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Finding Solace with Tea

I ordered a set of Dancong spring harvest teas from one of my favorite online retailers a few months ago. The teas weren’t sourced from Russia or Ukraine, but I wasn’t surprised when the box arrived six months later than normal because as Thomas Friedman explained in The World is Flat trade is part of the interdependecy of a phenomenon of the modern era called globalization

Why is tea from so far away so special to me?

During the spring of the 2020 pandemic, I discovered the international tea community on Instagram. Currently, my three favorite vendors are: Serene Tea Cha, One River Tea, and Teawala. Each of the owners of these companies would likely be consideted millenials and lives in China where their headquarters operate. I think that these business owner are pretty amazing because each has a unique background and story expressed through their company brands. Not to mention that they’ve each cultivated personal relationships with the small, often family owned tea farmers who are in most cases also the manufacturers living and working in remote and rural communities in China. According to each of their business models, the owners purchase relatively small quantities of tea wholesale and then brand, package, and distribute teas to a worldwide audience in retail quantities.

I trust these brands because there’s magic in the expertise, lived experience, taste preferences, and communal exchange of the owners’ perspectives. It’s super cool to browse the images and miles traveled in Instagram stories. The consistent visuals demonstrate the brands’ commitment to honoring the heritage of tea production in China.

I’ve always enjoyed tea, but learning how to articulate nuance has helped me to be able to hone in on my preferences. Through the information that companies provide on each of the websites and social media posts, I’ve developed a broader scope of understanding of the tea production process. This perspective is of course  important with wholesale tea buying because often the slightest processing particularity related to the oxidation method, picking timeframe, or the nature and age of the Camellia sinensis plant can factor into the quality and price of the tea.

Learning about these processes more intimately is intriguing. And thankfully, I’m not the only one who venerates tea in this manner. A recent New York Times article pointed out that millennials have developed a preference for tea even over wine. Technically speaking, I do experience a slight bit of a L-theanine rush that almost instantly calms me and regulates my parasympathetic nervous system, but as a perpetual student of international trade, my interest in this centuries old beverage is also related to  how tea trade affected diplomacy and geopolitical relationships as one of the first commodity goods sold internationally.

To put it simply, tea was why wars were fought.

For example, during the American revolution and at an escalation point in the intertangled relationship between China and England related to opium tea was the commodity that most represented the tensions of trade at the time. Needless to say, the historical significance of these events has had a lasting effect on current events. (I’d like to return to this topic in a future post, but for now, here’s an article that provides a brief overview.)

For all its scandal and disruptive nature, tea is actually quite a humble drink.

I’ve enjoyed making a ritual of drinking tea. It’s nice to enjoy something as simple as water over leaves in perspective of the global effect it has made in commerce. 

Spent whole green tea leaves at the bottom of a glass jar with a glass straw.
Spent whole green tea leaves at the bottom of a glass jar with a glass straw.

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It’s Cherry Blossom Season, Again.

Which is a reminder that even in winter, things grow.

Japanese magnolias are why I like cherry blossoms.

Cherry blossoms remind me of Japanese magnolias. In early spring, in both types of trees the blooms appear before the foliage arrives. When I was younger and living in in southern Louisiana, I thought that this phenomenon was particularly spectacular. The way that the bud blooms at the end of the woody stem fascinated me.

Cherry blossoms are global symbols for patience, renewal, and rebirth. There’s a scene in the movie The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise and Ken Wantanabe that captures this idea well. *Spoiler Alert* After capturing Tom Cruise’s character as a war prisoner, the two men, Katsumoto and Nathan, grow to respect one another as Katsumo notes “students of war.” During one of the scences, the cherry blossoms in Katsumoto’s garden have just bloomed and the two are strolling among them contemplatively.  Glancing at one of the buds, Katsumoto says to Nathan, “One could spend an entire lifetime searching for the perfect blossom, and it wouldn’t be a wasted life.” I don’t know about that statement personally. Yes, the blossoms are pretty, but they are pretty darn temporal too.  I think the lyric in the Fall Out Boy song more realisticly notes that, “They look so pretty but [they’re] gone so soon.”

Sakura season in DC is special.

The famous cherry blossoms that line the Tidal Basin in Washington, were a gift from the Japanese government to the government of the United States as a gesture of armistice after World War II. When I learned that, I knew where to place cherry blossoms within the overall landscape of my headspace among roses, magnolias, and edibles flowers. From this vantage point, a cherry blossom tree seems to me to be the perfect gift to symbolize the gesture of an unshakeable friendship after a war. In my opinion, its just the type of serenely humble gesture that a country who’s general worldview embraces a rich historical philosophy related to nature and spirituality does. To me it’s an elegant gesture as if to say, you bombed us first, we returned the favor, but let’s move on from that.

Seasons always change.

Regardless of the non-permeance of any bloom, the thing about the cherry blossoms is that they always seem to emerge at the knife edge of winter. Just when I feel like I can’t take anymore 32 degree Fahrenheit nights and I’m SO OVER putting on my puffer coat just move the trashcans from the front of the house to the sidewalk the cherry blossoms arrive like Punxsutawney Phil singnaling that winter is just about done.

