The Way of Tea

tea leaves

“…The first bowl washed the cobwebs from my mind –
The whole world seemed to sparkle.
A second cleansed my spirit
Like purifying showers of rain,
A third and I was one of the Immortals…”

Excerpt from the poem “The Way of Tea” by Chio Jen (Tang Dynasty)

I keep forgetting to fix my tea infuser. The handle is bent just enough that the mesh wire ball that holds the tea leaves doesn’t quite seal itself tightly all the way around and whenever I brew tea, I end up with a few stray leaves at the bottom of my cup.  Like tonight: I poured hot water into my cup and watched as twisted black leaves swam out of the infuser.  Vowing to fix it next time, I picked up the cup of tea and watched the leaves spin, hypnotized by their movement and transported by the familiar smell of oolong.

The first time that I had “real” tea was at a friend’s house (let’s call this friend “J”).  I spent a lot of time at J’s house.  We would hang out in his barn (no animals, just a dilapidated green couch, a Sony PlayStation, and some skateboard posters thumbtacked to the wall) and play our guitars for hours, vowing to start a band when we went to college.   Our summers were spent working our crappy fast-food job, writing ska-punk songs, and going to music festivals while our school year was idled away in search of ways to spend more time together.  We went hiking together, jumping off cliffs into the lake together, we even went to my senior prom together.  J was the first person who ever truly understood me.  J was my best friend. Naturally, I fell deeply in love with him.

There was only one thing that interfered with J and I spending time together: J’s father and the iced tea.  J’s father was old, fifty years his senior if I remember correctly, and he seemed to really enjoy my company.  As soon as I would ring the doorbell to J’s house, his father would appear, greet me, and hand me a glass of freshly brewed, unsweetened iced tea, studded with bright yellow slices of lemon.  I didn’t like iced tea at the time (owing to the fact that my only experience with it was the just-add-water, sweetened, powder mix) but felt it would be impolite to decline. And so, for the next two years, every visit to J’s house began, seated on an uncomfortable wooden chair in the dining room, listening to stories about everything from World War II to the invention of the Polaroid camera. J would join us, slouched in the chair next to me, studying his guitar pick in uncomfortable silence.

It wasn’t until years later that I began to understand the tea ritual at J’s house.  For some reason, still unknown to me, J stopped talking to me after our freshman year of college.  He didn’t return my calls or emails, and he didn’t return to school.  He offered no explanation; he simply, and abruptly, cut me out of his life.  By my senior year of college, I accepted that J was gone from my life forever and I made the appearance of moving on by dating Oscar.  While my feelings for Oscar were confused and constantly in flux, there is one thing I am certain of; I adored Oscar’s parents.

Oscar’s parents are first generation Chinese immigrants and, while his father is fluent in English, his mother speaks mostly Mandarin.  Despite the language barrier, she and I understood each other. Whenever I would go to Oscar’s house, she would make me tea.  She would study me for a moment then silently walk over to a kitchen counter lined with glass jars.  The contents of the jars were a mystery to me at the time, but I now know they were filled with exotic tea leaves, dried flowers, and herbs.  She would move down the line, pulling out jars at what seemed like random, dropping things into my teacup. She served me a different tea on each visit and, somehow, her tea was always exactly what I needed.  I would sit with her, sipping in near silence, sensing a warm, maternal love washing over me.  The more I drank, the more I felt we understood each other.

I have a feeling that this is what J’s father was trying to achieve.  In retrospect, I recognize that it was never really about the iced tea or about my company; it was an attempt to connect with his estranged son.  For fifteen minutes a week, J and his father would sit in the same room, hoping to find common ground, hoping to understand each other.

I suddenly realize that I have strayed too far into the recesses of my mind, and I force myself back to the present.  I look into my cup and see that the tea is gone and that the leaves have settled into a pattern.  I don’t believe in fortune telling but I study the bottom of my cup anyhow.  I wonder what my tea leaves would say about me.  Would they tell a story of sadness and of love lost?  I’d like to believe not; I’d like to believe they would tell a story of acceptance, of understanding, and of enlightenment.

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