Binky is going from strength to strength. And as you can see from the last two photos of Lady Tilly and Sir Sam, they are rendered weary by the bumptious ways of their new friend. Alas, I’m nae sure Sam would call Binky a friend just yet. 😐
Bent double and engaging in battle against the lashing rain and winds recently, I held my umbrella as an ancient soldier would his she’let (Hebrew word rendered ‘circular shield’). All at once, a nasty gust whipped my brolly inside-out and the spokes were torn from the black fabric.
I’d already passed several fallen ‘para-aguas’ earlier on, that fellow soldiers, wounded in battle, had tossed aside. Their redundant shields now lay, disgraced, strewn across the city.
For a moment, I thought my beloved umbrella was to meet the same fate, when I realised that, in actual fact, my protector was a rare, well made, built to last variety of shield. It was simply a matter of placing the spokes back onto the tips and I had a fulsome round canopy once more. How satisfying.
What’s all this got to do with tea? I hear you ask. Well, this experience put me back to the warmth and wonder of Twinings, 216, Strand, London WC2. You see, you may well pay a little more for “proper” tea, as no doubt my Grandad had with that umbrella, but you’re paying for the process of quality made tea. A process rich in history as it is ethics.
Meeting up in London recently with a friend from New Jersey, I’d asked if there was anything she particularly wished to see, given that it was her first time to the Big Shhmoke, indeed, her first trip to the UK. How happy I was when my friend said that she was very easy going with the only real request being a visit to the Twinings tea shop. So I proceeded to do what any self-respecting, tea-drinking, English friend would do. I booked us a tea tasting session at Twinings.
Our tea tasting guru for the next couple of hours was to be the gorgeous Georgina. I cherish it when you feel instantly at ease with someone and so it was with Georgina. Settled at the tea bar, damp coats off, aprons donned, we were promptly whisked through the chronicles of the Twining family and tea as a whole. I loved some of the interesting facts, such as:
~ Although originally a coffee house, Thomas Twining sold tea and made notes of what folk liked and loved. He made different blends to suit different customers. This is what made him distinctive – his personal interest. A fine lesson still today, not just for those in customer service but for each and everyone of us.
~ It was Richard Twining who successfully fought to stop the extortionate taxing of tea. 80% tax was lowered to 12%. This increased the reputation and quality immediately. It also meant it could become less of a decadence and therefore more popular.
~Thomas Sullivan created the tea bag by accident. He exported tea leaves by putting them in silken bags. At the receiving end, with no instructions, folk didn’t know quite what to do and so plunged the bags straight into hot water. The tea bag was born.
~ Twinings shop opened in 1706 and was the first tea shop in the whole of England. The mosaic step is original and therefore 308 years old. And what a beautiful step it is.
~ Essentially there just are six main varieties of tea, under which all other blends come. Black, Green, Yellow, White, Puerh and Oolong. The process for most of these, if not all, is painstaking and surely back breaking work, carried out by fingers, not machinery. This is not mere ‘dust in a bag’, nope. This process, this is the stuff that marks the likes of your single malts from your blended whiskies. Your cheap umbrellas from your quality ones. It’s an art. It’s quality.
The history lesson was fascinating but what sensitive souls will really treasure about the experience is savouring the fragrance, the taste and the texture on the tongue. For me, it felt like a lesson in mindfulness as much as learning about tea. How often we chuck things down, a quick bite here, a hasty glug there. But at Twinings, wrapped up in the warmth of fine aromas in that long corridor of tea leaves, we were invited to first touch the leaves, to gaze at the pale liquids, to get lost in the memory vaults of our minds as we sniffed, slurped (Oh how gratifying to engage in elicit slurping. Funny though, it’s more of an art than you may think.) and savoured the six varieties of tea put before us.
As Georgina tried to draw out what we were sensing and tasting, I was tempted to say nothing for fear of getting it “wrong” and appearing silly. (Mine was a troubled school life.) Yet Georgina reassured us that the beauty, of course, is that there is no “wrong” – it’s very much a personal experience.
