The only thing I consume as often as books is tea. A box of tea, like a good novel, usually lasts me about a week; by that point I am sick of the characters and ready for a new flavor. Yet I buy my tea in boxes, and it always seems wasteful to throw away so much cardboard. And so a few years ago I developed a strategy for my reading and drinking lives: I began cutting up tea boxes into book marks—four per box—and using them to mark my place.
My tea-drinking habits have changed as I have moved around the globe. When I lived in New York I would drink steaming cups of Celestial Seasonings Swiss Mint, and with good literary precedent – this was also Ruth Puttermesser’s favorite flavor. My childhood bedroom walls are still plastered with the inspirational quotes I cut out from the backs of the Celestial Seasonings boxes, and once, in high school, I even wrote to the company headquarters in Boulder Colorado to suggest various literary selections. They responded by sending me free coupons for their newest flavor, which kicked off a teenage habit of writing suggestion letters to companies. (Somewhere in my files I have responses from Nutri-Grain (does the locust bean gum you list in your ingredients really contain locusts?!), M&Ms (before there was green, I suggested it), and Pringles potato chips (who responded to my complaint about the paucity of green flakes on the Sour Cream and Onion chips by sending me a case of eight free containers, which arrived on our doorstep one week before Pesach.) With time, I like to think that I have become a healthier eater; the one constant has been the steaming mug of tea that accompanies nearly every meal.
In England, I tried to learn to drink Earl Grey with milk after I made the mistake of inviting an esteemed Cambridge don to tea – only to find him horrified that my refrigerator contained neither milk nor clotted cream. (He was unimpressed by my dainty little cucumber sandwiches – apparently being earnest is far less important that knowing how to serve a proper brew.) After most of my British literature seminars, all the students would retire to the local pub. I had never drunk a glass of beer or even a social glass of wine, and I quickly learned that ordering tea in the Red Lion or the King’s Arms was simply not done.
In Israel, I lament the weakness of Wissotzky and need to put two tea bags in every glass I drink. I have read in the novels of Meir Shalev that early Russian immigrants to Israel used to hold sugar cubes between their teeth as they sipped their tea, but I cannot adopt that habit; I often drink tea while snacking on gummy candies (which explains a lifetime of dental woes), but the sweetness must always be outside of the mug. If anything, I put slices of lemon in my tea, a habit I learned from my mother, who also relishes the bittersweet. In Israel I drink tea with every single meal, since I still can’t get used to the taste of the water but also can’t be bothered with all the wastefulness that bottled water entails. Once, during a particularly long dark teatime of my soul, a friend served me loose leaf tea from the shuk, offering me her own blend of tea and sympathy. It was the best tea I’ve ever drunk, and I’ve purchased it several times since; unfortunately, though, each time I drink that tea I am overcome by a flood of memories so intense that I cannot abide another sip.
I suspect that my rate of tea consumption outpaces the rate at which I lose bookmarks, since I have an entire top desk drawer filled with cut-up tea bookmarks waiting (along with New Yorker subscription cards) to be called up for reserve duty. Sometimes, if I do not want to write in the copy of the book I am reading, I scribble notes on the back of the tea box cut-out and then shelve the bookmark along with the book, as an index to my favorite passages. My grandmother, who used to review books professionally, did this as well – the books from her personal library not only reek of her sweet perfume, but are also stuffed with torn-up sheets of paper with her scribblings, which she used as both post-its and bookmarks. In many books I have finished, though, I do not need bookmarks: I have a favorite passage that I quote so frequently that the book naturally falls open to that place when I open the front cover, as if it knows just what I am seeking.
In my current apartment I have a reading couch with a ledge that perfectly balances a cup of tea. I like to spend several hours each Shabbat steeped in a good book besides a steaming mug, my own celestial taste of the world to come.