Wednesday, January 13, 2010

To tea: I love you

My dearest Nora, wherever thou mayst roam,

I've begun re-reading Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, which I first read approximately 8 years ago. When I read the following excerpt, tea became the most mysterious and wonderful tangible object in the world to me:

A peacefuller scene I never saw than when, in that rather nippy late red afternoon, I simply opened his little door and looked in and saw him at the end of the little shack, sitting crosslegged on a Paisley pillow on a straw mat, with his spectacles on, making him look old and scholarly and wise, with book on lap and the little tin teapot and porcelain cup steaming at his side. He looked up very peacefully, saw who it was, said, "Ray, come in," and bent his eyes again to the script.
"What you reading?"
"Translating Han Shan's great poem called 'Cold Mountain' written a thousand years ago some of it scribbled on the sides of cliffs hundreds of miles away from any other living beings."
"When you come into this house though you've got to take your shoes off, see those straw mats, you can ruin 'em with shoes." So I took my softsoled blue cloth shoes off and laid them dutifully by the door and he threw me a pillow and I sat crosslegged along the little wooden board wall and he offered me a cup of hot tea. "Did you ever read the Book of Tea?" said he.
"No, what's that?"
"It's a scholarly treatise on how to make tea utilising all the knowledge of two thousand years about tea-brewing. Some of the descriptions of the effect of the first sip of tea, and the second, and the third, are really wild and ecstatic."
"Those guys got high on nothing, hey?"
"Sip your tea and you'll see; this is good green tea." It was good and I immediately felt calm and warm.

I thought from then on as tea-brewing being an art form, and perhaps even a spiritual sort of ritual. I was reading this book at work, in a coffee shop that just sold that cheap Bigelow crap, and stopped at the grocery store after my shift ended to buy a box of the best stuff I could find.

Ended up with regular old green tea, in little bags without a string, which tasted like grass. I kept drinking it, though, thinking that, like beer, it is an acquired taste.

No, as I later learned, the stuff I'd purchased was no better than the Bigelow stuff at my job.

I spent a few years strictly drinking the bagged stuff. It was not until I met Old Flame that I first encountered the joys of looseleaf tea. One of the first of many similarities we shared was a desperate fondness for tea. Hmm. Once she turned me on to the looseleaf stuff, I've hardly looked back. One of the best gifts I ever received came from her on my 24th birthday...a tea strainer and a bag of quality green tea blended with some sort of cherry and rosehip bits. I felt like I inherited the world, and my first independent brewing experience shall live on in my memory until the end of my days.

When preparing a cup, I first like to observe the manner by which the steam is rising from the cup. Next, I note the change in the steam-rising-pattern as the strainer is introduced, and then watch with childlike glee as that old familiar turbidity comes on, settles... Then, there's the first sip, like a gracious bow to a dance partner in some customary dance of a far away land. Things press on swimmingly until the last two sips. It's that sip before the last that always, without fail (assuming it's good tea to begin with), tastes the best. It's perfection. Not too hot, not too cold. Not to strong, nor too weak. It's satisfying, like the feeling of downing a half-gallon of ice cold water after prolonged exertion in the worst of the summer heat. It's a beautiful and touching farewell, with the last sip being that wave through the window of the the train pulling away from the station, bound for destinations unknown. Best of all is when those last two tastes leave one yearning for another cup. I don't generally give into that lust, for it's been my experience that any subsequent cups are never quite as good.

I'm severely indebted to Mr. Kerouac for numerous contributions to my life, which all started at the age of 18 when I read On the Road. The time in the spring of 2006 when I took to studying Buddhism on my own, was one of the most beautiful and peaceful times in my life. I had no intention of becoming Buddhist, and didn't, but I took away some serene imagery and helpful mechanisms for dealing with certain troubling aspects of life.

I sometimes want to pack it up and head off to the mountains in Nepal, grow my hair and beard long, and meditate, write, paint, think, dream, learn, wonder, appreciate, wander... I would say Tibet, but China's gone and ruined that...and for that reason, I didn't say China. Japan is appealing, but is too "modern" in the sense that whenever the country is mentioned, mountains and peace and Buddhist mental meanderings are not the first things one thinks of. Personally, electronics, manga, and strange expressions of sexual repression/aggression/who-knows-what are forthcoming. Shame.

May the grace of He keep you always,

J.O. Morris

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