You can fill in sheets that serve as gentle proddings to open the gate of the senses. When we finally came to the turn of the Puerh tea, apparently violently vile to many, even ardent, tea lovers, I could smell a damp forest floor or a steam room. I found it comforting and it tasted how the chalky paints, in the art room at school, smelt. (The art room was the only class I felt halfway comfy in.) I like this tea with a horrid name, that no one likes.
Georgina gave us way over our alloted time. I’d wager this lady is herself a sensitive soul, her own fond memories of drinking tea at her Nan’s home as a child drawing her to the joys of tea tasting. To finish, Georgina brewed us each a cup of the tea we particularly fancied. Without hesitation I opted for the Lapsang Souchong. As if to prove what a powerful nudge to the emotions taste and scent can be, salty tears began to add their own hint to the shhmokey, earthy tones of the golden* elixir held between my hands. My late dad’s favourite tea. (Little wonder his favourite single malt was Laphroaig, also distinctly peaty/smokey in flavour, conjuring up the fragrance of pine woods and wood burning saunas in the ole olfactories – all the things he loved.)
(*Although actually of the Black tea variety).
It was all we could do to hug the glossy haired, lovable Georgie and drag ourselves out from under the calming, comfort blanket, that is Twinings and head back into the cold and rain of London.
Georgina tutored us in making the consummate cuppa.
Loose leaf: 1full, not heaped, teaspoon per cup.
85 degrees is the perfect temperature. Boiled water will take out the all important oxygen. Three and a half minutes to brew. Slurp. Savour.
2 minutes to brew. No stirring and squeezing of the teabag! This will make the tannins too strong.
(7 minutes brewing with loose leaf distills everything – not good! This is also why you don’t go squishing your teabag about. Note to self: buy me a tea timer.)
I have a pair of earrings that for many reasons hold a lot of meaning to me. They are two small terracotta tiles, on one there is a painting of a key and on the other a rudimentary cage with a bird in it. My current circumstances often lead me to feeling like that caged bird and in trying to change my lot in life (primarily through writing), I’ll often quip that I’m trying to find the key to my cage.
By the same token though, I often stand and watch the little birds and marvel at their courage to fly, sing and forage for food, when the odds seem so stacked against them – birds of prey, cats, harsh winds etc. I frequently ponder, that if I were a bird, I may risk starvation and remain huddled in the safety of my nest. Maybe remaining in the cage is a safer bet.
And It’s not just our circumstances that threaten to incarcerate us. We may have built our own walls and barriers, in an attempt to keep us safe and invulnerable. My all time favourite winsome words, in a film, are delivered by George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
‘…You call yourself a free spirit – a wild thing – and you’re terrified that somebody’s gonna stick you in a cage, well baby, you’re already in that cage. You built it yourself; it has no boundaries, it’s wherever you go because no matter where you go, you only end up runnin’ into yourself.’
I have long since cherished the words of Anais Nin: ‘And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.’
Growth, especially through a depression, can be excruciating, slow and hard work. But just as we feel joy and relief when spring flowers come into bud and the harsh, darkness of winter begins to pass, when we take the risk to blossom, there is a healing; a Spring time in our hearts.
A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships were built for. – Grace Hopper
Come back Monday for a Tea for Two Tasting Session at Twinings.
Comments from those lovely Moodscopers:
Sometimes, symptoms that stem from sadness, or depression, can be as vexing and challenging as the depression itself. Take psoriasis for example – it is skin cell production in overdrive. Skin cells are normally made and replaced every 3 to 4 weeks but with psoriasis the process is sped up to every few days. It reflects well the interminable, anxious pathways that my brain traverses each and every day.
‘Oh wow, is it snowing outside?!’
‘No, I don’t think so?’
‘But you have snow…flakes…oh…er…’
There can be other physical complaints, some embarrassing, that result from poor mental health, can’t there? IBS, shaky hands, insomnia, weight loss, weight gain, excess sweating and other skin conditions.
