In the weeks now that I have been back from two weeks spent at my childhood home, I miss the brief moments of relaxation I had and the sense of minimalism that comes from traveling. With only the clothes on my back, a small suitcase, and no tea to speak of, I was left to rely on less than usual to get by for the time away.
A small, hand-stippled Taiwanese-made 宜興茶壺 Yíxìng cháhú (Yixing teapot) and a set of vintage 1970s blue-and-white Dansk ware cups and saucers became my impromptu 功夫茶 gōng fū chá tea set. The weather and sun-bleached wooden table that sits in my parents’ garden became a welcoming tea table. Regardless of what the weather was, I made it a daily practice to make tea outside. The result was that everyday presented itself as dramatically different, greeted sometimes by rain or sun, the sound of birds or pure silence save for an intermittent rush of wind.
The small tea set, an amalgamation of Chinese and European wares, seemed to fit this setting nicely. The thick bisque porcelain, with its sturdy construction and modest form paired sweetly with the warm and textured clay teapot. And, upon closer inspection, even the clean white and blue of the Danish porcelain revealed its own charming imperfections in the form of spots of iron oxide pushing through the glaze.
On my final day before I returned to New York City, I decided to brew a favorite 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiě guānyīn wūlóngchá (“Iron Goddess of Mercy” oolong tea). Sourced from Imperial Tea Court in San Francisco, the tea holds a nostalgic quality for me. Years ago as I first began to practice gong fu cha, I used this tea to train my hand and palate to skillfully brew tea. Now, brewing this tea feels just as much a part of coming home as is the literal act.
Initially set in my hands, I measure out the “correct” amount for a hearty pot of tea.
Next, I place the tightly-curled leaves into the teapot and pour hot water over them. They tumble and rise as they make their way to the opening of the small clay vessel, offering up a small waft of tea aroma.
Waiting for the tea to brew in the cold of an overcast day, I let my mind wander. My gaze falls on to the brightly-painted surface of a vintage porcelain teapot that I use to hold boiled water. Looking down, I enjoy the blossoms vividly painted on its lid.
Sitting down, my eyes trail downward across its side, revealing twisting branches full of ripening peaches; a sign of longevity and of the warmer season to come. Looking further still, a small 靈芝 língzhī (lit “spirit mushroom”, Ganoderma lucidum) painted in red is an informal and playful manner is perhaps the mark of the artist.
With the tea fully steeped, I decant the entirety of the pot into the blue-and-white cup. It’s color is bold and coppery. The aroma is strong, floral, with hints of dark sugar, toasted biscuit, and dried stone fruit.
Lifting the old cup to my lips as I have done since I was a child, the flavors remind me of my youth. Sweet and simple flavors of gardenias and chrysanthemum greens recede into more complex notes of caramels, wet granite and earthy marigold.
A long finish of raw honey arises as I peer into the small Yixing teapot. The once coiled leaves of the oolong tea are now just beginning to open. Further resteepings of each allow me time to linger as the day grows colder and small drops of rain and mist begin to fall from the sky and the old oak tree above me.
Now back home and my life in New York City, that time and place of my childhood home seems distant yet familiar. Now, surrounded by the objects and books and work and red dust of my adulthood, perhaps I long for the austerity of what I had as a child. Only just enough was all I needed then. What happened?
As I deepen my practice, I strive to reduce that which I use. Much like how I was when I was young and new to tea, when all I needed was a teapot, some locally-procured tea, and freshly-boiled water. To return to this was refreshing, eye opening. To be able to go back to this, even now, can still reveal something new to me.
As Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of my old Zen temple in San Francisco, once mused, “To go one mile Eastward is to go one mile Westward. This is vital freedom.”