In blurry childhood recollections, a mug of tea was acceptance at the table. A thing I had access to when other avenues of entry were barred. It was the chance to be the same, not other. It was my piece in the puzzle. It made us euqals, all sipping and laughing and playing cards around trailer-home fires. It made us friends.
Across the world, late summer. It would be a ritual of coming together once again. A meeting place. A familiar haven. Seomthing recognizable in the strange and unfamiliar. A bridge across the social gap I had not learned how to cross. But to tilt a pot and pour a drink, oh that was always easy. So, we sipped and laughed and played cards around circles of unknown faces. And we’d drink and drink until our bellies were full. I gained weight that year and put my feet back on the ground. And over mugs and steam vapor, we were friends.
Then in the grey of that winter, in a corner office, it was both warmth and pasttime. It was my connection to those I didn’t know. A social contract easily made. One I could, without fail, depend on. It warmed our bellies while it warmed the room. It distracted us from the cold, the mundane, the unknown. It was a safe place that only needed a little hot water, a little milk, and a little dash of leaves.
Same grey winters, different time, different place. It gave purpose to long and lonely nights. Some goal to accomplish, some thing to do. A tangible sign that I was not just sleeping my life away while my friends were gone. And the warmth would wake me and shake me and make me come back to life.
Another turn, another place, and grey skies over me — still. And a cup with a full pot was worth twenty-thousand words, easy. Characters and worlds were born in the company of steam and steeped camelia sinensis. A paperback book with crows and tea tins with abstract patters on a shelf cluttered with the rest of my life would show these times would never disappear. These long nights writing and sweeping floors and taking trash down the back steps were steeped into me.
Coffee fueled my radicalization that was to follow. Coffee and coffee shops and long talks. Coffee is for work, for being serious. For the hard things. Coffee, black and bitter, is a philosopher’s drink. Tea, milder, softens the blow.
From that sharp razor edge, I would have to return once again. If only for some peace of mind. In returning, I learned to mix flavors with my own hand. Trying to comprehend what I had always taken for granted. Trying, in some small way, to connect the dots in my life. To master where I had only followed. To grow where I had only waited. And, soon, I dusted off my hands, mixed mortars full of muddled spices with bowls of leaves from different regions. And the flavors mingled in ways that were more than just flavors. They were pieces of myself to share with new friends.
Another grey time, darker now, like storm clouds have covered over the summer. And I pull these tins of belonging, of friendship, of hope off a shelf where they’d found home for a while. Into boxes and storage to wait for a better time. Since that packing up, that turning in, I only drink alone. Friends have drifted across oceans on winds I had not foreseen.
But still, this cup warms me in some way. Steam tickling my nose and orage peel settling my upset stomach and telling me — one day, things will be alright. A different cup in a different place. And I will be surrounded by the sweet scent of steeping leaves and the warmth of bodies once again.
Nihon is a place of origin. And next, I go there.