I took a walk, one day, down a path I’d frequented. The day was pleasant; sunny with wispy clouds drifting through the blue sky. It had rained several days before, and I was excited to get outside.
The path I took was common among people on foot or bicycles. Children used it as a highway through town. Adults used it for exercise. I used it as an escape from being indoors.
The path itself was made primarily with crushed rock, limestone, I believe. It provided a nice gravelly noise underneath my shoes. It shed water quite well, so even after all the rain we’d had, there were only a few puddles scattered about.
I love the color of bushes and trees after a lot of rain. That day it was a bright green that comes after the the plants drank their fill of water and had some to spare. It was a green of plenty, as if the vegetation sighed and exhaled in a pleasant respite. With the day’s sunshine, they’d have the energy to grow even more.
The smell was fresh; content. I walked for a half an hour in one direction, away from town. I passed the gazebo that I’d always pass on my walks. Sometimes it was empty. A hollow shell of wood with some picnic tables inside. Other times, it was filled; I’d seen birthday parties, anniversaries, picnics, get-togethers, and other events. That day, however, sat only one person. A man, alone on a bench facing the path I walked. I waved. He smiled and waved back.
“Beautiful day.” I casually yelled.
“It certainly is.” Came the reserved response. “A nice day for a cup of tea. Care to join me?” He was almost yelling as I passed.
I’d never really been a fan of tea, and I was enjoying my walk. “No thanks.” I said as politely as I could and waved while I continued, peacefully, down the path.
The universe must not have liked that answer, because as soon as I rounded a bend on the path, clouds started to appear on both sides of me. The temperature started to drop and the wind started to intensify. The blue sky was quickly replaced with a light gray, which soon became darker still. I turned and started to head back. Maybe I’d make it home before the rain came. The universe, apparently listening to my plans, again intervened.
All at once the deluge came. Instantly, I was soaked. Jogging now, I reached the gazebo and decided to wait out some of the rain. The man was still there, staring at me as I tried to squeeze some of the water out of my shirt.
“Maybe I spoke too soon.” I said.
“Oh, sorry?” he said.
“Earlier. I said the day was beautiful. Maybe I spoke too soon.” I said.
“Perhaps, but maybe you spoke too late. Who can tell?”
An odd response, to be sure, but I thought nothing of it initially.
“And maybe your remark was right on time.” He added.
I stood on the concrete base of the gazebo, forming a puddle of my own. “Yea, maybe, I just figured the weather wouldn’t be bad today.”
“Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.”
“Yea, I guess you’re right.” I said thinking that it was another curious thing to say.
He chuckled. “Well, first off, I didn’t come up with that, John Ruskin did. Second, I don’t think of it as right, only my opinion on the matter.”
I looked out of the gazebo at the skies. It didn’t look like it was going to let up for a while. I’d either have to stay here for a while or run home in the rain. As the shirt on my back started to dry, I felt a chill up my spine.
“Cold?” He asked.
“I’ll be ok.”
“I’ve no doubt of that, for sure, but perhaps I can offer you a small comfort?”
I turned around to respond. “What kind of comfort?”
“Cup of tea?”
I’d forgotten he’d offered earlier. I didn’t want to be rude and a warm drink didn’t sound terrible, so I approached the table and sat down. “Sure, that sounds nice.”
The person then turned and started rummaging through a cart full of things. I hadn’t even noticed the cart before. He pulled out a little camping stove and a bottle of propane, hooked the bottle up and turned on the burner. He then grabbed a kettle, walked over to a water fountain inside the gazebo, filled it, brought it back, and placed it on the burner.
“How much do you know about tea?” He asked.
“Um, I guess a little? It’s made of leaves. You brew it in hot water. There are a few different types? Green, black?”
The person smiled at me. It was a smile of knowing. “Would you like to learn something about tea?”
“Sure.” Why not? I thought. “By the way, what is your name?”
I received a wry smile in response. “Well, I’ll be teaching you about tea, so how about teacher. Get it? Teacher?”
I feigned laughter.
Teacher turned and started rummaging through the cart once again. “Did you know that besides water, tea is the oldest drink in in the world? People have been drinking tea for thousands of years. And now it remains the second most consumed beverage in the world, after water of course.”
He pulled out a red linen sheet and carefully laid it on the picnic table. “But tea is more than just a drink. Tea is a ritual. Tea is meditation. Tea is a great many things.”
It seemed a little odd to me. Tea was just tea. I kept my mouth shut, though, because he seemed very passionate about it.