That acknowledgment, that validation, by Rosie, the doctor above, made me feel sad for my body. I’m not talking of self pity here, oh no. I simply mean that it helped me feel a little more self compassion for myself.
If we look at just one side effect that is symptomatic of a bigger picture, it can, just maybe, help us to see what our bodies and minds are contending with as a whole. This, in turn, can help us want to be more nurturing of ourselves.
Writing this post, the quote by Henry Maudsley, a psychiatrist, was brought to mind: “Grief that has no vent in tears may make other organs weep.” Given that the skin is an organ, those words could surely be a definition of psoriasis.
It’s a very strange coincidence though, that having scribbled down all of the above in a museum cafe, that I then walked over to the shop, only to find that very same quote in a small book about the artist Tabitha Moses, who has actually produced art work about psoriasis! Synchronicity or what? Her art work on psoriasis is beautiful, delicate and a tad alarming at the same time. (You can see pictures of, and a link to, her work below.)
In conclusion then, the next time you observe “snowflakes” on either yourself or someone else, try to see them for what, in all probability, they are – visible, tangible evidence of someone’s deepest emotions, sadness and fragility. Looking at it from that standpoint, one will see only beauty and feel only sensitivity.
Lovely comments received when this piece was posted on Moodscope.com…
(written for Moodscope. March ’14)
Back in February, an elderly friend of the family passed away suddenly. He had no next of kin and left no will. His house and all its contents were soon to be passed over, unceremoniously, to local government.
Mark, however, also had two cats, whom I know he adored. They were to meet certain doom unless homes could be found and quick. A kindly neighbour took in one and mum and I the other. Binky the elder. (Although, in all honesty, we needed another cat like we needed a hole in the head.)
Poor Binky had already endured a stressful couple of weeks and by the time he arrived here, without anything of everything he had ever known, he was wide eyed with fear.
As we have done with all waifs and strays we’ve helped in the past, we set up a comfy corner in the cellar (it’s a nice cellar) allowing him to become accustomed to us, as well as all the scents and sounds of the house, before introducing him to our two other cats. Alas, all did not go to plan.
We had completely underestimated poor Binky’s terror and he somehow squeezed through a tiny tunnel in the cellar ceiling. This was a new and worrying development.
We left out food and water, of which he availed himself but never when we were around. Two days later, I realised that I could get to Binky by crawling through 3 holes under the floorboards. (Fact: iphones have an excellent built in torch!) Now at the other end of the tunnel, it was still impossible to reach Binky but at least I could now talk to his face. I took care to blink softly at him. (Also known as ‘cat kissey’s’. Never stare at a cat you are trying to befriend. Blink. Fake yawns also indicate friendliness.)
It was a funny thing sat there under the house, amidst dust and soil that hasn’t seen the light of day for well over a century. Sounds from the four floors above became dulled and distorted and yet, in a strange way, noises felt louder and more intimidating. How similar to a depression, I thought. You know there is life going on around you, life you could be part of even, but choked in your own darkness, everything becomes muffled. Inaccessible.
And how too, we ‘bite the hand that feeds us’ so to speak. We may react to well meaning family/friends like an injured, frightened animal – with snarls, hisses, growls; It becomes impossible to distinguish between someone trying to help and someone trying to hurt us, so we feel its safer to withdraw completely.
Well, the saga went on. We had moments of panic. Should we rip up the bathroom floor or tear down the cellar ceiling? As the RSPCA wisely said though, while he has access to food and water and is in no immediate danger, there’s not much to be done but show patience.
Like Binky, when we’re depressed, we’ll run for the dungeon, pull up the drawbridge and withdraw into the darkness. We all know there are things that can help, like eating properly and regularly, but there are some depressions that cling to us like a bad smell and it’s all we can do to just sit tight and allow for it to pass.
