photo by Jennifer Bloom
(from Within My Illusions)
Isn’t it the dilemma of all things
that the first bite has the most flavor,
yet the taste of it makes you crave the second,
that the more intense the flavor,
the more bland everything else seems in contrast,
that the better it gets,
the better it gets,
the better it gets
in the boundless realm of possibilities,
while the density of reality begins to appear
all the more limited?
I used to drink tea from little bags
with strings attached and
clichéd quotes on the tag.
I didn’t care much about brand or type or variety.
They all seemed the same to me.
I was content, comforted even,
by the tepid brew that warmed
my mug and my belly,
until I learned of the magic to be found
in watching hand-rolled tea leaves blossom
in clear water, heated to just the right temperature;
the subtle nuances of grassy, floral, and woodsy tones;
and flavor that continued to unfold
long after I set the cup down.
When I was in college, my friends and I liked to linger in the dining hall after dinner for tea and conversation. The tea bags at the hot beverage station were tethered to paper tags that had pithy sayings on them, seemingly selected to motivate, inspire, or amuse.
We made a game of sharing our tea-tag "fortunes," reading them aloud to one another around the table. The lines ranged from maxims like, “It's better to face a danger once than always be in fear" to puns like, “Carrying a tune is a heavy load for rock singers."
Of all the tea I consumed during those four years of school (and it was a lot), there was only one message I ever saved, took back to my dorm room, and taped to my computer monitor: "If you don’t try, you can’t fail."
At age twenty, the words seemed like a very elegant solution to escape the perfectionism, competitiveness, and subsequent fear of failure that I had internalized. The line seemed to instruct that if I put in less effort on an assignment, came unprepared for an audition, or didn’t submit a short story to a journal, then when I didn’t make the grade or get the part, it wasn’t because I or my work wasn’t worthy or that I had failed… it was simply that I hadn’t really tried.
I embraced this "if you don't try, you can't fail" approach for many years. It served me well by shielding me from the disappointment of unfulfilled dreams or expectations. And of course, I couldn't be rejected if I didn't put myself out there so I kept many parts of myself hidden.
Over the years, I've healed and released many of the fears my younger self tried to protect myself from. But this tea bag's message has never left my consciousness, like a riddle or koan that haunts me. I've often wondered, Is there another meaning to this phrase that I'm missing? Is there some way to read the message that would inspire motivation and engagement rather than withdrawal from life?
Recently, a new possibility is emerging: If I let go of the notion that there's some end point or imagined goal I’m trying reach, the idea of failure vanishes. Any results or effects of my actions, the so-called achievements, accomplishments, or mistakes are not the point. Instead, they are artifacts of my engagement with life. What's left then? Perhaps the imperative is to fully show up for the present moment as authentically as we can. The focus turns toward our process and our relationships, and the pace no longer matters.
Of course this isn't the conclusion of my exploration, but for now I'm enjoying a new perspective in an unfolding mystery.
I'm taking a break from digital devices this week so won't be sending a poem next Sunday. In the meantime, I wish you moments to savor and the presence to savor them.