The beginning of Lent proved to be a huge challenge and strain on my mind and especially my taste buds. They missed the sweet delight of a cold glass of tea. They didn’t just miss it. They craved it. I never helped their cause for a day without sweet tea either.

Before Lent started, I made a full picture of “lightly” sweetened tea, an abomination I intentionally created for the sake of better health.

What was I thinking?

Better health and sweet tea are not synonymous and should never be equated. They are appropriate opposites. Good and evil, perhaps. But health advocates laud the benefits of tea, whether green, black, oolong, Darjeeling, whatever. All tea is good. All tea is good with sugar. Not all tea is good with A LOT of sugar. Just black tea, or more specifically (which I only learned because I squinted really hard and read the -fine- print on my favorite blue box of team) black and orange Pekoe tea. Pekoe? Pe-ko-eh? Pee-kooh? Peck-o? Sure! They all sound great to me.

I have tried many types of tea and like them all, but that doesn’t make me a tea snob or afficianado. I just like drinking it. If it has an amber tint, I’ll drink it, maybe just once, but I’ll drink it.

Back to my fridge. In a gallon pitcher that knows me just as well as I know it, the tea sits, aging more and more each tea. The only thing that happens to aged tea is that it grows mold. Remember that later.

Daily, I’d open the already somewhat barren fridge. The full pitcher always gives the impression of a more robust fridge. It makes it more efficient or something. Maybe that’s the freezer. Tea doesn’t belong there either. I tried and forgot about it. Defrosted tea sounds as bad as it really is. Plus it makes a mess on the counter. Water everywhere.

I stared at the pitcher longingly for two weeks. It was hardly an intentional tease, but there it was, sitting there, taunting me. I even knew it was bland, -almost- tasteles. But of poor quality as sweet tea goes.

The gallon did something else each day I looked at it multiple times. It reminded me of my task, my undertaking, my devotion to abstaining something that, as I have mentioned repeatedly, defines me. It still continue to stand for me as it stood, proud and aware in my fridge. My hand ventured into the fridge. My fingers repeatedly writhed and stretched, wanting to graze the poorly removed label. The label never quite came off the side of the pitcher, sticky residue in tact after repeated washing.

She is an essential part of the newsroom and calls frequently enough that many of us know her name. She may talk your ear off, but it’s always with good intentions. She knows no harm, no foul. We call her Miss Martha.

She calls on the weekdays. She calls on the weekend. She’s part of our family as much as we are a part of her family.

Often, she will divulge information about her life. It is always touching to hear about her children, her deceased husband. Mostly, she and I talk about movies, celebrities, recent deaths, golf. She runs the gamut of idle conversation. Today was a little different.

I never considered Easter to be a time of emotional catharsis, but it makes sense in the grand scheme of the day.

She told me about a Paul Walker movie she was watching. She thought it was Paul Walker anyway. She really enjoys watching movies that come on the few scattered local channels. Mostly, they’re older movies, usually not very good, but she finds entertainment in them, despite their ‘lack of artistic value.’

The conversation continued about movies onto other programs on the air before the Sunday afternoon movie spread: church sermons.

She rattled off names with intimate familiarity, as if I knew them too, but I gave her an unseen nod to continue. Even on the phone, it feels polite to nod, an effort to move the conversation, nonverbally, but it fails miserably during a phone call. The only thing I could muster was an unintentionally apathetic “Yeah,” or “Mmhmmm.”

She continued praising the pastors she sees every Sunday morning. She admired them and followed them weekly. Later, she alluded to her difficulties of leaving the house, due to her health. It made sense why she loved these men of the gospel so much. They were her spiritual guides. I asked her how she felt about the only televised church sermon I knew. She had no opinion.

The conversation stuck with television church shows for a few more minutes, as we discussed the intentions of a megachurch pastor from Atlanta. She knew he had done no wrong and still enjoyed him. I was surprised to say the least. Her daughter, I learned, serves as a pastor at a church, and she gives her tithe to her daughter, which sounded appropriate, I thought.

What struck me odd as she dove deeper into her daughter’s position in the church. She said, “I still prefer a man as a preacher.” To give your offering to your daughter but simultaneously say you prefer the opposite sex in the pulpit felt rather hurtful. Like the parents who push their child to follow their dreams but wish he or she had been a doctor or lawyer instead.

