self-care of a political dissident

a cup of tea anytime I want

This is the first time I’ve pulled something from my teablog (lahikmajoe drinks tea) over here, but I think you’ll appreciate it. Here’s what Václav Havel had to say about drinking tea in prison:

‘When I was outside, I didn’t understand the cult of tea that exists in prison, but I wasn’t here long before grasping its significance and succumbing to it myself. . . . Tea, it seems to me, becomes a kind of material symbol of freedom here: (a) it is in effect the only fare that one can prepare oneself, and thus freely: when and how I make it is entirely up to me. In the preparation of it, I realize myself as a free being, as it were, capable of looking after myself. (b) Tea – as a sign of private relaxation, of a brief pause in the midst of the hubbub, of rumination and private contemplation – functions as the external, material attribute of a certain unbridling of the spirit and thus as a companion in moments of focused inner freedom. (c) The world of freedom considered as leisure time is represented by tea in the opposite – in the extroverted and therefore the social – sense: sitting down to a cup of tea here is a substitute for the world of bars, wine rooms, parties, binges, social life, in other words again, something you choose yourself and in which you realize your freedom in social terms. . . . I drink it every day. . . . I look forward to it, and consuming it (which I schedule carefully, so it does not become a formless and random activity) is an extremely important component in my daily ”self-care” program. From ”Letters to Olga.” ‘

(source: The New York Times 8 May 1998 from an article by Michael Scammel called The Prison and the Cult of Tea)

Why on earth would you even care about that? Well, think about it for just a minute. You’ve lost your freedom, you have very little control over the smallest choices you have to make, and here’s something you can really focus all of your attention on. Possibly the single thing, other than your own thoughts, that you have complete control over.

Over the years I’ve heard several people say that living in modern society is like living in a prison of a kind. That the information overload of the internet and the mindless political cable television shows are a sort of existential jail. If you’ve ever spoken to someone who’s actually been locked up, this is laughably ridiculous.

There’s nothing like losing one’s fredom. Nothing.

Can you even begin to fathom what life would be like when the highpoint of your day is to hole up in your cell, and brew a little tea?

As I stand here in my kitchen with more selection than I honestly know what to do with, as I read about the madness of the outside world swirling round, as I think about all the people being held against their will (whether justly or not), I’m immensely aware of how fortunate I truly am.


  1. I don’t think it’s just a question of “fortune” Ken. Compared to those who are held against their will justly, you are choosing to lead a life that does not keep you behind bars. That’s not fortune, that’s because you’re not a criminal.
    There is a huge difference here between those who are “justly” and “unjustly” behind bars. I feel for the latter, and may they enjoy the simple pleasure of a cup of tea. As to the others, in many cases – tea is too good for them.

    1. Oh wow Jackie, had no idea this would be the issue that’d be taken from this. Although I completely understand what you’re saying, I’m uncomfortable with the numbers of people held in prison populations. The need for justice is certainly an important part of any civil society. Clearly, people should serve the time for which they’ve been sentenced.

      On the other hand, from what I understand, the general abandonment of even the possibility of rehabilitation in many American prisons has created the guarantee of a revolving door. I assure you I’m not an expert. Nevertheless, I’ve read quite a bit about it and from what I understand the system is actually perpetuating the loss of an entire generation of people.

      I’m purposely avoiding getting into any racial territory, because it carries across racial lines. Too often it’s as if the system says. ‘We tried rehabilitation. It was too expensive and it didn’t work anyway.’ Must we as a society truly write off at least a generation (likely more) of people?


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