move the year before, then settling in. My gratitude journal went 2 weeks at a time with no entries, some months. Factor in multiple illnesses, two active grandsons plus life in general: watching a well-loved cat fade into passing; juggling the happiness of bird-watching with the need to feed & clean feeders; swinging a toddler in his swing, in the midst of a gnat swarm (really!) Returning to Oklahoma for my baby sister’s TWO graduations: one her BA, one her MA. Welcoming family for the holidays. Life is funny that way, the poignant with the memorable.
I’ve tried to breathe through it all, often scanning my body for tension as I focus on breath in, breath out. I’ve even mentioned ‘grounding & centering’ to my elder grandson, both to prep him for when he’s a bit older & we can do it together, and to remind myself to practice. I’ve focused on big sky mind: clouds come, clouds go. Only the sky remains. Pain rises up, but it passes.
Through it all, there’s been tea. The warm comfort of a mug, the distraction of a tea tray laden with family china & a nosegay from the flourishing garden (you should see the roses!). Today it’s a large mug of white peach matcha, and a piece of rhubarb ginger scone from this weekend’s Saturday Farmers Market.
I’ve come late to appreciating matcha – probably because I had no clue how to brew it! It turns out you can know a boatload about something, and NOT know something fairly important. Like…you brew matchaat 180°, NOT boiling (212°, fyi). And you only ‘brew’ for the time it takes to whisk the fine powder into the water thoroughly. I sometimes steep for 3 minutes, but no longer, ever, or the matcha becomes quite bitter (which I used to think was just how it tastes!).
You learn all the time, if you pay attention! And the one thing I’ve learned this past year is what my priorities are. Not always what I’ve assumed: writing isn’t as important as family, nor is it as comforting as tea. It’s not even above gardening! (Did I mention our roses 😏?)
I’ve also learned to forgive myself for guilt, for fatigue, for shrieking at people (truly!), for the failings (big & small) of normal human beings under pressure. It’s freeing, that, to treat ourselves with as much compassion as we do our loved ones. And it’s a basic tenet of most spiritual paths: the Golden Rule means very little if we can’t learn to love ourselves first. Tea makes that much easier!
Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things. ~ Okakura Kakuzō in his Book of Tea
It’s tea time — that golden hour of slant afternoon sun that warms tables & fills rooms with light. My elderly cat (18!) sprawls on the table runner, basking in the sun. It’s the time when water burbles happily in a kettle — glass, if you’re lucky, so you can see the bubbles! — and you find a mug, or a cup & saucer, and maybe a cookie. Or two…or three…
Today’s tea is brought to you by poetry, and Okakura Kakuzo, practically a poet of tea. See the above quote if you doubt. One of the lovely moments in life is to read poetry you love (or write drafts you probably don’t! — while you sip tea.
My favourite tea used to be a china black, a nice serviceableKeemun. It’s still the house tea, and the fav. But as my tea time moved later in the day (winter nights come early), I found myself drinking more herbal teas, fruit teas, and occasionally a small pot of matcha when I really need some energy. My favourite is peach matcha. It allows me the ritual I seem to need, to calm down & refocus my dissipated attention. I indulged myself in a little matcha scoop, as well as a small bamboo matcha whisk. To brew it, I use a small (2-cup) glass pot, when I want more than just one gai wan.
Yesterday, however, I made masala chai, as I have often these cold winter days. The gentle spice is warming, and the addition of milk & sugar make it a bit more substantial than the jasmine I tend to drink in summer. Today it’s Hao Ya A, an extravagant holiday treat from my beloved. It’s a glamourous uptick on the usual Keemun, this one even more assertive. And while it sounds almost sacrilegious, I like it with milk & Demerara sugar, as I do most afternoon tea. Again, it just feels more comforting. And while milk & sugar may not seem poetic, a hot cup of afternoon tea — lightly sweetened & with milk to the colour winter grass — is the best kind of material poetry. You can feel the magic grow with each peaceful sip.
So heat up your kettle, if you have one. Or microwave a mug of water. Add a tea sachet (they’re much better quality tea than teabags, if you can afford the little bit extra!). Even an Oreo goes well, and you can have a lovely respite mid-afternoon, when work & all the rest of the world can recede to less importance. I promise: it’s the best moment of the day. And immeasurably poetic, isn’t it, Okakura Kakuzō-san?
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.
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.
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 am heartily sick of the political disaster this country has become. So I am intentionally focusing today on poetry, my 2nd refuge when the world is too much with me. Tea being the first.
In fact, an afternoon pot is steeping even as I write, and ‘biscuits’ – that lovely English name for cookies that are not the sickly sweet American type, but instead almost a slightly sweet cracker – await, in a ruby glass saucer, next to the bee cup & saucer my niece & nephew gave me. Plus I just added to a long email thread, sent to a dear friend who is working on her MFA, in which we’re discussing (among other weighty matters) why it’s always ‘the poets.’ And why folks think poetry is just not ‘using all your words’…???
Sigh. It’s always interesting to me when folks (especially writing folks…who should know better!!) define poetry as merely ‘fewer words.’ Even that famous ‘compression of language’ definition is — to me, at least — reductive and simplistic. Poetry is about images, and the sound(s) of language. It can also be (as fiction and/or non-fiction often are) about narrative. About story, even about character(s). The dramatic monologue that made Robert Browning so famous.It’s about music, really — even so-called narrative poetry has to have certain beauties & elegances of sound. Poetry has to move, which is why many songwriters also do poetry: music is fine training for a poet.
To see poetry as just a ‘shorter’ version of prose is sooo … well, if I were arguing this in person, w/ an academic colleague, I’d say it’s both reductive & dismissive. And uninformed, as well. (Tell them what you really think…!) Only a non-poet would say that, someone who doesn’t understand either the project(s) of poetry, or poets.
Pound’s poetic project is not simply compression — although yes, of course he’s compressing. It’s also about the fleetingness of the experience, the way the faces flee past. You could do that w/ prose, but you would lose sooo much! The short, haiku-like simplicity of the form captures the briefness of the faces. And the image that perfect image that has stunned poets since Pound wrote it would be sooo clunky if you simply wrote: The fleetingness of faces seen from a railway car are like white petals on a black tree branch. It’s the cadence: wet. black. bough. And the assonance: crowd & bough. It’s the MUSIC, folks!
Another big sigh. Time to chill out w/ a hot cuppa, and a biscuit. What do you think poetry ‘is’? How do you know poetry, other than by its shorter length and line breaks? Why would someone choose to write a poem instead of a story, or an essay? And who — besides me & my friend, obviously! — cares??