It’s January 17, which means two more weeks of Drynuary, my annual ritual of not losing even one pound despite the (literally) dispiriting dearth of booze. As the child of what I now realize were totally sybaritic parents, I have taken only awkwardly and haltingly to modern notions of self-care, largely because my foundational ideas of self-care involve mostly martinis and the cha-cha.
But to make sure that it’s still easy for me to abstain, I do, every January: the month of Tea.
My daily mug (pictured above) was a gift from my kids. It has the first lines of novels printed on, and it holds a lot of tea, of which I will have maybe eight cups every day this month: oolong or green tea or ‘honey chamomile’ in the afternoon and evening; in the morning, two mugs of PG Tips (did you know that “PG” stands for “Pre-Gestee,” because it was supposedly an aid to digestion? Nonsense, but it is delicious.)
The Japanese Zennist aesthete, art historian and curator Okakura Kakuzo was just fifteen when he became the disciple and assistant of Ernest Fenollosa, the famed American orientalist, collector and historian. The Book of Tea (1906) is Okakura’s passionate attempt to connect in friendship his two incommensurate worlds, East and West, and it makes ideal reading for the month of Tea. The leisurely progress of his insight, his sparkling, gentle turn of phrase in English, and his courtly ramblings between piercing insight and delicate pleasantry are all beguiling.
Also, Okakura is the best exponent of the values of humanities study I know, better even than Virginia Woolf, who is maybe my second favorite authority on this topic. Okakura is not an Enlightenment figure—we all know by now the Enlightenment is failed, alas!—but the jewel at the bottom of that Pandora’s box is preserved intact in the pages of his book.
Hark! a tiger roars,—the valley answers again. It is autumn; in the desert night, sharp like a sword gleams the moon upon the frosted grass. Now winter reigns, and through the snow-filled air swirl flocks of swans and rattling hailstones beat upon the boughs with fierce delight. […]
The heaven of modern humanity is indeed shattered in the Cyclopean struggle for wealth and power. The world is groping in the shadow of egotism and vulgarity… The East and West, like two dragons tossed in a sea of ferment, in vain strive to regain the jewel of life…
The afternoon is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.
The best part of The Book of Tea is concerned with the Abode of the Imperfect, as illustrated by the tale of Rikiu, who was 16th-century Japan’s most famous tea-master.
In advance of a tea ceremony, Rikiu asks his son to clean the path to the tea-house. And so his son cleans the path like three times, but Rikiu is not happy with the results. The son grows so exasperated and finally breaks down: Oh, my god, I cannot do this anymore! I have swept, and watered, and everything is ready, for pete’s sake?!
Rikiu replies, That is not how you sweep a path! and, walking over to a nearby tree, shakes a few autumn leaves onto the path and says okay, NOW you’re done.
Ahaa! how infuriating a dad was this venerated sage!!
But it’s true that’s where we live, in the irrational, the irreconcilable, the not-quite. The overarching truth of that irreconcilability is the gravest one: we are alive and together right now, but it won’t last. An everyday devastation, like the catch in your chest when you hear an old Kinks song, composed of equal parts grief and an almost childlike exhilaration. Where is the science or logic that can express, explain or even address such things?—only art and literature can do this. (Also a good Sancerre, enjoyed in the company of a friend—maybe, as Okakura suggests, an hour in the teahouse, reached by the path lightly bestrewn with autumn leaves—maybe idly considering the first lines of novels on the steaming, scented mug.)
Here is an illustration of what this book kind of means to me.
The scientist seeks answers, while the humanist seeks meaning. The self-contradictory cannot exist in a logical proposition, but it’s real all the same. More than logic is therefore required. That’s why “the beautiful foolishness of things” is so comradely, so meaningful and delicately comic; an answer, where there had been supposed to be none.
So let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things; an exercise which, for many, may suddenly become much easier in two weeks’ time.