The Season of Tea

I’m sad for the end of October. It’s my favorite month for so many reasons, not the least of which is a burst of productivity that usually follows as the children settle into their routine and I into mine.

But this October was busier than I would have liked. Too many other responsibilities kept me from my usual month of writing furiously. Next year, I need to protect October.

So now November, and the Season of Tea begins (for me anyway).

I love coffee. Anyone who knows me, even online, knows that I love coffee.

I love it with a mostly-uncomplicated devotion. It has been a constant in my life for over 20 years, and I love the taste, the smell, the ritual of grinding and brewing, the swirl of milk, and the first hot sip.

Certainly coffee comes in different incarnations (espresso drinks, Turkish, Thai, café au lait, etc.), but for me it is a spectrum of one similar and familiar flavor. There are some beans I love more than others, and there are definitely bad cups of coffee. But for all the subtle nuances of roast and blend, I rarely attribute a memory to a particular cup of coffee. Instead they fall under the larger category of “memories of coffee and conversation.”

Tea, on the other hand, is more distinct. I have many favorites, and each has a taste and smell that brings me back to specific times in my life:

Lipton tea with honey is a Thanksgiving memory, served in a glass teapot by my mother’s mother with our desserts at the family table.

Maté tea, strong and earthy from Argentina, reminds me of tea with my first love and his parents in their apartment in the Ukrainian Village.

Earl Grey brings to mind black cast iron kettles and tiny cast iron mugs enjoyed during college, usually at the Bourgeois Pig Cafe in Lincoln Park. I was so impressed with their wall of teas from around the world, each in its own large glass canister. I would open each, pick one that suited my mood.

Vanilla rooibus tea evokes Autumn in Frankfurt, Germany, with my friend Al. I need only to open a box, and I can be remember sitting with her, talking about the joy of travel and trials of motherhood.

Loose leaf English Breakfast steeped in a china teapot and sweetened with sugar enjoyed with my Russian friend and her daughter on cozy afternoon teas in their Gurnee kitchen.

The best Indian Chai was savored with my Indian friends in their Frankfurt apartment during our second time in Germany. Such hospitality and delicious food, such beauty in their homes and preparation. The best chai. Ever.

I’ve had a tea cabinet as long as I’ve lived on my own, and it remains well-stocked each year as friends come by for holiday celebrations and bring some new blend as a gift. So many teas, so many cherished moments. It’s nice to think that I can call them up with a pinch of aromatic leaves and boiling water, like magic. A sensual companion to photographs, they are memories accessible in tea bags and tin canisters.

So I wonder, do you have a favorite memory of tea?

November begins on the edge of so many celebrations and the icy darkness of winter. Whether tea or hearth fire or the arms of a loved one, I hope you are surrounded by warmth this upcoming season.

Meeting Neil

Conclave: A Journal of Character is printed and available on; the kitchen at Casa del Lobos is finished; I’ve finalized the plans for the Conclave Release Party (see next post); the kids performed in their first Ukrainian dancing performance; we found a mysterious hole in our basement that we thought was a crawlspace but is much deeper and has a ladder leading down into it, and I met Neil Gaiman.

I didn’t meet Neil in the hole in the basement, although wouldn’t that have been perfect in its own way?

I first “met” Neil thanks to the magic of twitter. Both of us are late-night writers online at the wee hours. This is one of the remarkable things about Twitter, that you can be in contact with other creative people whom you might otherwise not meet, and Neil is among a group of well-known writers, musicians, and artists who dip into twitter to communicate with fans and peers, and also to disseminate information. We had tried to orchestrate prior meetings, but tight schedules and other commitments made it impossible. The meet and greet at C2E2 was our only window this time. (Thank you, Cat and Lorraine.)

On Saturday, April 17, C2E2 hosted an Evening With Neil Gaiman at the Arie Crown Theater to benefit the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF). A colorful crowd for the Dream Experience held bags or stacks of Neil’s books, some toting small rolling suitcases filled with massive Absolute Sandman collections, waiting to be signed.

As we waited, we mingled; and my neighbors were the tall and cheeky Dr. Ross of Electrical Engineering at Purdue, the sweet and self-proclaimed shy Katie Barista from Terra Haute (see photo above), as well as a few others who floated in and out of our lively conversation that ranged from the need to supply scotch in waiting lines to coffee beans from Alabama to ex-lovers scarred by Billy Joel music.

Soon it was my turn, and after I introduced myself, Neil scooped me up in a hug that lifted me off the ground! (Those of you who know me well know that I am a hugger. I hug with ferocity the people dear to me, and I value a strong hug. This was a strong hug.)

He was sweet and sincere, and he made me feel as if we were old friends reunited. We spoke quickly about our tables by designed Kwak Chulan, the fascinating (albeit frustrating) phenomenon of the ashcloud, and how grand it would be to hear Gene Wolfe read again. Cat took a photo that she promised to send (I’ll post it when I get it), and I stepped aside to give the next person their opportunity.

After meeting Tony Harris, whose beautiful Art Nouveau-style artwork illustrates Neil’s poem about Sts. Oran and Columba, In Relig Oran, on a print that we were given at the event (signed by both men), I took my seat in the front row, next to Katie Barista and Dr. Ross.

We watched as the remaining fans had items signed and posed for photographs while engaging in surreal conversations with nearby folks about vampirism, the ability of human eggs to select their sperm, and the relative sex appeal of people in different professions.

Then Neil and Cat thanked everyone and went offstage to dine, while the rest of the ticket holders filed into the theater for the “Evening With…” event that began at 7pm.

Acclaimed comic book illustrator Jim Lee graciously introduced Neil, who then began reading: some new poems and stories, and some older pieces that he hadn’t read aloud in nearly ten years. He is a master storyteller, and his words come alive when spoken by the author himself.

From the beginning, Neil was conversational on the stage and seemed to genuinely enjoy himself, more freely sporting his puckish grin as the evening went on. After a brief intermission, he returned to answer questions collected from the crowd that included: how to get a publisher’s attention, subtle rebellion against a grammar school teacher, his upcoming Dr. Who episode, and his writing process. Walking around the stage, Neil would frequently look around and make eye contact with the audience. It’s one of his gifts, this ability to make people feel included.

The event ran late, much to the delight of his fans, and after sincere thanks for attending and supporting the CBLDF, Neil made a gracious exit.

Neil secured a special place in my family’s heart when he named one of his characters in The Graveyard Book Miss Lupescu (since that is the name of the family I married into. I go by Valya Dudycz Lupescu). My children adore his books and audiobooks, and they loved the film adaptation of Coraline. We have had lively family discussions about the differences between the two media. I treasure books and films that encourage a discourse between parents and children about things like making hard choices, fear, bravery, and fairies (my daughter missed the little fairy ghost girl from the book Coraline).

This is one of the things I admire about Neil’s writing—that it can bridge generations and entertain children, parents, and grandparents. He has books that would not be of interest to kids, but there are others that appeal to both. Certainly adults can appreciate allusions in them that may be lost on children, and kids can appreciate with a childlike wonder the absolute adventure of his words.

On Sunday morning, when I told my oldest daughter about the CBLDF event and showed her photographs on my phone, she was impressed. My photo with Neil gained me points in the cool-meter of my almost seven-year-old. This is no small feat and is probably my favorite part of the Dream Experience.

“Can he come to our house someday, Mama?” she asked. “So I can meet him and show him our Coraline door?”

Maybe. I have a lot of tea.

As Neil says, “Dream dangerously.”

***  Edited to add the link to Cat’s Chicago/Stillwater photographs: ***