After several weeks of frequently sitting in the bowels of the house, blinking and yawning like an idiot, hopes of ever gaining Binky’s trust began to recede. At last, one day, he started to slowly stay, albeit momentarily, out of his hole. Then, all at once, he allowed his barriers to melt. Binky cautiously ate some ham from my hand and the rest was history. Purring as loud as an engine, he seemed determined to make up for all the loneliness he must surely have felt in recent weeks. Jumping on my lap, greeting me enthusiastically. What a beautiful, beautiful moment that was.
Often you know, we humans, demand things, life, feelings, situations, to be fixed. Instantly. Sometimes though, a handful of acceptance and a sprinkling of patience are the requirement of the day. Binky ventured out of his dungeon. And so will we.
Posts maybe a smidgen erratic in the coming weeks folks (yes, I know they already have been. Sorry about that!).
The Sleepy Soul is currently sat at the bottom of her well and there are no reserves. The good news is that I have reached the bottom and now, well, it is “simply” a matter of riding back up to the top, to the daylight, once more. Whenever I reach this place, there is always a sense of déjà vu. I’ve been here oh how many times before. It’s a sign, yet again, that I’ve overdone things, not rested enough, probably eaten rubbish along the way and stopped listening to my body; my feelings.
I stop crafting, drawing, making; I stop seeing. I stop seeking the beauty each day.
The Navajo Indians have it right. They don’t say they are ‘depressed’, instead they say that they are ‘souls accompanied by sadness.’ I rather like the latter version better.
A Spring clean is what is required. Not just of the space I live in (and man, does that need a purge!) but also of my mind and body. I need to strip back everything that is superfluous; unnecessary.
You’ll still find me over on the Moodscope daily blog here and there. And when I come back here, I’ll be taking you to Liverpool’s version of the V&A (kind of), Williamson Tunnels (a labyrinth of underground tunnels in Liverpool), a lesson in tea tasting, aromatherapy and spinning wool and just generally finding beauty amidst the tedium of everyday.
In the meantime, I’m not one to beg but should you visit this site, I wonder, could you help facilitate the Sleepy Soul’s wish to write for a living? ‘Like’, ‘Follow’ or comment, by all means! A quote from the 1995 version of the film ‘Sabrina’ comes to my mind – the one with Harrison Ford:
David Larrabee: [to Linus] When you guys meet her, just try to make me look good. I mean I know I look good, but, you know, try to make me, you know, sound good. Mention my accomplishments, my qualities.[earnest look from Linus]
David Larrabee: You can be creative.[another earnest look]
It was very interesting listening to the splendid Jeremy Vine, on BBC Radio 2, one Tuesday to discover that a discussion was in flow as to whether it is our moral duty to be more aware of our surroundings, in particular, that of bird life.
It was heartening to hear the callers and comments who expressed a love of, and appreciation for the birds, as opposed to those who feel we live in a new era and that ‘times have moved on’ from the days of learning the names of different species of birds, as many once did, as children.
I’m no expert but here are just two reasons why I personally cherish wildlife as well as those who take the time to notice it.
1) Who can fail to be drawn to someone who just seems to know “stuff”? They may not be an expert in Ornithology or go by the name of Monty Don, (for those not acquainted with our lovely Monty, he is famed in the UK for programmes like Gardener’s World on the BBC) but they can tell you a random fact about the life of a blackbird, or mention by the by, that the chamomile flower, in Victorian times meant ‘energy in adversity’. (Oh I love that!) They might pause in mid-conversation to point out a goldfinch or robin foraging nearby. It can disclose a lot about the individual. It may reveal that they are observant, appreciative of the small pleasures in life and are, in all probability, quite gentle company to be around.
2) To not feel lost in wonder at the wildlife around us – and there is nature to be found around us, no matter how built up an area – is to perhaps suggest that we are not in touch with our inner soul. How so? Well, in short, it can be incredibly helpful and soothing to our wellbeing. Here is a list of fleeting moments I’ve enjoyed today alone:
Standing by a tree, alone with my thoughts when I heard enchanting bird song above me. I looked up to see that a robin, was looking right back at me. I think he’d seen my sadness and decided to serenade me. ;o)
Seeing a carpet of crocuses heralding Spring.
