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Tea Here Now

The Art and Spirit of Tea - Mon, 04/05/2010 - 15:55

I like to write about tea books and support tea authors and teachers. This one is a particular favorite.

Tea Here Now, by Donna Fellman & Lhasha Tizer is one of the first tea books I read cover to cover. My desk copy is now rather worn. If you pick it up, it will fall open to page 9 - to a tea story that is almost always one I want to share. This is a story shared from another book, Creating True Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh. Not a tea book, it is remarkable to find such an incredible bit of tea lore in other genres.

This particular story is one of the most beautiful images I’ve heard in the art of making tea.

As it goes:

The monk, Thich Nhat Hahn in exile from his native country, tells a story of how the Vietnamese people row small boats on a lotus pond just before sunset, filling the open flowers with tea. The flowers close during the night, scenting the tea. The tea drinkers return the next morning with water, small stoves and teacups to collect the tea as the flowers open and prepare it on their boats, still relaxing peacefully on the water.

The authors of Tea Here Now add commentary on the story:

“The poignancy of the beautiful picture of the lotus pond and its tea drinkers lies in the wanting it stirs in our hearts. We all desire to have the time for living. Drinking tea can teach us to take the time to live, to breathe, to share with others, and to stop and sit still long enough to feel our hearts and our aliveness.”

But That’s a Hard Sell

But this whole spirit-of-tea thing can be a bit off-putting to some. Even with stress and anxiety as contributing factors to many serious illnesses, we (the collective we) still have trouble embracing something as simple as relaxing with a cup of tea intrinsically therapeutic. We want more validation from medical science. But even with that validation, we’re still shaking off an image that tea is fru-fru and mild-mannered.

How is it that a story as enticing as people rowing boats out onto a pond to brew tea that has spend the night wrapped in a living lotus flower hasn’t made the front page on a single major newspaper? Oprah interviewed Thich Nhat Hanh, but I don’t see her actively promoting the health and peacefulness of a tea lifestyle.

Back down to our real daily life - we don’t have lotus ponds. And as romantic and cleansing as these images may be for us intellectually, the problem is that they are so far from our experience of daily life, they are inaccessible.

We need more visual images of a western tea lifestyle. We need more tea experiences. And we need more tea story tellers.

“Relax and Rejuvenate with a Tea Lifestyle. Rituals, Remedies and Meditations”

The above quote is from the cover of Tea Here Now. What has become the most important part of that phrase to me is “Tea Lifestyle”. That phrase is a kind of turning point between people who drink tea as a beverage and those who make the decision to delve deeper into the culture of the leaf. Almost all tea drinkers resonate with the “relax and rejuvenate” part. But the “rituals, remedies and meditations” are a path that cuts deeper into the tea field. What I most admire about Tea Here Now is the gentle way it bridges that gap with chapters as basic as how to gradually switch from coffee to tea. Just a few pages separate that section from “Steps For Bringing The Sacred Into Every Day Life”.

Somewhere in there are our stories.

Most of the people I know are still at the beverage stage.

Donna Fellman and Lhasha Tizer, the authors of this compact little pocketbook have create a valuable curriculum for everyone of a mind to teach tea. With the flip of a few pages, we are reminded that learning curve for the tea lifestyle is very broad. There is actually so much to know about tea that it can be intimidating. But this book takes a gentle and non-judgmental tone that I’ve come to trust for new the new-comers. It does so by weaving the many virtues of tea together rather than focusing full attention on one aspect.

From how-to-brew to health under the umbrella of awakening your spirit.

The spirit of tea.

The book closes with, “A Toast To Tea and Life” - and another of my favorite lines:

“The adaptable, all-occasion spirit of tea sparks a renewal of playfulness and possibility.” And a photo of the authors, Donna Fellman and Lhasha Tizer

With playfulness and possibility!

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Teapots, Teapots, Teapots - A Correction

The Art and Spirit of Tea - Sun, 03/14/2010 - 14:38

On December 19th last year, I posted an article that needs correcting. I thank Mary Douglas, curator of the Kamm Foundation teapot collection, for adding a comment that set me straight. She has been the curator of The Sparta Teapot Museum which is now closed to the public but the foundation continues to provide pieces from their collection to shows around the world.