Winter 2020 was especially difficult and it was different because of social distancing and pandemic related restrictions. A unique genre of political turmoil was moving thrsough the world and here in Washington. The season felt longer than usual. It was unprecedented by media’s standards, but it was also somehow particularly vacant of warmth like a wormhole in outerspace vast and without an endpoint in sight.

Flowers that grow in winter, bloom in spring.

On one of those cold, winter, nights, I was chatting with a friend about pandemic related things and she halfway jokingly said, “Looking forward to seeing you at one of our [she and her spouse’s] garden parties in the spring.” At the time, it kind of made us both giggle because I’m not sure that either of us are truly the garden partying type, but in the moment it was a welcomed pleasantry and ending salutation enough to help keep us optimistic that we would be able to hang out in-person again someday in warm weather. Almost immediately after we chatted, I thought of the song “Danca De Gardenias” by Natalia Lafourcade feat. Los Macorinos. In particular, the lyrics in the chorus which go like this:

“Florecerá, florecerá
Ese antiguo encanto dentro de tu pecho reflorecerá
Florecerá, florecerá
Una danza llena de gardenias plenas reflorecerá”

Perhaps in the original context, the lyrics refer to a heartbroken maiden reminding herself that time heals wounds and that her broken heart will mend. But to me, the lyric that “it will bloom again” — reflorecerá affirms that seasons change. The lyric fits perfectly with the idea that winter will end, just as the cherry blossoms and Japanese magnolias bloom in spring. It’s a celestial reminder that what feels like the end is often the beginning.

It’s like the final sentence of my favorite fiction novel:

“Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.”

― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Tying Strings

A Metaphor for Leaning into What Seemed Difficult . . .

There was no particular reason to have made seven sweaters but I had time and initially I wasn’t sure that I could do it. That was reason enough.

The year 2020 was intense.

Because of the pandemic, I was home more that usual, and mostly learned about the world that was literally exploding outside around me (I could hear it) through social media. Arguably, this perhaps was not the best means of information gathering given tendencies of media to skew information for the sake of commerce, but it was what I had. Among the black square movements and people trying to prove that Black Lives Matter, I was confined within the proximity of my neighborhoods, wearing medical-grade face mask that gave the additional effect of making me feel like I was constantly on-guard like a ninja. Returning to a simple, meditative, craft like crochet was a nice thing to do to keep my mind off the world as it was at the time.

I remembered that crocheting is cool.

My grandmother taught me to crochet when I was eight years old. I’d spend time with her in the afternoons and watch her “tying strings” as my grandfather referred to it, while she watched soap operas on network television. I could tell it was a way for her to unwind. I watched her unwinding herself by winding woven threads. She ran a preschool in our neighborhood, and as the owner and principal, took the opportunity to take time for herself during the middle of the day because she could.

One afternoon, seemingly out of the blue, I asked her to teach me, “How to do that, gramdmommy?” Without any hesitation about my sincerity or concern for whether I’d stick with it, she said “OK” and gifted me one of her larger crochet hooks. The hook was easy enough for me to hold with my then, not yet so long and elegant fingers. My grandmother knew that with the large hook I could confidently find the exaggerated stiches it produced. I could begin with the clunky hook and as I kept learning and practicing, and as my curiosity and interest developed move onto more intricate and nuanced work. I started with a long row of chain stitches, the most basic of all crochet stitches, and a red acrylic yarn. The stiches were wobbly and uneven, but I enjoyed it because as far as I knew I was directly mimicking my grandmother even though I’m pretty sure she might have been working on a delicate doily or intricate tablecloth for her dining room. It felt like we were just two gals hanging out. Like “two peas in a pod,” she might have said.

Tying My Own Strings

Fast forward a few decades. I now live in a different city, and my grandmother has long since passed. The world felt like it was unraveling into a tangled mass of knotted confusion from people pulling too tight and speaking past one another. So, I made sweaters.

Needless to say I learned a lot about myself and techniques, fabrics, and community in the process. I now have six, 100% handmade by me, organic cotton, machine washable, sweaters to remember last year’s lessons by. I gave one of the sweaters away.

Even after last year, I think that I’m still learning about myself through the process of crochet; especially since, now, I get to bundle myself in all of last year’s work and try more delicate projects as my skill improves. I’ve since dabbled with varying types of materials like raffia and twine and I’m learning about dye and thread production methods. In essence as metaphor, what last year taught me was that with a lot of thread, time, and a pattern, I can learn how to create warmth and I can share that warmth with others. I’m glad that last year was a catalyst of sorts to help me to think about leaning into the discomfort of not knowing how to create a sweater. I didn’t know how to make one, let alone seven, and nevertheless by being willing to learn how to understand with practice, I found success.

Here are some blogs that I found useful for learning techniques and finding new projects if you’re curious yourself: TLYCblog.com and Megmadewithlove.com.

My grandmother’s favorite saying was, “Nothing beats a failure, but a try.” And she was right. I have six sweaters, a few scarves, and a couple hats in my closet to remind me of this very fact.

Tunisian crochet sweater in process with yarn bowl.
Six crochet sweaters folded and stacked on a wooden table.