“Everything has a life cycle. Something begins, exists, and ends. There is, to be sure, a great variability in each phase, but there is no variability in the fact that something that has started will end.” Teacher pulled out a wooden box. It was simple and flat, about two inches high, about a foot across, and maybe six inches long. The box was solid on five sides, but on the top, there bars instead of another panel. The wood was worn and the grain had started to fade. He delicately placed the empty box on top of the red linen sheet.
Following that, he pulled out several clay cups and set them onto the top bars of the box. “People have a tendency to be stuck in the middle of things. We forget the past, and we remain ignorant of the future.” Teacher continued setting things up between us. “But our past is as much a part of us as we are a part of our future.”
There was now steam coming from the kettle. Teacher turned the burner off and poured hot water into two of the empty cups on the box. “Shouldn’t there be, like, tea leaves in there?”
Teacher smiled as he set the kettle back down. “If the water is too hot, it will burn the tea. It must cool, slightly, first.” He then pulled out a gray tin from his bag and opened it. There were what looked like grass clippings inside and a small spoon. He carefully dumped two scoops into the small clay teapot on the wooden box and put the tin away.
“In the beginning,” he said, “there was too much heat, and so there came a period of cooling. But, after that time, matter emerged.” Teacher poured the water from both cups into the teapot with the leaves and put the lid on top.
As steam from the water reached my face, I looked around and felt my vision slightly blurry. I wasn’t sure whether it was from thirst or exhaustion. Teacher spoke again. “The universe organized itself using rules that emerged from the conditions of the universe itself. Heat warms the leaves and in return the leaves flavor the water.” I felt dizzy but remained stable.
Teacher poured tea into each cup and handed one to me. He said a brief few words under his breath that I didn’t hear and took a drink. I raised the cup to my lips and sipped.
And then everything was bright.
Gone were the gazebo and teacher; the trees, the rain, and even my hands. All that remained was bitter light. I still felt my body. Still felt the seat underneath me and the cup in my hands. I turned from the light, shielding my eyes, and faced the blackness behind me. Large chunks of rocks slammed into each other. It was fast, like watching a movie being fast forwarded.
Another massive rock slammed into the one in front of me and bounced off but remained nearby. Then the rock grew hazy. Gray clouds covered the entirety. After a time, the grays gave way to blues and browns. I took another sip and the bitterness unfolded on my tongue. The taste was violent. Now, on the brown, there was a new color. Green. As green as the tea that I knew I still held in my hand. I took another sip and things moved even faster now. The rock clouded again and grew almost completely white. The white soon faded and the browns and blues returned. This time the greens covered almost all of the brown.
Another sip. A large rock slammed into it again. More bitterness. More violence. The tea burned inside me, hot and fierce. I took the last sip from the cup and my vision returned. Disoriented, I put the cup down in front of me. Teacher’s eyes never left me. He took the cup and returned it to the board. “Was that…Earth?”
Teacher smiled and refilled the cups from the kettle. Now he poured the water from the cups into the teapot again. “The first cup of our past. It can be a bit abrasive. But it is, ultimately part of our story.”
I could still taste the bitterness on my tongue. It was grassy and striking. The rain continued around me; uncaring, unyielding, unforgiving. But there was more. Life required that rain. Without it, there would be no trees, animals…life.
Teacher poured tea into the cups again and I felt my vision start to blur once more. I was more prepared this time, though, and took the cup from him in confidence. He muttered more words I didn’t quite hear and took a sip. I was braced for the intensity of the taste, but it never quite emerged. The brightness was there, again, but it wasn’t searing as it was from the first cup. It was softer, now, and there were new tastes, too. It tasted, vaguely, of asparagus that had been steamed and buttered. It was a creamy taste. The Earth returned to my vision. Things were still moving quickly, now, but they were slower than before. I was closer, too, to the surface, so that the Earth filled all of my vision. I could see little lights on the ground, now, and then they started to spread out, much as the green had spread out across the land and the delicate taste of the tea spread across my tongue.
The illuminating fires of Humanity.
I took another drink. Again, bitterness was still there, but there was a subtlety to the tea, now. I took another sip and watched as cities emerged, rising and falling, as if there was breath from the planet. Inhale: A city is raised. Exhale: A city is razed.
One after another. And then things started to look more familiar. There was concrete. There were roads like veins across the surface. I took another drink and the Earth moved closer to me, or I moved closer to Earth. There was no way to tell which. Not falling, but approaching.
