My college roommate, Paul, was fanatical about tea. I had thought my mother was a tea fanatic, but hers was merely evangelical zeal for one brand – Tetley – which she (rightly) deemed superior to all others on supermarket shelves. My roommate’s obsession was more cosmopolitan, snobbish, and cerebral.
And I was the beneficiary.
Some of the pleasantest afternoons in my memory began with the boiling of water, the warming of the teapot, the measuring out of the tea leaves, and the wait of several minutes before the pouring of tea into the cups pre-warmed and pre-filled with the precise amount of milk.
I am by nature an impatient man, and I confess that there were times that I urged haste. But Paul was dogmatic, and would not, for the sake of hurry, ever compromise: would not, for instance, skip the pre-warming of the teapot, so necessary to ensure the water stayed hot enough, long enough to extract the very best from the leaves.
All of this involved a great deal more trouble and time, equipment and expense than what it took to pour water on a teabag. It was, for instance, the sort of thing that was impossible to do in the brief break between classes. Taking tea with Paul involved a degree of commitment. It was, in short, an event.
I remember those afternoons with an almost desperate nostalgia. The tea was excellent, and like all quality stimulants, its effect was subtle, steady, and uplifting. On those Arcadian afternoons, we drank tea, listened to music, and raked the universe over the coals.
But this article isn’t about tea. Tea is for another time. This article is meant to introduce the purpose of this blog, and to explain its name and motto. All of this, however, is necessary background.
At one point in my undergraduate career, I found myself the editor of our campus journal. It became my job to plead, cajole and threaten my fellow undergraduates to write “copy.” My roommates occasionally fell prey to the heat of my desperation.
One day, I begged Paul to write me an article on tea, and Buddhism. Not tea and Buddhism, sans comma – that is to say, the place of tea within Buddhist ritual or culture, or any such thing – but simply an article that should make mention of the two things. The inspiration for the request was simple. Paul had developed an idiosyncratic habit of drinking his afternoon tea dressed in a red silk dressing gown, while smoking his churchwarden pipe and reading the Dalai Lama. This amused me, and I figured that if let loose on the subject(s) Paul might produce some first-rate copy.
I was right. I re-read the piece just the other day, some fifteen years later. It as delightful as I remember it being. “Most of you are familiar with tea through those beastly little packets one purchases from the supermarket,” it begins. “But tea that comes in packets is blasphemous; real tea comes in tins, sans packet, with relatively long cut leaves.”
The article is packed with such delightfully dogmatic maxims. But the best line is this: “Herein lies the supreme evil of packet teas: like most commodities of modern life, it sacrifices quality for ease, all the while destroying the contemplative life by encouraging one to rush. Things should take a long time.”
“Things should take a long time.”
I laughed out loud when I first read the line. With one grand sweep of the arm, it takes in the whole of modern life, and pronounces it wanting. The maxim is expressed with the certitude of the sage. It admits of no exceptions. It is compact and rhythmically forceful: six syllables – two trochees with a concluding spondee. By beginning with a stressed syllable – “things” – it grabs our attention. The concluding spondee – “long time” – fills the mouth with weighty words, and resonates long after the words are spoken.
Here is a saying not to be trifled with.
It was, I think, meant at least in part to be humourous. But it has the ring of truth to it. And in its overzealousness it possesses a power antidotal to its contrary: i.e. the notion that things should take as little time as possible, should ever become more efficient, faster, more hurried, with success measured by the number of widgets – x – produced in time – t.
Anyway, it stuck with me. For a decade and a half now, it has been lurking in the corners of my mind, a dour, reproachful presence, scornful of a life increasingly filled with distractions: smartphone notifications, browser push notifications, social media notifications, instant chat notifications, thousands and thousands and thousands of e-mails, and the constant effort to stay abreast of “the news.”
