When I tell people that I do tea ceremony, one of the questions I get most often is “How did you get into that?”
The short answer is pretty straightforward: When I was a student at La Salle University, they had undergraduate courses in tea ceremony. I took the course and really loved it, so I kept practicing.
But really, my fascination with tea started long before then. When I was in my early teens, I remember reading an article in the paper about tea ceremony. I was so fascinated by the idea of an entire ritual built around drinking tea that I clipped out the article and had it hanging on my wall for years afterward.
Was it fate that life brought me to the one place in the Philadelphia area – heck, in the state of Pennsylvania – that I could actually learn about tea ceremony? When I applied, I didn’t even know about the tea ceremony program there. To be honest, at the time, I’m not sure it would have made a difference. When I signed up for the course, I was curious more than anything else.
My earliest experience in chanoyu was unusual for a tea person – learning tea in the context of a college course where there was classroom work and essays as well as hands-on instruction. My first teacher was Brother Joseph Keenan, one of the Christian Brothers at La Salle. He started learning tea at the New York branch of the Urasenke tea school, and later spent time studying at Urasenke’s headquarters in Kyoto. He had a great sense of humor, and he was always making jokes. It made the class seem much easier, even though he was as strict as any other teacher. I remember back in my room I put together mock tea utensils with whatever I could find, and I kept practicing until I got everything right. At the end of the course, when we had our tea “finals,” I did the tray-style tea from beginning to end with only one mistake (I forgot to turn around and bow at the very end). I still remember what a feeling of accomplishment that was – and how hard it seemed to get through that one temae (tea procedure). I still do that temae, but now it seems so easy!
It’s funny, but looking back, I don’t remember what it was that inspired me to ask about continuing studies after the course was over. Maybe it was a beauty of the movements, or the ritualistic aspects, or the taste of the tea. Maybe it was just a whim.
As I progressed in my studies, the tearoom became my safe zone – a space away from the stress of classes and my part-time job, where I could sit and relax and not worry about anything else for a while. I don’t think I realized until much later how much I needed that.