TEA ILLUMINATO,James Norwood Pratt, and his lovely Lady Valerie invited me over to share tea and Evensong this week. Evensong is an enchanting, half-hour, weekday afternoon ritual of music and prayer held at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral onNob Hill. Our mutual love of Camelia sinensis combines well with our shared interest in ritual, prayer, devotion,and music, and creates a magical afternoon that some can only dream of.
To enter Norwood and Valerie's home in North Beach is to discover a temple of tea and culture. The aura of literature and art, with its books, busts, and religious icons, wash over the visitor like fragrant notes of a fine tea.
Norwood is devoted--to tea and more deeply and personally, to his sense of the more subtle structures of the universe with its sky-blue porcelain gods, earth-green teas, and amber-brown, leather-clad beckonings of Goethe. Valerie is a lovely English woman whose gentle and intelligent bearing remind one that femininity is both strong and soft. With ember-red hair, and a liquid awareness about her blue eyes, Valerie offers perhaps more with her attentive and quiet demeanor as most others do with their many words.
What moves me most about Norwood is not only the depth of his knowledge about tea, history, art and literature, but the depth of his spirit. His Southern manners prevent him from flaunting his sturdy intellect, so it slowly seeps into you like a soft, fine mist. I get the sense that he will meet whatever level of mental faculty is offered by his companion, but his gentle kindness and humility would not permit him to brandish overly rigorous thoughts that might elude or intimidate his guest.
Despite his bearing of refinement, Norwood is also magnificently irreverent. One of my favorite art pieces in Norwood's home is a clay cast bust (made by San Francisco sculptor Harriet Moore) of Norwood himself, sporting a large, floppy English afternoon tea hat which Norwood has apparently placed on its head. Norwood loves to poke fun at himself, and this makes him not only endearing inside his gigantic persona as the country's foremost tea expert, but more approachable as well.
Valerie offers me the best seat in the living room, a red leather, high-backed chair facing the San Francisco Bay with its toy sailboat views. We try our first tea, a 2008 spring harvest Tung Ting oolong, which I brought with me as an offering. Norwood steeps the tea in a lovely white porcelain vessel, custom designed by his friend, Jason Chen, who is the owner of Lu Yu Tea in Bellevue, Washington. The infuser looks like a tall tea cup with an elongated filter. We drink from large white porcelain tea cups, antiques seemingly worn with the ancient sipping of old Chinese tea drinkers. The tea is delicious, and Norwood approves. He is especially pleased, as he has been focusing intently on oolongs for the past six months, he says. I breathe easier, and the level of revelry between us swirls and rises.
We then try a very special tea, Golden Lily, from Lu Yu Tea. This tea was really spectacular. Just a few kilos of this organically grown and hand-processed tea is made available, and then only to tea maker Jason Chen's closest friends. Apparently Chen owns many hectares of land in the Zhejiang and Fujian provinces of China, where he oversees the growing, harvesting, and processing of his own organic teas. The tea label includes information on the tea's origin, altitude at which it was grown, harvest season, and steeping suggestions--all the information a connoisseur would want to know about a tea (s)he is purchasing. We finish with a lovely Te Kuan Yin, an homage to the goddess Norwood reveres.
"So what makes a great tea, Norwood?", I ask.
"In my opinion, the tea plant is the highest form of vegetation. It is always a combination of heaven, earth, and man -- heaven being everything above ground, earth being the ground and everything below it, and of course, the influence of man relates to the growing, harvesting, processing and brewing of the tea plant. A great tea is made when all three of these factors combine, each at their best and in perfect harmony with each other."
Two hours of discussion and tea evanesce into wisps of fine memories, and we hasten out the door to walk up the hill to Grace Cathedral, which is both grand and graciously welcoming, like my hosts. We sit in chairs on the altar, right by the Grace Men & Boys Choir. Hearing the child voices mingle with adult voices creates a wonderful wand of energy passing over the church. Together, Norwood, Valerie and I sing and pray, voices lifted to the lovely arched ceilings and stained glass masterpieces.
As we leave, Norwood pays respects to a special corner of the cathedral that holds a statue of "Saint" John Donne. "Now this is the kind of saint I can really pray to," says Norwood. "You wouldn't want to trust praying to a saint that was always only good. Donne is the saint of writers and poets," he says with a bemused smile, and gently bows to St. John Donne.