The Virtues of Tea
by Lynn Bruce
A pot of tea can change your children's lives. It did mine one day!
On that fall Friday afternoon, with lessons finished and the children happily creating a parallel universe of some sort in the backyard, I brewed myself a little pot of Earl Grey and settled into an oomphy chair to revel in a moment of satisfaction over what I appraised as a well-rounded week of lessons -- the rarest of rarities! But then, through the steam rising from my cup, my eyes happened upon a stack of oh-so-thoughtfully chosen poetry and art books gathering dust in a corner. Ohhh, I thought, then there's THAT . . .
Feeling less smug, I rued the many weeks that slip past with no time to squeeze in these disciplines of beauty. Days are consumed with managing the flow of routines and getting necessary facts into little heads like stuffing kindling into a firebox. But what use is dry kindling without lighting and stoking a fire? I sighed over unexplored poems, art, symphonies, Psalms, even family folklore -- those inspirations that spark the kindling in our heads and draw fire and light into the furnace of the heart.
I knew the dust would just gather deeper unless I found the missing habit, the pleasant ritual, that would weave the loose ends of these "disciplines of beauty" into the fabric of our days. I gazed into my cup of tea, growing cooler by the minute.
Suddenly resolved to minimize my margin for motherly regrets, I dusted off a poetry book, fetched more teacups and called in the children. And though I did not realize it 'til many pots of tea later, in that one resolute motion, the countenance of our afternoons was forever lightened. By some felicity of momentary grace, I just stumbled upon that pleasant ritual to steadily stoke those fires . . . daily teatime!
Around 3:30 pm or so, I simply stop whatever I'm doing -- regardless of how much laundry is undone or whether school is finished or whether I have a clue about dinner -- and enliven the air with some Bach or Handel or whomever we're thinking about at the time, and put the kettle on. When the whistle blows, the children know by now to wrap up whatever they're doing and come set the table . . . tea is steeping!
Our poetry books now have a handier home in my kitchen hutch, right below my teapot shelf. When tea is served, I read some poems, just a few, and we may talk about them or not. Sometimes we read silly poems, sometimes classics, some old, some new. Other times, we look at an art book. Some days we read a Psalm. I keep it as short as the day calls for. Then, we just linger for as long as the children care to visit. This little moment of ceremony has transformed us more than anything I can think of. It's what my children will remember long after the rest of it has fuzzed to a blur.
Now, before you protest that this sort of thing is beyond the realm of your reality, please understand: this is not an element of some sort of dream life. It often occurs amid piles of dirty dishes and unfolded laundry, atop a kitchen floor that, swept, would yield a hearty contribution to the compost! But I have confidence that the Lord will honor the good intentions of a mother's heart and somehow redeem this time for me in my busy life. Isaiah 30:15 "For thus saith the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel; In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength..."
True to that promise, tea time has brought forth much fruit . . . I have found that lots of narration bubbles forth during this time, as the children recount for me all sorts of things they have read or done in their free time, and usually without my bidding. Recently, I overheard one child reciting a verse while playing, and I asked her where she learned it. "From you, Mommy, at tea time!" she replied. I didn't even recall reading it, but it had impressed itself upon her! My children have begun voluntarily writing poetry as a result of our tea time readings, too, and are compiling them into little collections for binding. This is effortless fruit, the kind that reminds us that learning can be an easy yoke, and joyful!
Keeping tea has other virtues for mothers as well. In the absence of the hustle and bustle of the dinner hour, we can more quietly train the habits, as Charlotte Mason would say; more steadily teach little nuances of mannerliness, and how to handle fine things with care. Maybe the English and the Chinese have known this for centuries, but handling fine things automatically quiets the temperament -- a child in a wild mood will come to a teacup and calm down just at the prospect of lifting it. I bought each of the children their own special china cup and saucer, and presented them all wrapped up and with great fanfare. It took only one broken teacup to impress upon the children to handle china gingerly; my daughter's heart was more broken than her cup when she saw it shatter all over the floor.
Everyone is more careful since then, and I had already resigned myself to losing a cup or two in the course of training -- it's a small price to pay in the end for the vast improvement I see in their table manners. Tea time produces teachable moments to train habits of helping with kitchen tasks, too. The children help me set out a little fruit, perhaps cheese and crackers or crunchy veggies, sometimes a few cookies, and always lemon, honey and milk, napkins and spoons . . . the works, and all in an orderly way.
Tea time offers lessons in clean-up cooperation as well. Dinner dishes, especially in a large family, multiply into daunting and discouraging proportions for training purposes. But learning to tidy up a few dishes from tea makes the task manageable for beginners. Teatime has also impressed upon my children the joy of serving. When we read Felicity Learns a Lesson (from the American Girls series) we came upon a dandy lesson in teatime etiquette: Felicity, a colonial girl, takes a finishing course wherein she is taught the art of taking and serving tea. All of it is spelled out in the book; I had nothing to teach! This inspired them to learn to serve others, the fruit of which is manifest across other situations as well. They are more mindful of being gracious, as both hostess and guest, for having this experience. Learning to serve others can be a pleasant lesson!
While I'm recounting the virtues of tea, here's another: with a little snack under our belts mid-afternoon, we avoid the sinking blood sugar crankies that used to greet Daddy when he came in the door every evening. Now we get through evening dinner preparations with a bit more cheer, and that means a lot to the man of the house! And, because of teatime, I have more control over snacks -- with a healthy repast anticipated mid-afternoon, our junk food intake is well on the wane. It occurs to me that this daily habit of taking a moment away for renewal is in harmony with our creation, for how does our Father teach us, from the very beginning of things, to glorify Him? Through observing a time of rest. So it comes as no surprise that He slips into our tea conversation so often, and that we should come away from the table with restored and quiet hearts, in a better frame to serve the Lord and enjoy Him forever. Afternoon tea, that forgotten tonic of my wise English forbears, has become the golden hour of our days. Even when we travel, the children always remind me to pack the tea because they have come to covet the anchor of this quiet time apart with me! And wherever we take our tea habit, we invite others to join the fun, which has brought forth many broadening afternoons . . . like the tea time that prompted my grandmother to tell us tales of kinfolk she'd known who lived through the Civil War.
Some days, the rewards of my insistence are even sweeter: the children will come peacefully to me when teatime's done and the poetry and art books are closed, tummies full of warm tea and yummies, heads full of beautiful symphonies, great words or fine pictures, and give me a long, quiet hug. I just sit and hold them until they let go, which is sometimes a surprisingly long time. Ah, it's time for tea already! Good. Go on now, put your kettle on, too! "Bread and water can so easily be toast and tea."
Copyright 1998, Lynn Bruce