In Isolation with Mama Alto

Location: On Bunurong & Wurundjeri land, Kulin Nations (Melbourne, Australia)

I’ve been thinking about a time when I was quite young, when, after the sudden death of a close friend, I found it impossible to leave my bed for days and days. I wondered how I could ever move forward with my life, let alone get out of bed, shower, or get dressed.

One morning, my father leaned his head into my room. Quietly, almost nervously, he said, “I will bring you a cup of tea?” 

I whimpered what must have been an almost comprehensible yes, and he paused in the doorway. 

“Do you want a special tea, or do you want normal tea?”

To us, normal tea was a supermarket tea bag, Twinings or Bushells or Liptons, consumed black with a couple of sugars. The kind you’d have throughout the day, every day and any day. And special tea was anything else: green tea, herbal tea, fancy blends, aromatic tea, tisanes with zing and panache. Tea for specific tastes and moods or special occasions. 

In my grief-haze, barely present and half-asleep (but without having truly slept for days), when my father asked if I wanted a normal tea, with the lilting traces of his Javanese-Indonesian accent, it sounded like a different question entirely: “Do you want normality?” 

Some people measure their days in meals: breakfast time, lunch time, dinner time, sleep, and repeat. I measure mine by cups of tea—a far more intuitive ebb and flow process, responding to temperature, emotion, the weather, the task at hand. To drink tea is more a state of mind than an arbitrary point on a clock.

I love food, don’t get me wrong. I adore to eat. But my relationship with food is complex. Having gut disabilities—bad digestion, malabsorption, inability to process many foods, inflammation and pain—can interrupt the pleasure of eating, and mealtimes sometimes become an exercise in complex equations and formulae, or like navigations of treacherous seas. But simple black tea has never betrayed me in that way. 

In times of crisis, mindfulness becomes a mantra and rituals become security. As we shelter in our homes, this has become more apparent than ever. 

But I’ve never been able to meditate. My brain rebels, suddenly contrarian when usually it’s quite content to muddle along to my whims. Mindfulness colouring books bring out my inner perfectionist, jigsaw puzzles riddle me with anxiety. But the act of making tea—the physical ritual of filling the kettle, watching the gentle puffs of steam as the water boils, listening to it bubble and gurgle—somehow stills my mind. 

There is comfort in the quiet, small, domestic certainty. The world may be chaos but water, when boiled, will always let forth that small cloud of steam. Tea leaves, when added, will gradually change the colour and taste of the water to an amber glow or a dark burnt umber. No matter how miserable, distracted, angry or in pain I might be, the sensation of tea rushing over my lips immediately puts me in a state of deep contentment—a tiny moment of stability, of something sure and certain in the midst of crisis.

My father had already guessed that normal tea was precisely what I needed in that moment, and had brought one with him. Beyond the immediate comfort of warmth, of flavour, of aroma, drinking that cup of tea prompted an immense realisation and shift in me. 

In my darkest moments, when I felt beyond low, when the mean reds had a hold on me, or when I was lost in grief or struggling with depression or battling panic, I did not need to wonder how I could make it through each day. All I needed was to know that I could make it until the next cup of tea.

Some people find that they can have that one key touchstone to help them when executive function is hard to grasp. Some people swear by making the bed, or drinking a glass of water. Some force themselves to shower. These are small gestures, small pauses in the bustle and business of life, small reliefs from whatever crisis might be at hand. 

For me, knowing that all I need to do is flick a switch on an electric kettle, and I can focus for just a moment, means I can continue and endure, pick myself up, and begin again. One tea at a time.

By Mama Alto