Tea is, after water, the most consumed beverage on the planet.
I have a theory as to why: Drinking tea slows time. When a cup is brought to the lips, there’s a shift in the universe, a moment lingers—holding the world still while we gather the part of ourselves that’s turning loose.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’ve had glorious, tea party fantasies. I have a book from the eighties explaining how to give all kinds of themed teas. The photos are dated and reminiscent of shoulder pads and orange-dipped tans, but I still like to imagine creating each and every carefully photographed tea—an Easter Tea, a Russian tea, a Christmas Tea, a Southern Tea. After only a few pages, I’m lost deep in Wonderland, staring across a strange, chintz tablecloth at the Mad Hatter
Yet, I’ve never been one to collect teapots or tea cups like so many tea lovers do. I only own an Asian-style, iron teakettle. It’s coated with a green glaze and a dragonfly sits upon the lid. It’s simple, and reminds me that tea’s pure spirit isn’t pomp, but heart.
My only tea-collector items outside of books are a set of tea towels that were hand embroidered by my grandmother some years ago. They stay safely tucked away in my cabinets, because I can’t bear to see them stained. Her clean and elegant stitching burrows along the fresh cotton leaving behind colorful teapots and flowers.
I’m sure she was in a fabric store at some point and saw a collection of needle-work patterns, noticed one with teapots saying, “Now that’s sweet. Elise might like that.”
My grandmother had major surgery recently. Her back, full of scoliosis and osteoporosis, had folded up on her like a worn-out accordion. Her doctors were brilliant, attentive, kind—but we all knew a woman over 80 might not survive something so invasive. It was her choice to have the surgery. Without it, any life she would have would be in a wheelchair. She encouraged me a few days before the procedure on the phone by saying, “If I go on, I’ll be with family on the other side, and if I stay here, I’ll be with family on this side. Either way, I’ll be happy.”
“You’re like a teapot,” I used to say. “You must fill up, so you can pour out.” Great advice, but somehow these words always fell upon my own ears as little mumblings that didn’t relate to me.
It was a long conversation. I really didn’t want it to end. I wanted to glean any last moments possible with her—just in case—and I was troubled by a problem that I felt only she could untangle. And even though I hated asking for help, I desperately needed her wisdom.
I was not caring for myself. I didn’t understand why I could care for others and not me. If I had a need, it would be put off or buried under other things. Activities and responsibilities would pile up, but they weren’t for me. I was exhausted, empty. I needed to break this wrenching of myself once and for all. Maybe hearing her words would do it.
After I told her about it, she asked me, “Why do you think you do that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe because I feel guilty if I take care of myself.”
“You shouldn’t feel guilty for that. Heavens no.”
“But, I read a bible verse somewhere when I was small that we should always think of others before ourselves. I think that just sunk into my brain.”
“I know that verse, but it was meant for people who need to learn not to be selfish. And you’re not selfish. Many people can hurt others because they only think of themselves, but that doesn’t mean if you are thinking of others, you’re not supposed to care for yourself. You must care for yourself first, because if you don’t, you’ll have nothing to give anyone else, and you’ll hurt yourself.”
My mind drifted with those words, thinking about how this had played out in my life. I had strangely taken it upon myself to mother the world. A person is lost on the street: I stop. An escalating fight is getting scary: I call 911. A friend is looking for a job: I write a recommendation letter. I stay late: for work, for friends. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to walk up to a girl—drunk and with her clothes half falling off on the street at night—and say, “Honey, what are you doing? Why don’t I put you in a taxi home?” Why did I believe that I could pour forever, telling others to rest, fill up, all while I ran dry, dry, dry?
All of a sudden I remembered a piece of advice I used to tell friends. “You’re like a teapot,” I used to say. “You must fill up, so you can pour out.” Great advice, but somehow these words always fell upon my own ears as little mumblings that didn’t relate to me. I told my grandmother what I used to say. “That’s right,” she said. “That’s exactly right.”
Tears sprang to my eyes. Images of my grandmother and me, eating at the tearoom in her tiny town, wading through antiques together, having our own little grown-up tea parties with her silver tea set, all came flooding back to me. Somewhere inside I was getting permission to take care of me. “You have to take care of yourself,” she stated one last time, making sure I heard her.
Over the next few days before her surgery, I contemplated what she had said. I knew she was right. And I had recent proof. A few months earlier, I had lost my voice—my writing voice—the place where I hold church. It had dried up like bones in a desolate valley. There wasn’t one phrase—one thought—that welled within. Pages stared at me blank and indifferent. Self-loathing rose over me like a damp tent. My husband tried to help. “You need to play. Rest. Fill up,” he said. “Artists cannot do their jobs without play and rest.” I believed him but I struggled to do it. There was just so much to do, so many responsibilities, so many people in need.
A few more weeks of dryness passed. He told me again, “You just need to rest. Play.” I tried here and there, but the dryness hung on, rusted and rigid. But I finally forced myself to take a day off after a long weekend—and then it happened. I sat down at the page and poured out freely. When I was done I hung over my desk and wept.
I thought about my grandmother’s words, my weeping over my desk, and my iron teapot. I thought about all the tea I read about in books, the recipes, the tea towels; the teapots on the tea towels. I thought about all the times I mixed and blended. Had all of this been a message to me all along and now I was just getting it?
A few weeks passed. I was still like a faun on shaky legs when it came to caring for me. But I was working on it. One Sunday afternoon I made myself some ginger tea and cut up some fruit to have as a snack. The end of the tea string had a special message “Delight the world with compassion, kindness and grace.” I guess I am part of the world, I thought. I went to the cabinets and pulled out my grandmother’s tea towels and admired her heartfelt work. She had lived through the surgery. We were told that when they pulled her out of anesthesia, she broke out into song.
I think I get it now, grandmother. I think I really get it.
—Elise McMullen-Ciotti a.k.a. The Galavant Girl
Tea pictures above: by Elise McMullen-Ciotti
Teapot picture below: by Liz Mullen
Bad Day Tea Remedy
Determining which recipe to share for this entry has been difficult. I keep being led down the rabbit hole, into books and magazines, and my own recipes—lost in tea dreams. There are teas to clean the blood—burdock and watercress; or calm an anxious heart—lavender, orange, and chamomile. Either for comfort, pleasure, or strong medicine, there’s always something to pour. For now, here is my “Bad Day Tea Remedy.” Hopefully it will stop time for you, while you get a hold of yourself.
Serves 4 (teacups)
1 slice of ginger root ¼ inch thick, chopped
1 rounded tablespoon chamomile flowers
1 rounded teaspoon of lavender flowers
Mix together and use as a loose tea.
The chamomile will relax your muscles; the lavender will relax your mind; and the ginger will relax your stomach. Perfect for stressful, anxious days. (If you do not have access to ginger root, a rounded teaspoon of ginger tea will suffice.)
Suggested packaged teas I like to keep on hand at all times:
Yogi–ginger tea is pure and healing.
Celestial Seasonings’ Tension Tamer–calms you and alerts you at the same time.
McNulty’s–in NYC’s West Village has an amazing rose-oiled black tea that I serve hot, iced, and even use it to infuse deserts.