My error was thinking that they also managed the blog, “Teapots, Teapots, Teapots”

The blog, Teapots, Teapots, Teapots is an amazing site created and managed by Andy Titcomb in the UK. He has posted articles about the Kamm Foundation but they are not otherwise associated.

Andy is a ceramic artist, trained in ceramic sculpture at Exeter College of Art in the early 1970’s studying with Brian Southwell, Edward Allington and Lawson Rudge. He went on to be the first ceramist hired by Paul Cardew at Sunshine Ceramics.

This was around the same time that I started working in clay. And we all made teapots at one time or another. Ceramic art education seemed to require mastery of the form. Andy stayed with it as his life’s work.

I became more interested in drinking the contents and let go of my time in my own ceramics studio. I recently gave away my largest kiln and put most of my tools in storage. And yet, part of my heart and soul in tea is still very linked to those experiences. We ceramists chose the teapot form as a medium to say something. The form itself begins a conversation by asking the question - particularly in the case of sculptural pieces - WHY TEAPOTS? WHY TEA? And even those who have a basic appreciation for the brew still find themselves drawn to teapots. Why?

This same question drives my blog: What is it about tea that inspires art?

As I was clicking through Andy’s blog of sculptural and functional teapots, I was reminded of the vastness of teapot history and artistic interpretation. But who knew? Thanks to his blog archives, years of writing about this art form, we begin to appreciate the diversity this form (ultimately, the leaf) has inspired. Attending a teapot art exhibit like the ones the Kamm Teapot Foundation supplies with piece from the thousands in their collection is highly recommend for tea lovers. The current post on Andy Titcomb’s blog, Teapots, Teapots, Teapots offers an opportunity. The Newport Potters Guild is currently hosting a show, Tea By The Sea. This lasts through April 5th. The teapot on the right is one of the pieces in this juried show by Tony Wright. Black and Red Pod Teapot. Stoneware.6″ x 10″ x 4″. 2009

The show contains not only teapots but also tea bowls and other tea accessories. I looked through the collection and the phrase I’ve heard about some of the new tearooms came to mind. Our new tearooms “. . . aren’t your grandmother’s tearoom!” These teapots venture far from the traditional. The work is humorous, sometimes masterful, sometimes bold. They stretch our minds with possibility. Out of the box. Beyond the mold.

Isn’t it similar?

On the tea side of the equation, there is another enormous body of knowledge which is almost invisible. Once again, Who Knew? Here in the US, access to fine tea and information about them began to be more available in the 1990’s. Even now, it seems as if very few people - even the ones who consider themselves tea drinkers - know much about the whole leaf teas. But, isn’t it a delight when you have a first tea discussion with someone?

Last week it was my roofing inspector. The inevitable question was politely asked, “What do you do?

“I’m a writer.”

“Cool! What do you write about?”

“Tea.”

This is followed to the inevitable pause.

“Like the tea you drink? Like Lipton?”

It’s my favorite opening. I know now not to overwhelm the new converts with too much information - especially when you’re sitting on a roof in need of serious repair. The conversation didn’t venture very far into the difference between whole leaf and bagged or the health benefits of black tea vs. green tea. It was about how any cup of tea he substitutes for any canned soda is a good choice for his family. Suddenly, the tea parties his young daughters prepare for him on the weekends has a new meaning. The mere suggestion that there are so many choices of teas grown around the world gave him something completely new to do with his little girls. Even the assortment on the grocery store shelves offers adventure to the newly initiated. This wasn’t true ten years ago.

We’ve come a long way . . . . a bit of tea humor.

In the ancient history of tea and tea art, thousands of years of it, we’re finally catching on.

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I Love Tea

The Art and Spirit of Tea - Tue, 01/19/2010 - 17:47

I love the leaf. The history. The legends. The art and literature. I dream of visiting all the places where it is grown and the many ways it is brewed. The brewed tea that fills my cup becomes more magical as I venture into new taste experiences. The teaware. The tools. The people. Even the Business of Tea. I’m smitten.

The Tea Industry is its own world-wide-web; a network necessary to bring the product from field to cup. Let us assume for the moment that this network is actually the Spirit of Tea.

