The clock radio comes on playing "Lover Please," from 1962. Swing tempo, brassy saxophone, handclaps like an R&B reveille. You can hear echoes of his gospel days in Clyde McPhatter's pleading:
Lover please, please come back Don't take a train comin' down the track Don't, please don't, don't leave me Don't leave me in misery
It sounds like it's coming from another dimension. Our bedmate gropes for the snooze button. We get up to make tea.
Our mornings always have a surreal, Groundhog Day feel to them. The alarm goes off at the same time every day. We wake up like a chloroformed kidnap victim coming to. Groggy. Confused. We negotiate. We resist. We eventually get up. Slide into flip-flops, head downstairs. Cold water in the tea kettle. Blue flame. Go pee. Measure two teaspoons of tea into the teapot. Get the milk out. Wait for the kettle to whistle.
Coffee is great for an afternoon pick-me-up, but it's too much for us in the morning. Coffee grabs you by the lapels and shakes you. Oily and bitter in an already dry mouth, its acidity is harsh on an empty stomach. Better to ease our way into the day with a cup of tea.
It's important, though, that it be a nice cup of tea. As with anything else, once you get on the good stuff, you find you can't go back. The difference between good loose-leaf tea and the pulverized dust that comes in individual bags is as vast as the difference between a crusty, artisanal loaf of sourdough and Wonder Bread.
The tea brewing in our cast-iron teapot is called Ancient Forest. It comes from centuries-old tea trees in a remote Hmong village in Southeast Asia. Traveling Tea describes this Fair Trade organic black tea as "smooth and malty." In addition to selling its wares online, the St. Louis-based company has its products in a couple of stores around town, as well as at several farmers' markets.
We like to buy straight from the source, owner Kateri Meyer, at the Tower Grove Farmers' Market. Meyer is engaging and knowledgeable, quick to offer suggestions and has even made custom blends in response to specific customer requests. Also, in a brilliant example of vertical integration, she shares tent space with Queen's Cuisine, where one can buy scones, tea breads and other baked goods that pair splendidly with a spot of tea.
The practice of preparing and consuming tea has long been steeped (ahem) in ritual. The Brits have the pomp and circumstance, the Japanese the elaborate precision, but neither tradition contains more beauty than our little morning routine. We wrap the teapot in a kitchen towel for insulation and go back to bed. We sit and sip our tea, saucer resting on our belly. This is the best part of the morning. (Sometimes the best part of the whole day.)
Between asleep and fully awake is a calm that exists nowhere else. In the partial light of the bedroom with the curtains closed, it has the same quality that an airport departure gate, a blank page and a cocked slingshot have in common. Everything is still, full up with potential energy, soon to be kinetic. It is quiet. Soon the chattering voice inside our head will rouse up and start with the running commentary. Our mind will catalogue all the things to be done, plot and plan, hope and worry, but not yet.