To which she replied, “Do you really want to know?”
I laughed, caught in my cultural blitheness of expecting her to reply, “Good, and you?” And then I apologized. She went on to say that when she first moved to the states she was always thrown by how people never seemed to actually want to know how she was doing when asked that question. She said her husband told her it was just a figure of speech meant to be polite and to not actually expect any deeper conversation.
We both laughed as we went into our class, but it made me think of how easily I have fallen into the habit of asking people how they are when we meet and telling them to have a good day when we part. I used to be super sensitive to that script and instead would always tell people “It’s good to see you” when we said hello and “Take care” when we parted. But I’ve gotten lax, and I’m aware that I want to go back to that more tender way of being with people. I want to be more aware in my comings and goings and to make an effort to only ask that question if I have the time to hear the answer.
It reminds me of living in Nepal for a semester when I was in college, and how it took me a bit to get used to people asking me all the time if I wanted tea. I would stop by a house or shop and they would say in Nepalese, “Chia canabyaoo?” Which translates to, “Have you had tea?” To which the expected reply was, “No, chia canabayo.” Which was equivalent of saying, “No, I haven’t had tea, and thank you I would love to sit and have a cup with you and chat before we do anything else.” It was a cultural aphorism. You weren’t expected to say that you had tea at the last house or already drank two cups at the shop on the way to language class. You were expected to say hello for a few minutes, accept the warmth of a cup of tea, even just a sip, and take it as communion.
I miss those days of sitting and drinking tea ten times a day, and I definitely could have used that cultural kindness when I was grieving the death of my husband. There were days that I really wanted to believe when the gas station attendant, or the school secretary, or the busy grocer checker asked me how I was, that they actually did want to know that my husband had died and that I was feeling a bit shaky. I would have loved to sit down for a cup of tea and tell them the world had stopped. I wanted someone to know that the idea of shopping or getting gas or dropping a child off at school seemed inane in the face of the tragedy of losing my husband to cancer.
I wanted someone to comfort me, to hold me, to listen to me, and to tell the story of his passing over and over again for days, months, and now years. I wanted to believe that it mattered that he died. I wanted to think that perhaps I shouldn’t get up and do the laundry or feed the dog or plant the garden. I wanted the world to stop and for everyone to listen and cry too.
So I ask you if you happen to be struggling in this moment, “Have you had tea?” Have you had the chance to sit down with someone over the warmth of a cup of tea and tell your story of today? I know you are “fine.” I know you are “good.” I know you are doing the best you can with all the trials life has thrown you. I know you rise every morning grateful for the things that support you in your life. I know you are stronger than you ever imagined, and that carrying on is the only logical choice. I know you will have a moment sometime today that makes you smile or makes you feel confident even if you can’t label the whole day as a triumphant success. I know that you are a courageous, incredible person who will face this challenge or time of grief and somehow in the stillness of your heart choose to continue living. I know all that. I know you will use the tools you’ve learned to cope. I know you will put on your strength each morning to face the waves of sorrow that will batter your small ship. I know you will survive the waves of grief.
What I want to know is, “How do you do it each day?” What is the one small thing that keeps you moving and growing and choosing this life even without that one precious person who for right now seems like they were the only thing that made life worth living? I want to know who they were, who you were with them, and now who you are as you move forward. And if it isn’t the loss of someone but rather some other circumstance that touched your heart, I want to know that also. How you are coping with illness or the loss of a job or the transition to something that feels new and challenging? I want to know if you will sit down for tea and tell me or someone close to you how it is you really, really, really are doing so that we can get past the pain and into the inspiration. It’s there, waiting, just beyond a cup of tea.