“Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others.”
– Okakura Kakuzo, The Book of Tea
“Toreshi San, Toreshi San! Are you there?” greeted me each morning during the late fall/early winter that year in Japan. No matter how tired, busy, or hung over I was, I’d open the door, and one of my elderly neighbors would be outside, expecting me to invite him in and make him a cup of tea. I’ll never forget the first time I made him a cup of sencha: unaware of the subtleties of making Japanese tea, I boiled the life out of the water, and then scorched those tender leaves, oversteeping it to barely tolerable bitterness. “Atsui” (too hot), he said, unsuccessfully containing a wince, and thankfully I understood. Somewhat disappointed in my ability to please, yet undeterred, I corrected my mistake upon subsequent visits. Today, I still don’t fully comprehend how my then-nascent understanding of Japanese language and culture allowed us to communicate, but I imagine the tea exchange had something to do with it. It was only later that I realized the significance of these visits.
I had the feeling my neighbor was lonely, but didn’t know why at that time: I later found out that he was basically an outcast in the small farming community in which we lived because as a gay man he never married or had any children or any living relatives. Since I had only been in the country for about nine months, I couldn’t really speak much Japanese, and not having any other English speakers in my community only increased my isolation. Our meetings were on the most basic of human levels, stripped of pretense or expectations because neither of us had anything to prove to the other. We just shared a bit of time, contemplating, drinking tea, and content to connect with someone in some small way. I was glad to have the opportunity to do something for someone who seemingly needed it and appreciated it, and he seemed happy to receive it.
In Frank Hadley Murphy’s enlightening and eloquent tea book, The Spirit of Tea, he describes a visit with an elderly woman named Marjorie whereupon he experienced how grace can manifest itself in the spirit of humility along with a sincere, generous heart. Marjorie, recently widowed and just released from the hospital, made Frank a pot of Stash Earl Grey from three tea bags and served it with sugar and Coffee Mate. Frank is a tea expert who has tried and appreciated the world’s finest and priciest teas, and yet he found the tea mixed with sugar and Coffee Mate to be delicious and polished off three mugs. He was deeply touched by this gesture, and in turn, I was moved at how he beautifully connected sincerity, grace, and a meaningful experience as a result of sharing a moment with another.
I love how sharing tea with friends old and new sets the stage to create meaningful and often profound encounters in the most common and humblest of circumstances. While dual roles of playing giver and receiver can offer very different – yet equally fulfilling and important – conduits to these experiences, I believe that the true spirit of humanity can be felt across cultures and generations if participating hearts are sincere and receptive.