For countries of origin, places where tea is grown, the time and distance between the freshly picked leaf and the brew in the cup are short. The process visible. The hands involved all rather well known. And the importance of tea in daily life is undisputed. Those of us who do not live within picking distance of a plantation must depend on the industry’s network bring tea to us. Whether we buy teabags at the grocery store or loose leaves from specialty teashops, we must trust the experience and integrity of the purveyor. Or we must educate ourselves enough to discern a tea’s quality and value. Actually, it’s a bit of both.

This article was inspired by a discussion on one of the LinkedIn tea groups - Tea Enthusiasts and Entrepreneurs. Quality Matters. It was started by Kim Jage as a possible theme for the upcoming World Tea Expo.

One interesting point was that high price does not = quality. Giving the consumer what she/he wants at a fair price is the key. We have tasted the trash tea cutely packaged and priced as something it cannot live up to. Not the tea’s fault. On the other hand, there are specialty teas that most consumers cannot appreciate - yet. This is the challenge tea presents. How do we respect and value such a broad spectrum of tea experiences?

A comment from this on-going discussion came from Ruben Marley, comparing tea to wine:

Whether these wines were high or low-end was almost never a real factor in the final results of our efforts… the bottom line was always based upon the level and quality of education we gave our customers. I think tea is no different, because it offers a full range of product to suit anyone’s taste or budget.

Perhaps it is because tea is associated with many spiritual traditions and deeply rooted cultural experiences that we want to hold it to a high standard of integrity in business. Some of us may feel drawn to the world of tea with a belief that we are inherently networked through a loftier business model.  We’re looking to escape the world of unconscious marketing - promise and package anything to make the sale.

Quality Education & Quality Information

One of my good friends in Tea Land, Amy Lawrence of An Afternoon to Remember, was asked by a Sacramento TV station to come on their morning show and tell the audience that all tea was the same. She refused to make this statement but he still allowed her on the show and still tried to bully her into saying that all teas are equal. She defended the position.

If we allow the public to believe that all teas are equal, we are injuring the spirit and beauty of tea and the potential for the industry.

Our strength is in the diversity of product quality and a culture experience that connects the entire world. Just as we are drawn to an assumption of quality in tea and a desire to trust the packaging claims and marketing spiels, so are the new consumers exploring beyond the grocery store shelves into the larger world of tea.

The Spirit of Tea seems to attract an educated and inquisitive imbiber. We have lured them away from other beverages with the promise of health benefits and the allure of traveling the world through their teacup.

We don’t have to be snobs.

My last post featured some of the tea books for children. It’s a niche I’ve chosen for myself. Or maybe it chose me. Either way - one of the remarkable things about introducing children to the whole world of tea is their delight with the legends and fascination with the differences. They’re a long way from feeling like they have to choose between one way or another. They want it all. Even young children are excited to try something new. One cautious sip might be enough. Or, if I show them the tiny rosebuds in the oolong, it could become there new favorite of the day. Tomorrow it could be a tea with chunks of apple and cranberries. The next day a child might want to watch a tied tea flower open and taste the interesting blend of green tea and osmanthus flower. One of my 5-yr-old friends just loves saying the word lychee. His older brother will drink anything if he can stir the teacup with a whole cinnamon stick. Their sister likes to unfold the reconstituted leaf. She considers that she has “won” if she finds two leaves still attached to a bit of stem.

In the Spirit of Tea, I know I can give them a quality tea at a price their parents can afford. It’s do-able. And I believe that the wealth of tea experiences can keep them interested and satisfied for the rest of their lives.

It’s not easy but it is fun.

So, now I’m precariously perched on my soap box - or my tea crate. I have to add that tea isn’t easy. There’s a lot to know and here in the US, we’re still relatively young. We’re like children in many ways depending on others to help us understand “quality”. But this year TEAUSA and the Specialty Tea Institute have graduated 35 students through Level 3 - teachers who have invested in something comparable to a college curriculum in tea. We’re preparing for the 8th World Tea Expo where tea pros gather to taste, learn and celebrate this spirit we share. It bridges the gap between the retailers and the plantations be luring people from all around the world to display and sample the newest teas. There are more tea books, tea artists and tea educators every year. We’re all starting to experience a more educated consumer and appreciate the physical and virtual resources available to stay current.

A writer friend recently asked me if I don’t get bored writing about tea?

No.

I love tea. Don’t you?

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