The power of rituals (and tea)
When I was a kid, as soon as I awoke from my revels I was up and playing in a flash. My imagination was epic and I could sink into last night’s spy battles in an instant. The catch on the freezer door was the futuristic spout from where I poured my strong ‘cup of joe’, and the little alcove next to the staircase was where I studied my attack plans. Whatever new gadget I had discovered among my parent’s old possessions became my favourite tool and would aid me in my attempts to overthrow the villains that ran wild in my home.
As my imagination began to dull and I moved into those angst ridden teen years we all loved, I did a 180. By the time I was 18 sleeping was as important as breathing. If I was out of bed by 11 am it was normal, anything earlier was a damn miracle. Granted I had discovered the wondrous hours of the early morning and this affected my sleep patterns in drastic ways, but nonetheless nothing good happened before 11 am anyway, so why bother?
Jump forward forward to the present. I’m 31 years old, and sometimes on a Friday night I purposefully refuse myself that next beer I enjoy so much so I can wake up early on Saturday morning for 3 simple things.
A cup of tea, a rusk and a book.
Now as a passionate ex barista I know coffee and tea, I know that there are certain acts that are frowned upon when making tea. Boiling water is one thing, adding milk is another, but I also discovered after many an argument that everyone has their own taste. So when I say tea, I don’t mean a tepid cup of hot water with a few tea leaves wafted over the top. I’m talking a boiling cup of tea the colour of dark ochre. I’m talking tea so strong it would give a triple shot of espresso a run for it’s money. Add a drop of milk to turn it a rich golden colour, stir, and drink almost immediately. I spent ages finding this tea. I went through every combination — English Breakfast from umpteen different tea houses double bagged, combinations of different Assam teas, the entire gamut of stewable leaves really. Nothing gave me the flavour I was looking for. That is until I found Assam Bold by Twinings. Some may scoff at this but it became my tea of choice from the first sip and if I could be a tea mascot, that would be my tea(m).
For those not sure, a rusk is essentially a buttermilk biscuit cooked in the style of a cake
It is then sliced up and left to dry in the oven overnight. The result is a thick crunchy slice of biscuit that by itself is pretty dry and underwhelming. But dunked in a hot cup of strong tea, it becomes something else entirely, it becomes the most wonderful thing you could possibly want first thing in the morning. It is a warm embrace, a comforting crunch and easy finish all in one.
Perhaps it’s because the ones I eat come from a family recipe. Maybe it’s because my mum used to make them for me in huge batches when I moved interstate. Or it could be that I finally took the recipe and began making my own. Whatever the case, a rusk is key. Some Russians have a saying: “Beer without Vodka is like throwing money into the wind”, I feel the same way about a morning cup of tea without a rusk.
For me it started in spy fiction. One rainy afternoon in Mossy Point (the south coast of NSW in Australia) I happened upon book #4 of a series written by Daniel Silva about an Israeli spy/art restorer. I fell deeply in love with good spy fiction that afternoon and it became my read of choice. In fact for a while it became the only thing I read. I ploughed through many of the big names in spy/crime/political thrillers until I reached the limit of how much crime one can possibly read back to back. I was then reintroduced to the world of Fantasy by a friend and I have since been devouring every good Fantasy book I can find. (For anyone who loves a good coming of age with excellent characters, some magic a hell of a good story, and one the best audiobook narrators I’ve listened to — Rupert Degas — I highly recommend the Kingkiller Chronicles written by Patrick Rothfuss).
For reading first thing in the morning, these styles of books are excellent because your still waking mind explores all the possibilities and potentials of the plot as vividly as a dream. The lack of interruptions, electronic bleeps and phones farting away means your only recently active brain can wander far and wide through the plot and I find it a thoroughly enjoyable way to read.
The book is what makes this trifecta of morning loves come together and has formed the pinnacle of my morning ritual. I used to read the news but soon tired of it as generally the news is depressing and a painful. I used to just sit with my tea and my rusk which was lovely, but soon I would find myself playing with the dog or tending to the pot plants. As soon as a good book was introduced to the tea and the rusk…a marriage was made. This became my ultimate morning (when I say morning I mean the first thing you do in the day, not the things you do having been awake for 3 hours). This became the singularity that turned my mornings around and made me WANT to get up and out of bed.