It’s the old story. Everybody’s story nowadays. But it’s a dismal story. And in the intervening years I have striven to ensure that it wasn’t the whole of story. And the way I have found of doing so is by carving out time and space for things that take a long time. I have brewed beer, grown vegetables, kept bees, made my own dining room table, fermented saurkraut and kimchi and cheese, studied foreign languages, lifted weights, mucked about on the piano and the ukulele, memorized poetry, written the occasional poem and short story of my own, and played with my children. No masterpieces have been produced. No great discoveries made. No money made. But each of these things has been, as Robert Frost once wrote about poetry, “a momentary stay against the confusion of the world.”
And yet, for all that, I have long feared that distraction and fragmentation and haste were winning the war.
If we are honest with ourselves, we will acknowledge that it is almost always the slow (and often difficult) things that produce the greatest satisfaction. One does not look back with wistfulness across the gap of decades at the time spent scrolling our Facebook news feeds, arguing with people on Twitter, sifting through the backlog in our e-mail inbox, or keeping up with the latest shows on Netflix. And yet, somehow, despite all of our vows and efforts to spend our time more profitably, we still find ourselves sliding inexorably into these mindless behaviours.
One of the direst consequences of the proliferation of distraction is that we are much too rarely truly present to ourselves, the world, and the people in our lives. It is an odd thing that we may be physically present in a location, or with somebody, but mentally or spiritually absent. Our minds, fragmented by undisciplined thoughts and appetites, fail to attend to the things right in front of our noses – to the subtle developments (miraculous, if noticed) in our children, to the precious, quiet moments of easy familiarity with our spouse, to the changes of the season, to the grassness of grass, the treeness of trees, the snowness of snow.
To attend is to be present; to be present is to receive; and to receive is to assimilate, to take some part of reality into ourselves, so that it becomes a part of us. Our minds are what they eat. For years Will (a longtime friend and one of the other authors of this blog) and I have lamented our failures to be present, to attend to the things we value most. On the other hand, we have also learned that one of the most reliable methods of counteracting distraction is to create – that is, to do things that take a long time.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote: “If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.” The act of creation forces attention. Down on our hands and knees planting seeds in the soil, or weeding our garden, we are in frightful danger of seeing, for the first time, the dirtness of dirt, or the tomatoness of tomatoes. When we play (or better yet, write) music, we risk catching a glimpse of the inner life of sound, and becoming astonished at its strangeness. When we write poetry, we risk focusing the whole heat of our minds on some tiny part of reality through the painful search for precisely the right word, and thereby seeing it for the thousandth (but first) time. And when we write of the many, many good things in our lives we risk being humbled by the great bounty we have received, and being bowled over by gratitude.
Truth be told, I do not think that tea that comes in packets is necessarily beastly. Some, it is true (I’m looking at you Lipton), tastes no better, and possibly even worse, than steeped sawdust. Tetley is my own go-to brand (like mother, like son). The flavour is nutty, robust, and altogether satisfactory. And yet, Paul hit on something quite true: the tea that comes in packets requires no ritual. There are no special implements: no teapots, measuring spoons or tea strainers. There is no process, no waiting. The packets are convenient; but they also ensure that the taking of tea is no longer an event, but rather an efficient means of sating an appetite. It has its place. But the experience is not the same. After waiting 15 minutes for a meticulously prepared cup of earl grey, one is that much more likely to pay attention to the tea. And it turns out that attention matters. In fact, attention may be the only thing that matters.
Paul’s insistence on the ritual is the thing that produced precious hours of deep conversation and rich enjoyment. Most importantly, it produced friendship – that rarest, but best of all things.
This, then, is the purpose of this project: to force ourselves to slow down and by slowing down to attend to the world and the people around us. The hope is that we might also provide some inspiration to others to do the same.
The motto – “things should take a long time” – came first in the conception of the blog. The title – “Utopian Idiots” – came after, and is a reminder that, hopeless idealists – utopians – that we are, we ought to be careful of taking ourselves too seriously.
The plan is modest: to publish one longer essay, and maybe a poem or two, each week. Being vain, we would prefer to be read rather than not. As such, we have set up social media pages, and an e-mail list. We plan on sending out a once-per-week newsletter, made up of links to our latest posts and possibly other helpful or inspiring links and quotations.