Friday, November 11, 2011

Drinking Tea for Memories, My Memories of Tea in the Dining Hall, and a Wish

I'm scheduling this post for 11:11 on 11/11/11, because it contains a wish.

This post is inspired by a post by Ken Macbeth, on lahikmajoedrinkstea, titled Red Rose memories. The post relays a story from Cara in Cleveland about her grandmother, and memories she has of drinking Red Rose Tea.

Cara talks about how she does not actually like the taste of Red Rose Tea, but she finds that it brings back pleasant memories of her grandmother, and drinks it more for the memories than for anything else.

Aromas in particular can be some of the most powerful agents at conjuring up vivid memories from our past. Tea, stimulating multiple senses, but primarily manifesting itself in the sense of smell, has a particularly rich potential to bring back memories in this way.

A memory of mine:

I touched on this topic very early in my tea blog, in my post how I became interested in tea, but a formative experience in my life, and the place where I first started to deliberately sample different teas (not to mention a broad range of foods) was the dining hall at Oberlin College, where I went for undergrad. Pictured here is one of the few pictures I have from this period of my life:

This photo was taken with a manual camera and scanned into the computer years later; when I started college, digital cameras were virtually unheard of; they cost thousands of dollars and I had never even seen one. When I graduated, I received my first digital camera, evidence of the changing times.

I loved the dining hall at Oberlin college.

Why did I like the dining halls at Oberlin so much?

  • I found it very easy to meet people in the dining hall. Often, it would happen with little effort: I would sit with one friend or with a table of familiar friends, and then new people would join the table, and we would introduce ourselves or be introduced. Even when I went into a dining hall alone, I found it was often easy to meet people. If I sat alone, people would often join me, and if I approached a stranger or table of strangers, they were nearly always open to me joining them and starting a conversation. I met more people in the dining hall than any other way in college.

  • I could always go to the dining hall, alone, unplanned, and I could be virtually certain of running into people I knew. This imparted a sense of stability and security to my life, at a time when I had moved out to a new place where I knew almost no one and had no established friendships.

  • The dining hall was a reliable source of stimulating intellectual conversation. I never knew what to expect, but it was nearly always interesting. Often, people would talk about their classes, and through these conversations, I got exposed to knowledge and intellectual ideas from courses that I would never take and academic fields that I would never have any direct involvement in.

  • The dining hall was a place where practical knowledge was exchanged. People would talk about courses to take and professors to seek out or avoid. Classmates would talk about math and physics problems they were stuck on, musicians would talk about technique, expressiveness, and pieces they loved or hated to play, people would talk about where they wanted to live next year. In more intimate conversations, people would talk about relationships or their own personal life struggles. People would talk about anything and everything.

  • The dining hall was highly democratic, a place where there were no pretences of social status, where everyone was an equal. Everyone had to wait in lines and eat the same food, and everyone had the same choices. And the choices were almost always good enough that you could, sometimes with effort, secure a healthy, well-balanced meal.

At times, I really miss the dining hall. I've spent a large portion of my life after college eating alone, and when I eat with people, it's often with just one person. Currently, I am self-employed, but even when I've worked for large employers, I've often eaten alone. I've been shocked to see how many people in America eat lunch at their desks (Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal writes a great post about why this is a terrible idea), or worse, don't even eat at all. Many parts of my life after college have seemed like a desert to me, a lot like this photograph here, which I took in the American southwest, when I drove across the country:

Furthermore, I have found that getting together with people out in the "real world" requires a great deal of effort. I need to plan ahead, and this planning requires work, a commitment of time and energy. I have been unable to find community gathering places that recreate the sort of stimulating and wholesome environment that I found in the college dining hall. And I know that this dearth of spaces (physical and temporal) to connect with other human beings is not good for me, nor is it good for anyone. As political alarmists and reactionaries would like to say:


I'm not joking here though.

My wish:

I'm hoping that people can read this and feel inspired, and moved to do their part to make the world more like the dining hall at Oberlin college. I want people to think: "That dining hall sounds awesome! I would love to have environments like that in my life!" My wish is that our world would have more environments like this, not just for me, but for all people.

The world is the way it is because of our collective thoughts, decisions, and behaviors. If we are open to meeting new people, we make the environment around us one in which it is easier for people to meet each other. If we create common spaces where people can go to eat with friends in a causal, relaxed atmosphere, then those spaces will exist in society and will be there as a support net for people who need these sorts of spaces. But if we judge others by social status, we move the environment in our social sphere more in this direction. And if we associate only with our existing clique of friends, we make the social environment around us more closed. On the other hand, if we engage in stimulating intellectual conversation with those around us, we create a stimulating intellectual environment around us. We can push things either in a positive or negative direction through the choices we make.