She lept quickly from that topic to another incredibly guarded subject, her wrongful termination at a job and the lawyers involved. Her voice got stronger as she talked about bring a nurse’s assistant, butting heads at her last job and seeking a lawyer’s help only to get one last paycheck and recompense.

She wrapped the job talk up with something poignant, “I feel like even my own people are against me.” I dwelled on that statement for a long time.

“Everyone knows one another, are kin somehow. You never know who’s out to get ya.”

There she was, completely exposed and vulnerable. The safety of the phone let me frown and share her pain. She was lonely.

Her loneliness stayed on the table as the lawyer-talk guided us to her late husband, whom she had divorced long before he died. His house, that he kept after the divorce, sat in near ruin after a bank foreclosure.

And I heard her voice waver and crack. Her eyes — I couldn’t see them but I knew — reddened with regret, with pain, with loneliness. She said to me, “I wish we could have made it work out. I know we could have.”

Today I had a distinct memory. A short story I read many years ago. I can close my eyes and see the text on the page. I can see the title in big, block bold letters.

In the memory, the title is “The Radio.” In the memory, the author is clear. It’s H.P. Lovecraft.

He never wrote this story.

But I can see it. I can hear the conversations of the story. I can see the introduced character in court, talking about a radio that drove him mad. It drove him to commit a crime so horrible. So horrible he was forced to court.

It wasn’t H.P. Lovecraft. It had nothing to do with him. But I was convinced. I knew it was him. I knew he wrote this story. It all made sense. It all fit together. The theme of madness, uncontrollable and debilitating, driving a man to do something severe, drastic, violent.

I have yet to look in the book at the story.

I don’t want to lose faith in my memory.

There isn’t one thing, in my mind, that helps define the Southern experience more than tea. Not just any type of tea. Sweet tea. This drink is refreshing as it is crucial to the Southerner’s existence. It’s about quenching thirst during punishing humidity that makes up every summer morning, afternoon and evening.

There’s history. There’s heritage. There’s identity. It all sits and swirls in a glass of sweating amber.

You share some solidarity with a glass of fresh sweet tea. The condensation sliding down the glass is the same as a hard day’s sweat stinging your eyes.

The iconic drink is what I would call my own lifeblood. You cut me; I bleed sweet tea. I cherish all that the cleanly brewed black tea can offer.

All throughout the Southeast, tea makes its mark on restaurants pretty clear. You can’t escape its grasp. If a server asks for your drink your and denies a request for sweet tea because there is none? Then that business is lost. You don’t just settle for a Coke or a glass of water.

That’s just like coming in second place because you were tired of running. I can’t say I’ve visited a restaurant of any type, minus a cafe that only serves coffee drinks and types of hot tea, but those are abominations that can be discussed another time, while living in Georgia for more than two decades. You make a personal statement by abstaining from the sale of sweet, a dangerous statement.

During a week-long stay in Seattle, I had not thought much of the lack of sweet tea until I casually glanced inside a restaurant in the
Convention center. The sight mortified me. Two staples of the soda fountain had been removed, even forgotten I initially thought. Could this be true? The vibrant brushed aluminum canisters were nowhere to be found. To these burrito makers, they never existed. At this moment, I realized while in the majesty of the Pacific Northwest that I was missing something. Something important to me.

This hadn’t been the first time I was without sweet tea. I remember when I first moved to Japan on a year-long stay. The 17-hour, fragmented plane ride had left me parched and famished. As a Southerner, the first thing that comes to mind when quenching your thirst is obvious. It wasn’t water. It wasn’t Coke. It was sweet tea. What did ‘sweet tea’ even look like in Japanese? I didn’t know then. I still don’t now. The vending machine at the train station had bottles of brown liquid. “This looks like tea,” I thought. And in a hurry, I bought one, desperate for a drink. I had never made a more desperate mistake in my life. I was excited to drink something after such extended dehydration. I knew I would be satisfied. I tasted the tea and felt only confusion, misery, sadness, pain. This wasn’t tea. It was an abomination, and in whatever embarrassment would follow, I spat the drink out. A huge puff of brown vapor, a actual spit-take.

I had been betrayed by a bottle I didn’t know how to read. It was a tea, no sweetener added, that was good for your body. Something to make you healthier or more beautiful. Whatever it’s title was, I just knew it then as the tea to never ever drink again.

