When I was four, my family lived in England for about three months. That was all it took for tea to become a part of our rhythm. Before I knew how to cook eggs, I knew the proper way to brew a pot of tea (always a pot, never a teabag in a cup). I knew that when the electric kettle boiled, that I should pour a little water into the pot and swirl before discarding the water into the sink. This is known as “hotting the pot.” Next I would add the teabags, “One for each person and one for the pot,” my mother would say. After allowing the tea to steep for five minutes, I would pour some milk into a cup, pouring the tea slowly, watching the steam curl from the spout. I would take the cup to my mother, bringing the pot along so that my brother and I could help ourselves to ours. Our eyes eased open little by little, one sip at a time. This was how my mornings began, every day.
I’m sure that coffee can be contemplative, but to me it frequently seems to be in a rush. Tea lends itself more easily to the practice of pause. At the beginning of my day, I follow my tea ritual (though sometimes I do brew tea in a cup, these days); sometimes in the afternoon, I stop again to sip something decaf; in the evenings I can often be found with a large mug in my hands, drinking herbal tea. Those moments beg me not to rush, they invite me to linger just a little longer and breathe.
My first job was in a small tearoom. Everything we did was intended to be beautiful and encourage connection. We were located in a small, two-story house with uncrowded tables and chairs in each room. You might find yourself seated in the parlor, or in an upstairs bedroom. It was easy to forget that there were other patrons, or that time was passing. We did our best to serve each meal with elegance, bringing courses separately, even though the sandwiches and scones were small (yet still magically filling). When I took reservations on the phone I always remembered to mention the time commitment. Tea is intended to be leisurely, set apart from hurry.
In college, I started dating a barista who introduced me to the swirling world of french press and burr grinders. He reminded me a little of my early high school days when I began “meeting friends for coffee.” I would order a caramel macchiato because Meg Ryan ordered one on You’ve Got Mail. I met people for coffee, but it was never a part of my daily life.
That boyfriend was also interested in tea. Not the black tea I was used to, but rare teas with their own special implements and brewing instructions. He served me my first cup of Pu-erh tea, pouring it out of a clay teapot he only used for those leaves. “Pu-erh comes in a brick,” he told me, taking out a cake of pressed tea. “People in China used to use it as currency.” We walked through a simplified tea ceremony slowly, allowing the flavors to overwhelm us. I loved the way that we lingered and talked over our tiny cups. I hated the tea.
When I’m anxious or stressed, my hands move to make a cup of tea, almost like a wordless prayer. In those moments, it doesn’t matter if I’m drinking from fine china, or clutching a worn and beloved mug. It doesn’t matter if there are small sandwiches. It only seems to be important that I watch the steam rise from the mouth of the cup and that I notice the way the milk mixes with the deep brown of the tea as I stir in a spoonful or two of sugar. It matters that I take a deep breath and inhale the scent of freshly brewed tea, allowing it to conjure a wide swathe of memories.
One of those memories connects me to a young version of myself, studying abroad in the UK, back for the first time since I’d fallen in love with the country as a four-year-old. I was homesick and my feet were often wet. I missed the easy companionship of friends, and the comfort of knowing how to navigate a place. One night, I left the tube and went the wrong way, finding myself lost and afraid in the streets of London at night. I’ve never been so relieved to see a structure as I was to see our little hotel.
After that experience, with every of bravery, I took myself to Spar, a small grocery store near our hotel, next to the vendor that sold pashminas in every color. I picked up a box of P.G. Tips, the brand my mother had become enamored of during our time there. It was our weekend tea, and the scent made me feel a little closer to family, even through the box. Most evenings, I would purchase a soggy piece of baklava at that little Spar and fill the electric kettle with water. I would eat a premade sandwich, or a packaged pasta salad and brew myself a cup of that tea, soaking in the comfort of the familiar in a hotel cup. My breathing would slow, and the worry about getting lost, both literally and figuratively, would cease to shout so loudly.
Even though I didn’t know anyone on the trip, and the friendships I’d hoped would blossom did not even bud, practicing something as simple as making myself tea served as an anchor to those who loved me, and to myself. I return to this anchor now, when I begin to feel lost or invisible. I remember that I am worth a five minutes wait, and hotting the pot. I remember that pots of tea are meant to be shared.
If you come to visit me, I can almost guarantee that I will offer you a cup of tea. I may open my cupboards and expose the true selection, if you’re a true friend, trusting that you will understand why I need to have 45 types. Together, we may forget about our agendas, and our bulging to-do lists, just for a few luxurious moments. In this ritual of brewing and steeping, stirring and sipping, we are firmly grounded in the present, and we are satisfied.