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.
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.
You simply CAN’T do Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’ in prose, for instance. Imagine this with ‘all your words’:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
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??
My cousin reminded me I haven’t said much recently about one of my favourite topics…TEA! And I even have a new one to rave about! So if tea is not your cuppa, sign off now…? (N.B.: if coffee is your thing, tune in another time; I’m bi-beverage-al!)
Tea… Today’s ‘lesson’ is based on what I’m learning these days, which is matcha. I’m an anomaly among many tea fans — I don’t care much for matcha. Which is kind of strange, given how much I love the ritual of tea (matcha has an entire code of rituals), tea history, and tea accessories. There are tools that are pretty helpful if you’re going to prepare matcha; the bamboo matcha‘s whisk — the chasen; the matcha bamboo scoop used to measure out the optimum 2 grams of powdered tea — the chashaku; the little spoon to stir the tea, so that the matcha powder doesn’t settle to the bottom of the cup… There’s even a super cute ‘rest’ you can buy to put the whisk on. My kind of toys.
But all I’ve ever had, apparently, is either ghastly matcha lattés, or super vegetal powder mouthfuls, or bitter bowls of tepid green stuff. Nothing to write home about. Then one of my favourite tea purveryors — Harney’s — sent me a note on their white peach-infused matcha. Verrry different!
I didn’t do the whole ritual, although I’m going to try it soon. Instead, I heated water in a glass kettle, as I usually do for tea, and poured it over the finely ground powder (Harney’s has sachets in the white peach matcha, but I usually buy looseleaf), in a small glass teapot, so I could see the colour. Didn’t add any sugar, either. Or honey. Just poured it in a small cup, and tried something new (which we should do regularly!).
Wow. It was GREAT! I know I’m a wimp to need the white peach to get me over the bad experiences of the past, but oh well! It WORKED. And since one cup of powdered matcha tea is equivalent to several cups of regular green tea (which is already über high in antioxidants), I can feel healthy! And it turns out, I’m not the only person who doesn’t like the junk masquerading as matcha; there are several pieces on the Net re: what’s ‘authentic,’ etc. Including YouTube lessons on how to make it ‘right.’
But I’m here to tell you: I didn’t make it right, & it was still great. Even when served from an English ironstone teapot, alongside Southern red velvet cake. So take a risk: go for it, sans the sugar & milk of a latté, or slushy, etc. (Although the red velvet cake was a definite bonus!). It’s definitely worth all the hype!
I’m drinking more tea these days. Often in the morning, I want the jolt of espresso — and we have a bangup cappuccino machine. But lately, I crave the comfort of tea, the ritual of measuring & steeping. The choice of a tray, a tea cloth, a cosy to blend. Rock sugar, honey, or Demerara? Or maybe a green tea, w/ no sweetener at all…?
It’s a hard time. I’m not happy with my country, & I have no recourse other than to keep on keeping on. I withdrew from FaceBook; my social media ‘outlets’ are Instagram — where I can post pics of teapots & my grandson!! — and Twitter, where I sometimes post current events, but mostly poetry & arts links. FaceBook became a place of such…anger. At least for me. I can’t feel the same about people I once liked well, knowing they elected a man who is, to me, a veritable monster. The lack of logic, & the double standards, visible in the totally unpresidential Tweets, media, et al…. I can’t handle them.
So I’m thinking about our upcoming move from the house where we’ve been so very happy these past many years. I’m creating gardens in my head, and tea in glass & china pots. I ordered a new tea cosy, with cats! I’m snuggling with our own two in my chair, & trying to ignore their ceaseless kneading (with their none-too-tiny claws!). It’s a wonderful way to spend time, infinitely better than considering a political situation rife with injustice.
Tea is good for all kinds of situations, from the grief I feel for a world gone crazy with greed & hate, to the discombobulation attendant on moving. I hate moving, as a process and as a situation. I will love being settled in our new house by the grandson(s), but getting all moved up? UGH. Shades of my itinerant childhood!
Hence the tea tray, the tea cloth, the choosing of a strong black tea. The pouring of milk, the measuring of sugar. And the temporary escape so very necessary some days!