One of my favorite encounters with the spirit of tea came while touring the home and studio of Georgia O’Keeffe in Abiquiu, New Mexico. In her pantry, I spied two Mason jars on the wall. One had been hand labeled by O’Keeffe as Tea. Next to it was a jar with a label that read Good Tea. I laughed out loud. This is the moment of enlightenment all students of tea eventually discover along their way. Enlightenment begins the moment we realize there is tea, and there is good tea. Hopefully, we carry that awareness further into art and good art, food and good food, and life and good life.
My other lasting memory of that New Mexico visit was my awareness of space within the O’Keeffe home. The colors, the furniture, and the few select pieces of art were all in keeping with Okakura Kakuzo’s idea of harmony and simplicity as found in The Book of Tea. “Eliminating the insignificant” is what Frank Lloyd Wright called it. O’Keeffe was a second-generation disciple of Okakura. Her teacher at Columbia University had been Arthur Wesley Dow, a friend of Okakura in Boston. I knew The Book of Tea was one of her favorite reads, but I didn’t understand how much she loved the book until I came across Christine Taylor Patten’s book, Miss O’Keeffe. In it, Patton recounts the evenings she read sections of The Book of Tea to O’Keeffe during her last years.
I spoke by phone recently with Patten at her home in Santa Fe and we talked at length about her recollections of The Book of Tea. She vividly recalled O’Keeffe’s love for Okakura and spoke eloquently of the similarities between O’Keeffe’s life and the Japanese tea ceremony. “They were obvious – her constant manner, her humility, her exactness, her utterly respectful exactness,” she remembered. “A small act seemed to be a natural ritual – the folding of her handkerchief, for instance – as if it was the most important thing a person could do.” That bit of insight explained why I was drawn to O’Keeffe’s art long before I knew of her tea connection.
If we are mindful, we recognize the tea spirit in all our daily activities – making a cup of tea, gardening, painting, making music, writing, cooking, and even sweeping. Okakura reminds us that “one of the first requisites of a tea master is the knowledge of how to sweep, clean, and wash, for there is an art in cleaning and dusting.”
If we can find Okaura’s concept of teaism in the humble act of wielding a broom, we find contentment. Or, as the Tao Te Ching teaches, simply be. Or, as the English housewife instructs, have a cuppa tea. Okakura walked in the cultures of both East and West and recognized our common love for the ancient beverage he called the cup of humanity. Within that communal cup, the little thing becomes the great thing, and living becomes good living.