The closer I came, the more details there were. A city to my left, and directly in front of me was a smaller town. There were buildings. And there were people. And then I centered in front of a small wooden roof in a stretch of green. Closer. The sensation of falling was harder to ignore, now. I took the last sip as I was about to hit the wooden roof and then I was back at the table, sitting across from teacher, with an empty cup in my hand.
Teacher took it from me and, again, placed it onto the wooden box. He filled the cups for the third time from the kettle, and then poured the water into the teapot.
If the first cup was the past, and the second cup was the present, then the third cup would be the future. My eyes widened. Was I about to learn what the future held?
Teacher grinned but remained silent. “The second cup is where we unthinkingly live most of our lives. It’s an easier cup to handle. There is nuance to it. There is forgiveness to it. But, a question: Is the tea itself less bitter? Or is the tea the same and you have become more accustomed to that bitterness?”
The rain outside the gazebo was still coming down, but it didn’t seem to be as harsh anymore. Maybe the storm would pass as quickly as it came.
Teacher poured the third cups and handed one to me. I took it, closed my eyes, and took a sip. When I opened my eyes, teacher sat in front of me, cup in hand, grinning. I blinked a few more times and then took another drink, but there were no new visions.
“We’re you expecting something?” Teacher asked.
I hesitated, but then spoke. “I thought I’d see the future.”
“No person can see the future, at least not much of it, anyway.” He said.
I took another drink. The bitterness was almost gone, now. The vegetal notes were there, but even those were milder as well. There wasn’t as much flavor as there was in the second cup; as if I were drinking a shadow of the second cup.
“What happened with the first two cups? I saw the Earth. I saw humanity.”
“No.” Teacher said, sternly. “You tasted the tea.”
“I don’t understand.” I said.
“Someone grew the leaves in this pot; grew them on a bush in China. And someone before that planted that bush. And someone before that tilled the land. And someone before that claimed the land to farm. And a person was born. And that person’s ancestors travelled to China. And those people came from beings far more primitive. And those beings were preceded by almost unrecognizable beings. And those beings were bunches of chemicals and proteins being coupled together. And those chemicals and proteins are made up of atoms. And those atoms were forged as the universe cooled.
“This is the true tea. The tea is the entirety of existence that led to it. The all-encompassing past.” Teacher said. “That is what you tasted.”
“But what about the third cup?”
“The tea’s future.” Teacher smiled. “That is in you. You have consumed that all-encompassing past. Within you, now, lies the unknowable future.”
I remained silent, sipping the third cup in my hand.
“I asked you, before, a question: Does the taste of the tea change? Or is it your perception of taste that changes?”
I didn’t know how to answer and sat in silence with the tea. Teacher, however, continued speaking. “I offer you a third option: What if you both change? You change the tea through action, by steeping it again and again, and the tea changes your perception of the taste.” I remained silent.
“The first cup is the bitterness of beginning. The second cup is more mellow, but the bitterness is still there, you’re just more accustomed to it. The tea brings all of its past with it, but as the bitterness fades, slightly, you’re able to percieve the rest of the tastes of the tea.
“And you, as well, are now changed. You carry every taste, every sight, and every experience with you, always, whether you know it or not. The bitterness of beginning will always be with us as you settle down into the present. And as you look to the future, you may be forgiven to see yet more bitterness, but, in fact, that bitterness does fade. It changes you.”
There was a drip of water that landed on the table in front of me. Only then did I realize it had come from my own face. “What if I don’t want it to change me?” There was a comforting bitterness, in me. Thoughts and feelings from months and years past. It was there, always there, whether I wanted it or not.
“To struggle against change is to struggle against the very nature of existence. There is no changing the bitterness of the tea. Surely, you can pour honey or sugar into a cup of tea, but that only masks the bitterness. The bitterness, itself, remains. But there is no tea that remains completely bitter as it’s re-steeped. Some bitterness will remain, of course, but it will change, as the drinker changes with it.”
Teacher took my empty cup and gently wiped the inside with a linen cloth. He then set about carefully drying things and putting them away. The rain, outside the gazebo, had stopped, and the sun had returned.
“We’re all moving towards a future that has yet to be written.” He said. “The tea didn’t know that it’d be steeped here, in this gazebo, with you. The person growing the tea didn’t know that it’d end up here with us. Never confuse destiny with the path that things take. It was never certain that we would end up here.
“And yet here we are.”