The final factor at play is where all of this occurs. Whilst it can happen anywhere there is tea, rusks and a book needing to be read, I do have a favourite location. The bench outside my kitchen window is my spot. It looks onto the garden and our beautiful locust tree. In summer it is shaded and the perfect temperature. In winter I need to rug up but the crisp morning air is always a welcome smell. On a weekend morning I’ll be there for hours at a time measuring my morning not in minutes but in cups of tea. These are good days. The best time is during spring when I look up and see the news buds on the tree (this is about as close to heaven as an agnostic theist gets).
I was mulling over what it is about this trio of excellence that is so compelling. It got me thinking about the various stages of life that I’ve experienced and I came back to my childhood. Back to the days when I would leap into my imagination and spend as long as I could there until I was called away to gloomily sweep the courtyard (a task I strangely now enjoy).
What I have discovered is that my imagination is the key factor here. I dream often and vividly, and when I wake up the dreams stay with me as long as I’m still half awake. The process of preparing a cup of tea does not rouse me enough from my dreamy state to slam me into the day. So when I sit down on the bench outside my kitchen window and begin reading I fall fast and hard into whatever world I am ensconced in, almost as if it were my own dream. Spy and fantasy novels are such rich imaginative landscapes that I can stay there for hours until I’m rudely awakened by the dog doing a poo, the emergence of my wife or the call of nature (something which has gained an almost stubborn regularity since beginning this morning routine).
This ritual I work through every morning helps me ease into my day in a way that I have come to hold very dear. It is both simple and complex as to the purpose it serves. On the surface it is simply the act of drinking some tea, eating something tasty and reading a great story which anyone can find enjoyable. But when I dig deeper I find I am engaged in something strangely philosophical without knowing that I’m doing it.
It’s about finding my own space between the time I wake up and the time I actually start the day. From Monday to Friday it is a half hour breather before the mundane elements of a work day kick in. On a weekend it is mine to hold as long as I want and sometimes 4 hours will pass without me even realising it. That is the physical act of the process, the effect of this however is a happy coincidence and something I’m thankful to have stumbled upon in such a pleasant way.
And no it’s not happiness, at least not directly anyway.
Happiness is a confusing concept today because we spend our lives searching for things that make us happy but the pursuit of happiness is where the wheels fall off. We almost forget what true happiness feels like and we push well past the point of achieving it in an attempt to drench ourselves in it, we hang on so tight that we wring it dry of the very essence that made us happy in the first place. Happiness is a finite resource if you cling to it. It is like trying to hold a fistful of water. Sometimes you might be lucky enough to be standing in a waterfall, but even drenched in it as you are — you still can’t hold the water, all you can do is let it flow over you and enjoy it for as long as it lasts.
These things are such a levelling force for me because they bring me into a state of contentment by the way of performing a ritual. My ritual. Much has been written about aiming too high with our happiness — about how happiness is fleeting and hard to come by. And whilst I truly believe that happiness and the search for it is now a commercial enterprise, being content is a state that we can easily and regularly attain outside of the billboards and cat videos. If we can be present in a moment, then that moment becomes enough. This is why rituals that benefit us are important, because they busy the hands and allow a stillness in the mind, they bring us into a moment but don’t require anything else from us.
So what does this all have to do with tea, rusks and books?
My tea, my rusk, my book… they were just things I started to do because I enjoyed the silence of the morning, I appreciated the time to myself and I kept doing it as a result. But as it became more powerful and more important for me each day, I delved further into what it was doing for me and what it means.
As I’ve explored above, what it means a state of absolute presence and contentment. My realisation and understanding of this state is compounded by my being an actor, and much of acting is learning to operate in the now. To be in the present means to be awake to everything that is happening around you. It means you are listening, not just with your ears, but with your entire body. It means you are in tune with yourself and the world simultaneously because you are acutely aware of your existence within it.
Having now understood what this process is and the power of it, I now know that I don’t have to have it everyday to still feel the effect of it. Simply knowing I have something of my own which brings me peace is as important as actually doing it. And importantly I am also able to let the moment go when I need to. I don’t cling to it desperately trying to milk it for all it is worth and THAT is what makes it special. I don’t try to hold onto the water, I just enjoy the feeling of it while I can.
A cup of tea, a rusk, and a good book were the 3 things that made my mornings a more enjoyable place. But it took years of doing these things on repeat before I realised what they actually meant for me. I don’t sit out there with a big smile on my face, that’s not what it’s about. Rather I find myself in a pleasant and peaceful state of mind from which I can then move through my day. It is not a given and I don’t always achieve it, but I know that I can and I know what it feels like to do so, and that…makes me happy.