Tea pots and wabi sabi

In the mid 1990s I was in Birmingham (England) for work and had supper with a colleague and his family in their home. I had read in my Grade 5 Reader that 'English people like their tea strong, white and sweet', and I'd known since then that 'tea' in England was more culturally significant than it was here in Australia. I can't recall how they drank their tea that evening in Birmingham, but I do remember that the massive metal pot had pride of place in the centre of the table, and was continually being poured from and refilled. It was both the social lubricant and the centring symbol of a sharing community. I remember it wasn't a fancy teapot, rather it was beautiful in its simplicity, plain silver, presumably aluminium with black handles (one at the front too).

Sharing a cuppa, has always been an invitation to slow down, retreat from the busyness of life, and chat. I love coffee, and as a Melbournian, am probably a tad snobby about it. But sharing a coffee feels different than sharing a cup of tea. Having a (barista) coffee together is sharing a part of a daily routine, it bonds people and offers a familiar ritual around which to go about the business of work or socialising. But the invitation to have a cup of tea is an invitation to talk slowly, to commune. And it's the shared pot that is the key to the dynamic. Somehow, dingling ones own tea bag is just not the same.

The coffee equivalent of course is a big plunger. I was part of a community in the 1990s where we would buy the biggest plungers we could find, and we had a little ritual where we would all reach out our hands and place them on the plunger together to press it down.

As I have become older, or perhaps because I have become older, the Japanese idea wabi sabi is increasingly formative for me. Instead of seeking the classically Western idea of beauty as perfection, I'm drawn to see scars, chips, cracks as indicators beauty, of stories, as marks of pain, of joy, of adventure or misadventure, or simply the long narrative of wear and tear.

My life is now full of appreciation for things I would have previously only seen as imperfections. Cracks in car windscreens, marks on wooden floor boards, wrinkles, chips in crockery, dings in surf boards, holes in woollen jumpers, faded outdoor furniture ...  The point is not that these things exit in my life, but that I am now able to embrace them as signs of beauty or windows to a story, rather than imperfections to be 'fixed'. 

Let's talk about tea pots. There are two tea pots in my kitchen cupboard that I have owned for decades. The larger one is stainless steel. It stands upright with a protruding pouring lip rather than a 'proper' spout. Inside it has a metal infuser, so the poured tea is free from leaves. The smaller pot is rotund and white, also with an infuser inside. They are both classic and I chose them for their 'generic perfection'. They are now showing signs of use, but the point is that they were made to always look new. Once they start to show signs of wear their beauty fades.

Last year Maria found me a great little silver aluminium tea-for-one tea pot in an antique store in Lismore. I instantly loved it and longed to know its story. Who had owned it, and what were their tea drinking customs? Ever since falling in love with this little pot, I've coveted two more; a slightly bigger one to keep in the van for when I'm sharing a cuppa with others, and a 'family tea pot' to use at home when, as is often the case, we need to brew a pot of 5 or 6. Good tea pots are hard to find. I've stuck my head in countless op shops and antique stores in the last twelve months ... I wasn't sure exactly what I was looking for, but I knew I'd know it when I spotted one.

I never expected to find them at the same time, in the same shop. But yesterday in Melany, I did. I was beside myself with joy, and while I've tested the middle size one this morning, I can't wait to get the big blue one home, rust spots and dents included, and add to its treasure stove of stories. It's cheating I know, piggy-backing on someone else's wear and tear. But being slowly converted to appreciating 'wabi sabi beauty' changes a lot. Recycling and buying second hand is not just about sustainability and/or price. 'Things' hold stories. Adding to them helps weave a rich tapestry of history, of connection with other people. 

There's lots more to say about tea pots, tea culture and wabi sabi, but its the kind of conversation best had over a cuppa. 


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