The Body of the Book

When you drink tea, you come to know the lingo. Teas are usually rated on body, astringency, fragrance, and liquor. I find myself thinking of books the same way, both in reading and writing. Tea & Crumples has daily graces as its body. It’s full-bodied with grace, but not very astringent, like the best-loved tea of the main character Sienna.

This is one of my favorite quotes about the intersection of the sacred and daily living with tea.
This is one of my favorite quotes about the intersection of the sacred and daily living with tea.

I thought of the idea for Tea & Crumples the tea shop and stationery store in college. I went to university in a small town with a vibrant main square around the courthouse. The buildings were elegantly proportioned brick with plate windows and balconies running along the walls inside. There was a building there that put me in mind of the perfect place to meld my love of tea and my love of fine papers. I purchased a notebook and wrote out a business plan and menu. Then I put it away for a Plan B, in case grad school didn’t work out, or in case life failed me somehow.

In the dark, the blanks on the pages filled with story. By my second year of grad school, I was writing letters to friends in the persona of Cleotis Reed. He was the narrator then, telling the world about Sienna and her shop, Tea & Crumples. His aged wisdom always came across in words as Southern as BBQ.

Around the time that Cleotis was turning my backup plan into a novel, I read Kathleen Norris’ essay, “Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women’s Work.” I was moving deeper into the Christian tradition, focusing my time and scholarship on the 3rd and 4th century fathers. Norris’ essay opened my eyes to the sacredness of daily rituals. It was through her insight that I saw the history I was reading come alive. I could see how the fathers lived out what they said. I was attracted ever deeper into the living, ancient faith.

Eight years, two children, and two masters degrees later, I found myself on the brink of publishing Can’t Buy Me Love, my debut novel. The process of writing one novel to publication shook loose the story that needed to unfold in Tea & Crumples. I delved in, spinning a story through sadness and joy. The book threw me a surprise early on when I discovered that Sienna had lost a pregnancy at 19 weeks. My outline had not contained that detail originally, but it made sense. I wrote the characters forward through the shadow of grief.

I was about 1/4 through the first full draft of Tea & Crumples when my personal life took an unexpected turn as well. Our third child whom we awaited with great joy and expectation died by miscarriage at around 10 weeks. Anyone who has experienced such a loss knows the horror of it. But I was left with an additional layer of grief. I had to finish the novel I had started, the story of a woman I had loved and imagined for over a decade, who lost her child in stillbirth.

That’s when I began to experience the truth of the words I had already written and the faith I had long held. I believe that God seeks us out wherever we are, in whichever state, and loves us. I believe that we can let ourselves be found. There’s a line in Rilke’s Book of Hours about a thing “ripened until it is real” so that it “can be found when” God “reaches for it.” That was my hope, that by sticking to the habits of faith, tea, and love, I would look up one day and see God reaching out for me.

I wasn’t worried that God couldn’t find me. I was worried that I wouldn’t notice.

That’s where tea comes in again. There’s ritual with tea. It’s a drink of welcome and succor. Even when you drink alone, the ritual of tea makes you pause and assess. It’s the perfect rendezvous point for meeting in the valley of the shadow of death.

Tea & Crumples isn’t my personal story, but it echoes the healing in my life that came through the kindness of friends, through the steadying power of daily rituals, and the wellspring of grace in faithful marriage. Elder Sophrony of Essex advised, “Stand at the brink of despair, and when you see that you cannot bear it anymore, draw back a little, and have a cup of tea.” To me, that advice sticks to the heart of Tea & Crumples. God strengthens us not only in our struggles, but in our refreshment, for He is a good God Who loves humankind.

***

October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. If you have experienced loss, you might find a local remembrance day group by searching for October 15 events.

*Affiliate links are embedded above, but I would be pleased as peaches if you’d look up my books at your local independent bookstore. Here’s my local shop: The Regulator Bookshop.

Prayer When You’re Busiest

Coming this November with Light Messages Publishers.
Coming this November with Light Messages Publishers.

After my dad died in 2012, there was a long period of going through the motions. What kept me sane and kept my family together was the daily need for food, drink, connection. I had loved tea with friends and family before then, but we solidified our family tea tradition that year, capping a summer of hot grief with the warmth of the tea table. I dug in a garden that summer, too, and the mints and herbs that grow there have come to be regulars at our teatime.

