Tea Alone

Finding Solitude in a Crowd

My mother, Jane, had a very old set of wooden alphabet blocks in her very old kitchen.

Like many wonderful objects in her home, I assume these blocks were leftovers from an ancestor’s childhood.

I noticed during my visits with her that each time I sat with her in the kitchen, these old blocks had been arranged and rearranged to spell various words and phrases. My mother was an extremely subtle person whose non-verbal cues always spoke volumes (I know — so shocking that I would have come from subtle stock…), and I started looking forward to trying to decode the message spelled out by the wooden blocks.

(My mother’s kitchen)

“TEA ALONE” was the message I remember most vividly, because this two-word phrase described my mother’s aspirations, as well as her current life. Like me, she loved to entertain, to decorate, to put fresh flowers on the table and a fresh pot of coffee on the stove. She was extremely hospitable. But she also loooooved to be alone, and I believe that she was happiest during the last half of her life, after her children had flown away, and she could work, read and garden, listen to music and watch movies — quite on her own. On fine evenings, she would step out onto the porch of her house, listen to the peepers sing on the creek, and smoke her one cigarette.

Last week I wrote about “Irish Goodbyes” — my habit of slipping away from a large gathering without saying a proper goodbye. As a mother (and now grandmother), and a member of a very large and social clan — I too yearn for TEA ALONE, and yet this solitude-state is often out of reach for me.

I’ve got my two granddaughters with me this month, and we have slipped away to a nearby “glamping” spot, where we are sleeping in a large canvas tent, which is set up on a wooden platform and outfitted with real beds, real sheets, and fluffy towels.

No — this cannot be called camping. It is — like staying in a canvas hotel.

(Our tent…!)

This annual extravagance turns out to be one way I am passing along my mother’s love of solitude. In a safe environment, surrounded by trees, trails, birds, and bunnies — and with my trusty dog Molly in tow — we each have found our quiet spot; that sweet balance between feeling the emptiness of loneliness and being overwhelmed by the emotional noise of TOO MUCH.

As I write this, my two granddaughters are each curled up in their own canvas corner, quietly doing nothing. I feel genuine happiness for them, that I am not currently ushering them into the car and force-marching them through yet another enriching experience.

This week, we are learning how to love having TEA ALONE.

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LAURA LIKES: (Where my friend Laura recommends GREAT STUFF)

Laura Writes:

“Tea is having a little bit of a moment these days, which makes me happy, because it's always seemed to be a thing that Americans largely construe as either:

--something you drink when there is no coffee option,

--something you drink with ice in the American South and argue about how sweet it is, or is not, supposed to be,

--something you drink when the weather is cold/rainy/snowing/all of the above.

This is, of course, absurd!

Drink it when and if you want it. Maybe you like herbal teas -- technically, "tisanes" -- or green teas — notoriously healthful and delicious things in their own ways.

But I have developed a deep fondness for black tea, and prefer it to coffee.

There are a couple of reasons for this -- first off, I drank way too much indifferent, burnt drip coffee in graduate school.

Then, I drank way too much indifferent, unburnt drip coffee when I worked at NPR headquarters.

Then, I drank way too much carefully prepared coffee with agonizingly specific floral notes or whatever when all the Starbucks opened up in Washington, DC and suddenly coffee culture was A Thing again.

I had a sort of revelation one afternoon when I was utterly livid with a reporter (missed deadline, needed a re-edit, reporter didn't seem appropriately contrite) and it occurred to me that maybe having 6 big cups of coffee in a 8 hour period wasn't helping me not be a terrible co-worker. I quit coffee, and everyone was happier. (I'm still going to be upset if you blow your deadline, though. Jeez, it's called a deadline for a reason, be a professional, wouldja?)

Second of all, I had a kind of tea revelation after doing a bit of a caffeine detox. I'm an American, I was a kid in the 70s, and that meant that I had been raised to believe that if you're going to drink tea, you get a tea bag and pour some water over it and leave it alone for a while and it's fine. Maybe you do it this way. Do as you like. This is a no-judgment zone. 

But I was working on a feature about the George Orwell literary estate, and I happened to read his instructions for brewing A Nice Cup of Tea. This, my friends, was revelatory, because I actually did it his way, with all the fiddly little details, because I like a project.

I tracked down a Brown Betty teapot (though mine is actually a Cobalt Betty), warmed it with water, put in the leaves, the whole nine yards...and what do you know, it's actually phenomenally good this way. Like, night-and-day difference, bearing little resemblance to the "I put the bag in the mug and then forgot about it so it steeped maybe a half-hour?" beverage. 

