I’M SO PROUD of my tea assistant, Mr. Blank. He’s been a patient of mine for almost three years, arriving at our rehabilitation center in the summer of 2012. He stayed with us for four months before returning to his home state on the east coast, but ended up in jail soon after his discharge for assaulting his ex-wife. Knowing his history, and with sincere interest in his welfare, the authorities agreed to transfer him back to our center where he could receive appropriate treatment for his aggression. He was very fortunate. I’ve no doubt there are many men like him, with similar histories, imprisoned for similar offenses all over this country. In his first twenty-five years of life he’s endured more than most of us ever will — all manner of abuse, traumatic brain injury, incarceration — so ending up where he did after being arrested was a rare stroke of good fortune for him. He’s been my tea assistant for seven months.His job is to fill up the electric kettle with water just before 11:00 each Tuesday, to align the four tables in the center of the Peaceful Habits classroom, and to unroll the bamboo placemats and place them on the tables. That way, when my 10:30 appointment in the conference room is over, I can walk over and start my group at 11:00 sharp. He’s really taken to the role. Sometimes he wears a lavender tie for the occasion.
I ALWAYS START the group by preparing two small pots of tea, and together we go through our senses one by one, tuning into each channel of our experience of the tea, beginning with our sense of hearing. When the water has reached the boiling point, Mr. Blank asks for a moment of silence as he pours the water from the kettle into first one teapot then the other, and we listen to the tinkles he makes. He pours the tea into the teacups and helps me serve it to the participants. When we’ve all seen and smelled and touched and tasted the tea, he polls the group to determine the winning flavor. He mops up any spills with a towel.
When the hour’s over, we collect all the teacups, the teapots, the wet tea leaves, the tea spoon, the towels, the strainer, and he stacks them onto a tray. “Mindfully,” I always remind him when he lifts the loaded tray. Then I hold the door open for him to walk through.
It’s a short trip from the classroom to the kitchen, where we rinse the teapots and wash the teacups together, but it’s a veritable obstacle course. Imagine a school building just after the bell for lunch recess has sounded, except the hallways are clogged with confused men in bulky wheelchairs, amputees wearing helmets and women advancing walkers. I walk a few steps ahead of him to clear a path through the commotion, shouting COMING THROUGH when necessary to alert people to our presence. At first Mr. Blank would join in and start beeping and making honking sounds like those cart drivers at airports, no doubt hoping to shine a spotlight on himself and heighten the drama of the precarious procession, but after a few gentle reminders to leave it to me do the path-clearing, he got the message. Now he focuses his whole attention on the tea tray and his footsteps until we arrive safely at the kitchen sink.
AFTER WE UNLOAD the dishes, he lines the tea tray with sheets of fresh paper towel. Then he receives the teacups one by one as I wash them and places them with precision upside down on the tea tray. If I try to rush him — I must admit, it eats into my lunch hour — he resists, preferring to make sure that every tea leaf has been wiped into the sink drain, every tea cup has been optimally stacked. I’m so proud of my tea assistant because now that I’ve taught him how to probe the stubborn tea leaves from the holes of the ceramic teapot basket with a toothpick, he won’t walk the tea tray back to the classroom until he’s ensured that every tea leaf has been gently yet dutifully eliminated.
When people ask me to speak to their group, they always want to know more about the latest medications and the newest technologies in the treatment of traumatic brain injury. Those things are important, but often the best medicine is not a designer medication, and the latest technology is absolutely irrelevant. In Mr. Blank’s case, I’ve made as much progress with tea and toothpicks as I’ve made with anything else.