For my year-long stay, I adapted to tolerate, no , actually enjoy many different types of tea. All cold. The temperature distinction stayed important. Kyoto shared a climate much like Georgia’s. Cold when it needed to be and so uncomfortably humid, you didn’t want to be outside unless you had to. It just wasn’t as hot.

I found myself preferring oolong and green tea primarily. These two teas became my supplemental lifeblood without the crucial Tetley tea bags I had known since I was a child. On a whim, I bought a small carton of lemon tea. My life changed. It had sugar. It was cold. It had a hint of lemon. It WAS sweet tea, not as I knew it, but it worked. Lemon tea defined me, as sweet tea had my entire life.

Classmates knew I craved it. They saw the cartons lining my wall in my dorm room before recycling days came. I even received ‘gifts’ of lemon tea liters. I had found my replacement and regained some of my identity.

I Don’t Like Running, But I Must Get Better

He said one of his favorite runs was Mount Fuji. I totally get that and understand it in the perspective of the panels “The Agony” and “The Void.”

I can remember trudging up this most famous mountain all because we wanted to see a sun rise. It sounds so absurd. We see the sun rise every day. It’s not new. It’s not really that different. I knew about hiking. I dismissed the difficulty of the mountain but admired its presence, its height.

We even started about halfway up the mountain. It was difficult. It was arduous, and the guide had no compassion for slow movers. He knew Fuji-san as well as he knew himself. You could see it in the way he moved, without gear, because he didn’t need it.

It was near the end of June. It was supposed to be hot and humid. It was cold, and the wind wild and biting. We took a rest at a small station. There really weren’t beds there. We were packed together (as tired as the phrase is) like sardines. We didn’t move and hoped for a brief respite for the 2:30 a.m. hike was set to begin.

No one had a well-rested feeling so early in the morning. Camera crews asked us about the first hike of the season, typical, simple things you might ask foreigners about their trip to the heralded Mt. Fuji.

And we set out, following this trailblazer of a guide who said he went up and down Fuji-san multiple times a day. That kind of endurance made him admirable, and it made him strong. He was a small man, muscles sinewy from his love affair with the quiet volcano.

And this is where the “Agony” sets in. The guide’s pace was difficult to match. As the air got thinner, so did my stamina and my drive to continue. The path was dark, the edges thin. Certain instances required us climbing up ledges to continue. It was a far call from rock climbing, but I wasn’t prepared for it. There nearly 2,000 feet to cover in elevation alone.

I had compared the climb to the only mountain I knew well enough to mirror the guide’s intimacy with his mighty lover. Standing Indian in the Nantahala National Forest sat tall at 5,200 feet, nestled in the North Carolina mountainside. Mt. Fuji towered mightily over the Standing Indian of North Carolina. I definitely couldn’t fathom climbing 2,000 feet so rapidly.

It didn’t matter if I could do it. I -had- to do it. By this point in the hike, the buzz of the sunrise had grown too loud to ignore. We were almost there and losing time.

The final steps before the large gate were not far. Sudden burts of energy sent other hikers, including myself running. We couldn’t miss the sunrise.

I could see the rays of the rising sun piercing the heavy clouds as it approached the horizon, and in a miraculous moment, there it was. The clouds parted, and the sun rose above them. It was nothing short of magnificent. We cheered and took pictures, and the splendor, or as Inman called it “The Void,” subsided as the “Agony” returned. I had to get back down the mountain.

It was nothing but steep switchbacks, zig-zagging down the backside of the mountain. The ground was loose, and the air was getting thicker. I couldn’t breathe. Everything felt so heavy. I wanted to vomit. I thought my head was ready to implode.

After the agony of the trip down back to the bus, the void returned. The triumph made me feel human. It made me feel more alive than ever before. I had conquered one of the most recognizable natural wonders in the world, and at the top, I witnessed the sun rising, unobscured by anything man-made. It was all natural, and it was beautiful.

Stumbling,
falling,
tripping,
failing,
faltering,
flopping,
floundering,
struggling.

These gerunds,
participles,
whatever they are,
fit the broken
mold, the mistaken
work ethic model
crafted by men
sitting at the top,
suits and expressions
clueless.

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