Another thing was that I had an assignment in Manchester, England and they served me tea simultaneously so milky and strong it made me feel as though I could...I don't know, march out with King Henry V to Agincourt and provide very vocal moral support (if not actually useful help with a longbow). So that's what turned me into the sort of person who gets worked up over how you make the tea, and insists that there is a Right Way, and a Wrong Way. 

(Nothing could be cozier than a pot nestled in its own cozy)

If you find yourself with some time on your hands, try it for yourself. You will be astonished. Fortifying, substantial, rejuvenating, actually helpful when you need a bit of a breather in the middle of the day, and you suddenly get what the fuss is about. Mindfulness is almost never a thing that doesn't pay off. 

[Laura Lorson is a producer and presenter for NPR in Kansas. Do yourself a favor and follow her on Twitter @prairielaura]

Railey Jane Savage REPORTS:

JUNK FOOD: Solitude When You’re Surrounded (by the Cops)

Railey writes:

“I lovelovelove Anthony Minghella’s 1999 adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley. The film is a visual feast and the cast is pitch perfect, and this week my VHS copy finally ground to a halt. For over 20 years this tape has reliably chunked, clicked, and whirrrrrred through the guts of my VCR, but its final performance was more relief than regret; I no longer had to dread the day the tape stopped playing because it had already arrived.

Tom Ripley can always/only find solitude in a crowd because he is inherently out of step with his own identity—his hatred for himself at his core leads him to constant reinvention. He does this out of necessity to escape detection [of crimes committed], but also out of compulsion; his talent for being someone else is ultimately a function of his inability, or unwillingness to be by himself.  

This is a decidedly unhappy portrait of solitude, but one I’ve thought about a lot over the past 18 months. First because I’ve been working from home and reveling/rutting in being alone; second because I recently finished a book about con artists in America, featuring characters who took reinvention-of-the-self to an extreme. These folks presented “selves” whose characteristics were in step with the expectations of those over whom they were attempting to gain control, but incongruous with who they “actually” were.

When Amy wrote that this week’s theme was ‘Finding Solitude When You’re Surrounded’ I don’t think she intended ‘(by the Cops)’ to be the tacit qualifier. However, it applies.

The real-life characters in my book, and Tom Ripley on screen, all work overtime to achieve inner peace by obscuring their true natures through assumed identities. So it is ironic that there is likewise a peace, a quietude (however fleeting) that accompanies being caught. Like the dying breath of my Ripley VHS, these baddies experience a brief, peaceful resignation the moment they know the jig is up. This moment is usually immediately undercut with desperate re-reinvention but it does occur, and it can be a relief.

For my part, however, there is work to be done finding peace in the madding crowd; I will continue to find solitude by myself. Alone. 

Alone with my tapes, anyway.”

Railey Jane Savage’s book:

…. is available wherever great books are sold.


TARGETED UPSELL — What the Internet Wants me to Buy

Emily writes:

“What’s New?

Thanks to Instagram, I have been offered the exciting opportunity to purchase Opus, the soothing sound bed! 

Feeling overwhelmed? Then take a few minutes, or rather, seven minutes, to unwind. Apparently that’s all it takes for a better, more emotionally healthy you.

(I checked: The purple aura is NOT included.)

Oh, I’m sorry, are you still confused? You’re not alone.

According to their website, Opus helps users meditate and “find release” (yikes) by combining “spatial sound and sound vibration” to help you feel centered and relaxed while you lie there. It’s the ultimate self-care tool!

Yah, sure.

Why am I Seeing This?

I was looking at new bedding recently, I think some serious leaps were taken from there... Thank you, Interwebs!

Did They Sell Me?


 I’m not clear on how exactly being bombarded with sound is supposed to help me find emotional well-being, but I’m pretty sure I want no part of it.


Even if Opus is as miraculous as the (incredibly vague) ads want me to believe, there's one thing I can’t get over…

I think Opus is badly designed. 

A bed you only use 7 minutes a day is quite the obstruction, so Opus is designed to fold up for easy storage. They claim it’s a “conversation piece” in either state. But for me...it’s more of a Sky Mall gimmick in either state.

And not not in a good way.

Here it is at its most compact.

(By which they mean...a glorious cube of blobbiness.)

Any conversation about this would probably quickly devolve into how I spent some of my cold hard cash on a sound blob.”

[You can find Emily Mason on Insta at @mistakemaven.]

Hey readers! Thank you for another week of your careful attention.

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