When I was a university student, tea was a staple, even more so than coffee. The coffee I knew then was barely drinkable, having sat on a burner quietly stewing away.
Tea you could make on the spot, by flinging a tea bag into a cup, then pouring boiling water over it. After quickly fishing out the tea bag, you milked and sugared to your taste.
It was a while before I cottoned on to tea’s other properties: those of making connections, of offering opportunities to reflect, of creating a safe space. I want to share with you three lessons I learned from drinking tea.
The first cup of tea was when I was 21. I had gone to Spain to spend time with my grandmother and to reconnect with friends and relatives. One day, a friend of my grandmother’s came for tea. Everyone had a nice time, and after she left, I learned this friend had suffered great losses in her life.
I was surprised because this person seemed very put together; my then-naïve self could not conceive of someone being able to maintain a life after what she had experienced. And yet, here she was, still putting one foot after another, living a new normal. It was my first encounter with seeing people’s capacity for resilience and survival.
The second cup of tea came almost a decade later. I had finished school by then, and had been working for a number of years. I had been asked to do a series on mental health, and I was interviewing people about their experiences with their illness.
One interview took place in an individual’s home. We had a great interview and I learned a lot. Just as I was winding up the interview, the subject asked me if I wanted a cup of tea. I didn’t really, as by then I had moved on to coffee, but as I had spent time in this person’s house, I accepted.
Tea was made and it was strong enough to support a spoon. Only canned milk was available, and though I had long given up sugar, I was liberal with the sugar cubes.
I drank the tea as quickly as politeness would allow while we talked of the weather, upcoming holiday plans and other banal topics.
As I was leaving, my host confided that my staying for tea had arisen from selfish reasons. You see, for my host, talking about the experiences of mental illness often raised emotions that could only be quelled by having a cup of tea and spending a few moments in idle chatter. Until then, I had not realized a cup of tea was not just a cup of tea, but an invitation, however oblique, to connect.
My third cup of tea came almost 15 years later. I had gone to Happy Valley-Goose Bay for a meeting. On a whim, I went to visit a couple of craft stores in my remaining few hours before departure. My taxi driver, on learning that it was my first trip to his town, pointed out various places of interest.
His final recommendation was to visit a café near one of my stops for tea and to try the best redberry muffins available in Labrador. Never one to pass up a good place to eat, I duly noted it and went on my way.
As it happened, I was in luck and the café was open. I went in and sat down at a free table. Tea and redberry muffin ordered, I finally unpacked myself from my winter coat and took in my surroundings.
I was the only white woman in the café.
As I applied myself to milking and sugaring my tea, I let the moment wash over me. Here, with my redberry muffin in hand and my tea cooling in its cup, I was being given an opportunity to catch a small glimpse of what it feels like to be visibly different.
It didn’t feel good.
Not in a fearful way, nor in an angry way, but more of an uncomfortable, “I’m not sure I should be here” way. When I look back on that cup of tea, I see that it made me rethink what we mean by inclusion and diversity, in creating safe places, in stepping back, and in moving forward.
There’s often more to a simple cup of tea than you realize.
Martha Muzychka is a writer
and consultant in St. John’s.