The Israelites Crossing the Red Sea. Circle of Juan de la Corte (1580 – 1663)
I had naked tea last week. A friend and I talked storytelling (that wasn’t the naked part) and then sitting in a donut shop, we quietly told our own. Naked is better with a tea cup than without, but given one cup of tea and three places requesting coverage, it isn’t easy. If the tea weren’t so hot, the best solution may be to keep the cup moving in a triangular blur, but the thought of burning tea is scary, so you take your chances, keep what you can behind the cup, and trust that your uncovered self can manage an hour of exposure. (The value of a practical imagination for diversion in the midst of emotionally difficult subjects cannot in my mind be underestimated.)
Awake in the night with no tea to consider, I wondered a question whose answer I have debated for years. Why do we tell our stories?
There are all the noble reasons people say they write . . . to save everybody else, etc. but I take those pronouncements with a grain of salt. They may well be true, but the only thing one can reliably say about preachers is that they preach.
Ten years ago and even five, the desire to tell my story was almost a burning. Then I put the pages in a drawer and gave them a time out. To my surprise, the words took to what I thought would be a brief sabbatical and requested an indefinite one.
Why now, I also asked in the night after my metaphorically nude tea time, do I want to forget my story?
The next morning I wrote a sincere list of reasons in favor of forgetting. It ended with, I don’t. I can’t. Even if I could, I wouldn’t.
My desire for written memoir is either dead or deeply dormant, but that isn’t the same thing. I don’t wish to remember out loud very often. But sometimes is good. When the children of Israel escaped safely through the Red Sea, Miriam wrote a song to tell the story. She named the terrors of the past to be present to the joys of her new unfolding reality. Deliverance foresees a future. Telling our stories assumes we were delivered for a purpose.
Writer, Andrew Solomon tells a story of an experience in Senegal where he tried a traditional treatment for depression. At one point of the day long ceremony, he was asked to repeat the following:
Spirits leave me alone to complete the business of my life and know that I will never forget you.
I like that quote. It captures both my reticence towards gazing backwards for too long and my conviction that remembering is a gift. I found the musical celebration below after I’d written about Miriam above, but ending with it helps say what I’m trying to say. We may tell our stories with tears but telling them dares us to dance.
Interior in the North of Holland tea-time. By Sipke Kool
Monday I invited a friend to tea. She wore a purple sweater. Deep tones that matched her long and flowing skirt. I’d forgotten that people dress for tea, but it wouldn’t have mattered. There was something about her seventy year old self I couldn’t have matched anyways.
Our farm’s not perfect, but most days we like it, I said.
Nothing down here is perfect, she said.
We talked about everything. Schools. Kids. The value of memorizing. Farms. Babies that die. Far away countries. Cows and milk production. Thirteen liters a day was a very good milk cow when she was young. Now the cows give forty liters a day. What have they done to the cows? We discussed the effects of poison and growth hormones for plants, animals and humans. Wondered about the best chickens for meat. Talked about when things go too far. When we forget we can’t control everything so we kill ourselves trying.
She told me of someone she knew who cared deeply about her home. Someone wanted to visit with her child who was in a wheelchair. No, the woman said. The wheels cannot come in the house. They will be too dirty.
That cannot be right, she said.
I told her my failed dreams of adoption, my thoughts about foster care someday. I talked about my piano teacher, Mrs. Murdoch. How strict she was, how much I hated her until I loved her and realized how lucky I was to have her.
My kids’ piano teacher was strict, she said. They didn’t mind her. I think they were used to strict with me so there was no difference. Some people didn’t like her, but I was strict and I wasn’t changing. That’s how I was. So they were used to it.
She shared my tea, overlooked the shortcomings of my presentation and gave me the gift of slow time together. She probably had clay feet hidden under the table, but I couldn’t see them. What I saw was her heart. Full up with tears. Courage. Love. Determination. And each of these in such abundance it left me quiet with wonder.
What a gift the moments when, however dimly or however briefly, we really see each other.
After a 4.5 hour drive home from my grandparents, the girls and I arrived home stiff, a little hungry, weary, and grumpy, to find that the apple trees I ordered had finally arrived. If I wanted help, it was time to pick up our order. After lunch and another hour in the car, we had nine trees.
Once upon a time, apple trees lived happily on bedrock in the middle of our pasture, but according to the internet, nowhere on our property met the many qualifications required for ideal planting of apple trees. Nervous, I’ve been waiting for the trees to arrive for weeks now. The weather was pleasant. I tried to be joyful, but voices were in my ears.
“Not enough drainage here.”
“Soil’s not good enough here.”
“Here’s too close to that tree.”
Were these sounds just my fear or were they the last ditch attempts of the robed wizards of appledom to save us from doom?
“We chose the best of what we had. We just want to try,” I squeaked back.
“That’s a lot of money gone when they all die,” came the reply. I pictured somber head shaking.
Planting was a team effort (minus Boy one who was away). I was tense, but my hands were full of life whispering maybe. The voices couldn’t ruin it all, it was fun. Still, they kept the joy of the trees from trumping the weariness of the morning. I headed into the house irritated that there was no way to have dinner made on time. The war of apple hope vs. no apple fear raged on.
The kids had taken off a little earlier. “She’s here! She’s here,” rang out, as I approached. I was escorted up to the girls’ room. A bedspread refashioned as tablecloth, covered the table (made of two stools with a large book bridging the middle gap) the tea kettle sat in the middle. Miniature teacups were all around, except my favorite mug sat at my place. Everyone sat on the floor except me, who was given a bean bag. A plate of crackers and raisins was on the table. “Surprise!” they said.
Girl one put a tiara designed for me on my head, Girl two handed me a bracelet made from all of the new beads they just received from their great grandmother. Boy two handed me a card, “Happy Early Mother’s Day,” it said (in beautiful cursive writing).
I could remember lots of clipped directions and signs that mother’s fuse was growing shorter through the day. I couldn’t remember very many reasons for a surprise, early Mother’s Day celebration.
My tea was served bag in. I smiled. They jumped up and down to give one last surprise. What delighted me most about it was how much I would have hated it, had I not known that they expected me to like it. With love, messy, incorrect, unstable and misdirected, they won me over.
In case you only see ripped up boxes, tape and mess, this is actually a kitten play maze, designed to be left in the middle of floors everywhere, with love from the younger three. :)