Watching wood pigeons (I unashamedly hold a huge soft spot for all pigeons) sweep up an invisible “hill” in the air and swoosh down, like they are on a roller-coaster. It’s obvious they do this for the sheer thrill and joy of it. (Yes, you may not agree but please, leave me in my own little world. I find peace, pleasure and priceless joy in these wee snippets of wildlife ;o) )
Written for Moodscope.com see comments
Some years ago a book plopped through my letter box, a gift from a friend when I was in full blown grief after the loss of my father. It was a delight to receive and has been so well loved and used that some of the pages have actually come loose. It was ‘Cath Kidston’s ‘Tips For Vintage Style’.
I loved that the book inspired you, the reader, to get creative about being creative. I can’t lie, I still enjoy a mooch in a Cath Kidston store, who wouldn’t? It gives ideas and inspiration for our own creative endeavours. But like many, once something becomes high fashion or big brand, I’ve a tendency to recoil slightly and withdraw.
For me, to delve into that book was to escape and embrace the ‘sky is your limit’, ‘I could do that!’ make do ‘n’ mend, thrifting spirit. Now?
Whilst obviously admiring the style and success of the mighty, high street name that Cath Kidston has become, I admire only from a distance. Any urge that rises within to make a purchase in the shop, I suppress by buying a few packets of pretty tissues. (They make for great wee gifts and really, ought not every self-respecting gal possess floral tissues in her bag? It’s surely even more important than matching underwear.)
So, ever in search of the unique, independent or locally made, it was a treat to discover Pennington’s of Slater Street, Liverpool.
The proprietor and purveyor of locally sourced artisan products, Caroline Pennington, told me that the shop was borne out of her own hobby and passion for up-cycling old furniture and creating home textiles. Caroline ended up with a room full of such creations but would, like so many with a talent, only give her treasured labours away as gifts, she was too afraid to sell her work. I’d wager that even Cath Kidston felt the same at some point. This fear of being caught out as a ‘fraud’ seems to be a plight common to so many creative or sensitive souls.
As birds of a feather flock together, Caroline realised that she had friends that were also talented and shared a love for the ‘homemade’. It was time to find a permanent space to sell her wares and those of others.
‘…I attended a few local craft fairs and asked artists whose stuff I really admired if they would be interested in selling their work in my shop – my shop that I hadn’t opened yet!’
There are currently around 20 individuals who have their arts or crafts on sale at Pennington’s but that can change week to week. Next week, there maybe as many as 30.
I was coveting some old glass, dessert dishes in the shape of an apple, still in the original box – perhaps the type my nan would have kept for ‘best’. I was standing in the vintage corner of the shop.
Having a vintage section gives Caroline a chance to still indulge in the thrill of buying up second hand, once loved treasures but with the added joy of being able to sell them on to an equally excited soul.
‘Otherwise, I’d have no room left in my home!’ Says Caroline.
The ultimate goal of Pennington’s, however, is to sell only handmade fare.
‘I’m very excited about a forthcoming collaboration with a dressmaker (Caroline’s patchwork combined with the skills of a dressmaker. Imagine a dapper patchwork waistcoat for your young nephew, for example.) and selling one of a kind, handmade clothes of high quality. I’m especially excited about our plan to have a children’s range. There are handmade shops in Liverpool but there aren’t many places where you can buy unique, handmade, well made clothes.’ Too true.
I leave Caroline sat snugly in her solid wood rocking chair, at an old school desk, under the light thrown out from a large, vintage floral lampshade. This is where her sewing machine is patiently sat, awaiting her nimble fingers to whip up some splendiferous patchwork offering. The scene looks so cosy that Caroline might well be home from home. And what a comely second home it is.
We have learned to cherish the old again. We adore all things vintage; natty tatters with a tale. So what’s next? To take homemade and put it in our hearts and mindset. I’ll always gain pleasure from a perusal in Cath Kidston but it, like every other high street brand, is generic and mass produced. Going the handmade route feels altogether more satisfying for a sensitive soul. How so? Well, apart from it arguably being more green and ethical, observing the intricate work of someone’s fingers bears witness to the love and care that has gone into each individual product. The pellucid quality and painstaking detail of ‘homemade’ means you are purchasing something for life and not simply until the ‘high of the buy’ has worn off – which, often, is all too quick.
