Back about a lifetime ago, in February, I bemoaned that my year had begun badly.
Understatement of the year.
As 2020 winds down amid global tragedy, my own year brought not only the pandemic, but personal loss. I’ve written about bereavement in years past, but this time it’s different. The social structures that help cushion the shock are barely in place, or are in such altered forms that we all struggle to adapt.
Whereas in the past someone might offer a cup of tea, or relatives and friends might congregate and sip tea or coffee, today we can drink tea together only virtually, and that hardly seems adequate.
There is something profoundly comforting about ritual, including that involving tea. In her book detailing the Japanese ceremony, Kaisen Iguchi (1977:91) explains some of the benefits found in the act of making, offering, and accepting tea.
Moreover, the way of tea does not only teach deportment in everyday life. For we may ask what sort of frame of mind if [sic] necessary in exchanges between people. In what way do we accept the solicitudes of other people? This is what is learnt in the way of tea.
Accepting the solicitudes of others. A two-way street, with one offering and the other receiving, yet with both reaping the benefits of giving and receiving comfort, support, friendship, empathy, sympathy.
In the 1930s, naturalist, and adventurer, Walter Koelz traveled through western Tibet by yak and horse. Keeping a detailed diary, he often noted the many offers of tea he received. His description of a tea table reflects this importance of sharing tea (butter tea) with others:
The top [of the table] was soaked in generations of butter imbibed from the tea that had been spilled by the guests of the ages and the gay paint that the people in this country apply to all carvings has been toned to grey-black by similar agencies. (Sinopoli 2013:121)
Numerous studies indicate that tea itself mitigates stress, but researchers Malcolm Cross and Rita Michaels (2009) point out that the “symbolic dimensions of tea,” that is, making and drinking it, has socio-psychological benefits that are experienced both privately (e.g., a person’s self-reflection) and socially (“as an act of empathy, bonding or solidarity”). This is on top of any cultural meanings, which can be considerable.
The samovar is one of the centerpieces of Russian life, chai evokes India, and “afternoon tea” shouts England. Consider this well-known passage by Henry James (1956:17):
Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.
As James continues to describe the tableau, the sun is sliding down the horizon:
From five o’clock to eight is on certain occasions a little eternity; but on such an occasion as this the interval could be only an eternity of pleasure.
A description of the shifting shadows, yes, but also a nod to how tea ceremony may suspend time and space.
Author Muriel Barbery (2006) eloquently describes this phenomenon:
When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things.
These “small things”—these small things that, today, cannot be a shared ritual of tea, yet may be that text, those heartfelt words, a meal provided, a phone call—these small things can be a guideline, sympathy, care.
These small things show us greatness anew. While we mourn and honor those we have lost, or grieve what is now gone, we are reminded, through small things, of the generosity of those who still walk beside us.
And in some future day, we will pull out the teapot and, in our own special ceremony, have tea. Together.
–Barbery, M., The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Europa Editions, 2006.
–Cross, M. and R. Michaels, “The social psychological effects of tea consumption on stress,” Direct Line, 2009.
–Iguchi, K., Tea Ceremony, 3rd ed., Hoikusha Publishing, Osaka, Japan, 1977.
–James, H. The Portrait of a Lady, Riverside Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1956 (1881).
–Sinopoli, C. M., The Himalayan Journey of Walter N. Koelz, Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 2013.