But there's only so much I can do in the short-term. One way I feel better is by remembering the happy times in the past, and the feelings of connectedness and purpose that these times were characterized by. And one way I can do this is by drinking tea.

Tea in the Dining Hall:

Back to tea...which teas did I drink in the dining hall? I drank Bigelow tea, specifically, their flavored teas and their herbal teas, including Earl Grey, Constant Comment, Plantation Mint, Mint Medley, and many others. But there is one of these that I drank more often than the rest: Sweet Dreams Herbal Tea, and because I drank it so often in this dining hall, it is the (herbal) tea that brings back the most memories. This effect is so strong that even drinking similar teas such as ShanTeas Lotus Wisdom (a blend also combining peppermint, hibiscus, and chamomile) produces this same effect.

How about you?

What teas evoke memories for you, and what memories do they remind you of? Do you like college dining halls? Was your college dining hall like the one I described? Have you found that sort of environment elsewhere in your life? Do you have any novel ideas for how to find or create that sort of environment?


  1. My friends and I used to go to the dining hall to the tune of 25-40 of us at a time. I'd already left school to start work, but lived in the same town and would keep a partial meal plan just to spend this time with them. It was seriously the most fun two years of my life, because the conversations were diverse, enjoyable and it truly something to look forward to. And no, I have no real life parallels.

    I didn't get into tea until a few years ago, so this wasn't on my radar as a college student.

  2. hi Alex mate,
    my name is Mike and I am from Manchester,U.K. A good book for you to read is "The Art of Conversation". It discusses how to mutually benefit from spoken communication.
    I agree completely about memories influencing feelings.I drink very strong Assam Black tea because my grandmother drank it, putting 3 teaspoons of it into a pint mug and adding boiling water to brew it.That was before teabags were invented of course and I still won't use them.

  3. Love your description of memory-evoking times in your college dining hall. Taking time to recall pleasant experiences from days gone by is important. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. My experience both during and after college was almost the reverse of yours. Having said that, I feel most of us do not have enough to do with our neighbors, we just don't spend time with them. I don't mean friends, I mean just the people who live around us. I am trying to be better about that, but for one who is a real introvert, that is difficult. We have been on a search to find a church to attend. It is hard to feel positive about 1 when we are there for 6 weeks and any converstion is started by us.
    However, tea for me almost always conjures up warm memories of family and friends that I have shared the brew with. From college days in forbidden hot pots to yesterday. I guess it is a multi-layered experience in that way.

  5. That's interesting that you had a very different experience during college...I'd be curious to hear what your experience was like. I wonder how much of it has to do with the particular college, how much with the different times / generation, and how much with just your own unique personality and experience.

    I also have struggled with those issues of visiting churches and finding it hard to have conversation with people there. I have also found some churches where people will approach me and talk to me, and seem superficially very friendly, but the conversations are brief and fleeting, and it is hard for me to talk about anything of substance.

    I love people and sometimes I like small talk but often, when I go to a church, it is a reflective and spiritual experience for me, and I find the service or sermon provokes a lot of thought and reflection, so it's unnatural for me to just go and have superficial small talk at the coffee hour. I'd rather have people talk less, but talk deeper. What I really love is when people say: "Wow, what he/she said about X, Y, and Z really resonated with me." or "I was kind of confused by what the pastor said about..." I can understand many people are much more private than me, but I find it very hard to be around people who want to make small talk when I'm in a spiritual and reflective mindset and mood, and intensely thinking about deep issues that the church service brought up, which is usually how I respond to a meaningful church service.

  6. I agree, Alex, that our table at Stevenson stimulated a lot of intellectual and personal conversations. However different we were at Oberlin, we all found something in common to talk about. So often on places like facebook, comments degenerate into political grievances, posturing, and a moaning tone of the overly emotional American. Also, I can relate to eating alone at work.

    It was so refreshing to sit down with people and find mutual interests. I agree, it's difficult to find a group of people now that meets the characteristics of that group. We always enjoyed the company, the break from study, and of course the continuing dialogue on a wide range of topics.

    12-13 years later, I'm really glad that we all met and influenced each other. It did make us think differently, and appreciate the perspectives of others. I find it interesting how much we all had in common, and how interesting that Oberlin created such a unique group of young adults to change each other.

    Now onto drinking tea. I've grown a liking for Yogi Kombucha Green Tea. I highly recommend it, as odd as that might sound.