I love making my own gifts and presents, whether it be when visiting friends from outside Liverpool or ‘just because’, or, for the special occasions of weddings, births and anniversaries. As I’ve said before, living creatively keeps me well. Sadly though, it’s true, we don’t always have the energy and if we have the energy, perhaps we don’t have the time. The next best thing? Definitely someone else’s handmade. So c’mon, let’s not allow the likes of Columbia Rd, London, E2 to have all the fun! Let’s support local handmade and get down to Pennington’s!
I think you will also love Land Baby of Bluecoat Chambers.
Books: My favourite ‘handmade’ book at the moment is Granny Chic by Dottie Angel and Ted&Agnes. It’s as ticketyboo as a ‘how to’ book gets and no matter how sleepy I’m feeling, it never fails to inspire. Never ever. Never.
I’d love to see a book in the future entitled: ‘Pennington’s’ and it would contain a wee pen portrait of each of the artists or crafters selling there and each would give a simple, ‘I could do that’, lesson on making something unique and handmade.
I treasure sharing a fleeting moment in time with a stranger. A shared joke on the train, a warm smile, asking someone a question, offering a compliment or a simple exchange of words. I bow as leave a person or salute them. (Withdrawing from a phlebotomist recently, I bowed farewell. He was an Indian chap and became very excited. Apparently, I’d bestowed great respect upon him. That was a lovely moment. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I have the habit of bowing to everyone.) I’m definitely an introvert but find human interaction and contact, with fellow citizens of the planet, an absolute pleasure. Rarely do I feel close to any one person but seem to prefer a general friendliness with everyone.
It’s probably for all of the above reasons that I love the blog, Humans of New York (you can follow it on instagram too). HONY is a photographer who goes out each day amidst the hubbub of New York and takes photographs of the people in the Big Apple. What pulls you in though, is the comments made by these people in response to a question the photographer, Brandon, has thrown at them. Many of the comments are so poignant. A pithy statement that can really pack a punch.
I think it’s actually the sadness of some the comments that I’m drawn to. Just like my own wee encounters with unknown folk, it makes me feel less desolate in my own heart. The blog shows old folk to be anything but invisible, young people to be wise, grieving or depressed souls to be beautiful and the frail, strong.
Ah human contact. It’s the stuff that makes us feel Hope. Every city ought to have a Brandon. Or maybe, they already do?
Written for http://www.moodscope.com
Do you sometimes feel like you are a mass of contradictions? Ditto!
I feel strong and yet feel that at any moment, I may snap in two. I’m happy to interact with strangers but put me in room full of people I know, I feel panic. I live a very solitary life, yet, in some senses, I can be quite extroverted. I’m calm and laid back, yet ever anxious. I’m dog weary and yet possess energy. Going to bed, I often feel like I did the day before the start of a new school term – I want the world to end so that I don’t have to go through with it. Yet, I push forward with life, scared of missing anything.
I despair at life and yet I love it with equal passion. I feel sadness in everything. I see beauty in everything.
Living and loathing life with equal passion is a delicate and sticky deal. It’s like trying to take a tortoise for a walk at the same time as a lively puppy. It’s frustrating and wearisome for all involved. When there are two parts of you, complete opposites, constantly vying for supremacy, it’s hardly a recipe for emotional equilibrium. I want to ‘dance as if no one is watching’ and yet I want to fall to my knees and howl at the sadness and disappointments of life.
No other human will ever understand you as you understand you. Plus, understanding how complex and contradictory you are can lead to a greater understanding and empathy of others, not to mention, help forge peace with your biggest nemesis – yourself!
I like me. I dislike me. But I’ll always be me. Better to nurture the former then because I sure can’t take a holiday from myself.
Written for Moodscope.com, 2014