In Tea & Crumples, the protagonist Sienna is suffering under a terrible grief. But the people around her bridge the gap across her sorrow by reaching across the tea table. It’s not always our words that make sacred spaces. Sometimes it’s the daily rituals, the cleaning of cups, the laying of tables, the tucking in of chairs. Most of the time, holiness seeps in right between our weary fingers. Often, it leaves them warmer.

My hope for this novel is that it creates a safe space for love, for grief, for questions too big to ask all at once. It’s a spot of tea for the soul.

Has tea helped you through a hard time?

Basil Tea

The children's tea set, laid out for five. Our fifth child is expected in February.
The children’s tea set, laid out for five. Our fifth child is expected in February.

 

When our newborn son Basil was in the NICU, tea became our lifeline. We discovered on the day after our twins were born that Basil, the youngest twin, had an upside down stomach, what’s called a gastric volvulus. His brother was cleared to go home with us, but Basil needed surgery. He was only two days old when the surgeon walked into the room where we were praying with our priest and announced an incredible finding. When the surgery team flipped my baby’s stomach back into place, they found that the flip had concealed a dangerous diaphragmatic hernia. In essence, our son only had the right half of his diaphragm. Miraculously, and to the surgeon’s amazement, Basil’s stomach had flipped in the womb to block the hole. Because of the volvulus, Basil’s lungs developed normally. He had to have his diaphragm reconstructed and a little Goretex patch added, but he would most likely be okay. His problem became a miracle that we received without asking. Our tiny baby was cut wide open, but he would heal.

Even with a hopeful prognosis and the help of my amazing sister who came to stay with us, Basil’s recovery time in the NICU was stressful for us. With three other children including Basil’s newborn twin at home, I could only visit my youngest child once a day. Fortunately, the hospital had a 24 hour café that served tea. Like the wires stretching out from Basil’s machines when we held him, tea reached across the gap between medicine and Mama, health and home. We would sip our courage from favorite mugs at home before we drove to see him. We would sip a salve for our sorrows from paper cups when we had to leave him.

We took our boy home on a freezing day, snuggling him and his twin together in a wrap against the cold. Our first order of business after settling the boys in their crib was to brew a pot of tea. The hospital stay behind us at last, we thawed to peaches under the influence of our favorite Keemun.

Our Basil is strong now, steeped in love and healing. We celebrate him week by week, making home the way we always have. We lay the tea table: plates and cups and spoons on a tray, slices of lemon, brown sugar cubes, an apt pitcher for cream. At center, with a cozy for when the babies’ sweet cries invariably interrupt us, a piping pot of tea. Each day that passes, we look forward to a future we were afraid to let ourselves imagine in the NICU. When I imagine it, my children gather at the tea table, one, two, three, four, five, to look at the day’s teacakes. They argue over who will pour and settle on their big sister. Basil’s toddler hands, pudgy and elegant, grasp his little porcelain cup as he waits his turn. He drinks his cream cooled tea and smiles. He knows he is home.

Tea, Stationery, and Healing

This is the model for the sign that hangs outside Tea & Crumples, a fictional tea and stationery shop you can enter in Fall 2015!
This is the model for the sign that hangs outside Tea & Crumples, a fictional tea and stationery shop you can enter in Fall 2015!

Writing longhand and drinking tea have been part of my prayer life for decades. Next autumn, join me in a journey of healing with the release of Tea & Crumples from Light Messages Publishers. In the meantime, please sign up for my free monthly newsletter Finding Balance One Cup At a Time for tips on how to write each day. With simple steps and ideas hard-won through my life of motherhood, study, writing, and faith, I will offer you proven ways to heal your mind, soothe your soul, and know your heart in just minutes a day. Why am I offering this free newsletter? Because writing is not just my business; it’s my calling. I write to build up my fellow creatures, and I want to share with you some of the ideas that help me. Sign up today, and you’ll receive your first free newsletter within six weeks right in your inbox. I’ll also share with you when I’ll be in your area or release a new book so we can continue the conversation.

What little rituals build your prayer life? Join the conversation in the comments.