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From Tea to Transformation #FIRSTPhantomTea

by Mo Neville
Last year, at this very same “Phantom Tea” time of year, I shared an article I had written in 2011 regarding a life-changing moment that occurred while sharing a simple cup of tea.  This year, as we gathered in a circle at our conference table, detaching from our computers (if only for a few hours!) and assembling the Phantom Tea packets, I was once again reminded of the importance, power, and warmth of a simple human connection.

It seems the basic notion of smiling at someone, making eye contact, or just saying hello, actions so uncontrived they are hardly spoken of, have become effortful, and sometimes, in some lives, even obsolete. So much so, that some of the world’s most influential people are joining together to stop the spreading of isolation and loneliness. It is no wonder that media icons Oprah Winfrey, Gayle Kine, and Sonjay Gupta are now lending their names and their support to a campaign that reflects this very same message of connection: Just Say Hello.

And although this article is not “new,” and in fact, was my very first post when I arrived at FIRST nearly eleven months ago, the message itself is as resounding today as the day it went from a life experience to a life-changing moment.

I hope when you open your tea packets this week, you think of my story below – or better yet – that you reach out to a friend, a neighbor, or even a stranger you have never met. I hope that you are inspired to share a cup of tea, a bit about FIRST, and your life with ichthyosis…

…or to simply say hello.

Ode to Tea…

{April 1, 2001} I spotted the name in the daily soup of tweets…One Hundred Cups of Tea. Now, you can call it karma, a sign from the teapotuniverse, or whatever your word is for “knowingness”, but I knew in approximately 3.3 seconds – the time it took to read the first sentence of his mission (can having tea with a stranger change your life?) – with no plans of traveling to the UK, and with a rather bitter distaste for tea in general that I would be having tea with him someday.

That day was today.

I will admit I had a little bit of the pre-caffeine jitters. But I was definitely more excited than nervous. After all, this person was making the most inconvenient of gestures – after traveling the first 3,500 miles, he’d stop in route from one side of the world to the other, to meet some lady he’d exchanged a few pleasant emails with…for a cup of tea. I mean, really, who does that?

After struggling to decipher the new atm-ish parking meters peppering the streets of Philadelphia, it suddenly dawned on me – what if we don’t get along? As I opened the coffee shop door with a four-sugar lump in my throat, I was pinched by the thought of the worst case scenario: volcanic silence – that unstoppable eruption of nothing to say moments…particularly painful amongst strangers. Ugh. I hate when that happens.

There was a slight, early-twenty-something-rocker-type with his head buried in a laptop, sitting in the middle of a couch. He is young enough to be my son, I thought. That can’t be him. Maybe it’s the other guy, slightly balding, with the golf shirt and the Wall Street Journal under his arm. Nope. The young guy stood up. And as he moved in closer it was undeniably the friendly-faced tea sipper from the internet. “You must be Greg,” I said, hoping he didn’t deny his identity and run from this forty-(ahem) year old woman, saddling a cumbersome stack of bags and books. “Yes, hello, nice to meet you Mo.”

Phew. My worries were dissolved by the mere tone of his voice. How cheerful, I thought.

In fact, it took but five minutes to settle in, order our chai teas, and start chatting through the hours like two old bitties at basket bingo. Not only had I lost concern with a difference in age or a lack of conversation, but I quickly recognized we were more like-minded than I might have imagined.

He began by sharing an important moment. The moment, in fact. The one when he found himself walking around London, a place he’d move to with such high hopes of finding his life’s next phase – but instead only finding a growing frustration with the take-no-prisoner pace of the city. One day, while making his way through the fumes of impatience, he noticed something deafeningly odd. “I was looking down at the sidewalk instead of up at the beauty. I’d already forgotten about the castles. The history. Why I’d even come to London.” He stopped and thought, “I don’t want to live this way.”

But instead of running away to that next safe place; instead of continuing an outward search to recapture his optimism; his zest for adventure…Greg journeyed inward.

He wondered why he…and London…came to feel this way at all.

He wondered about the voices between our individual worlds – the ones that judge, that doubt, that keep us away from the conversation…the ones that make us strangers. “What if we look up, look at each other, actually have a conversation. Will it make any difference at all?”

Mostly, he wondered “Can a simple cup of tea with a stranger, change my life?”  Soon after his journey to have tea with 100 people, whom he had never met, began.

He spoke of the people he’s shared tea with thus far; the lone German woman he’d met on the bus; the older couple at the airport; the man outside the restaurant in the midst of a full-blown panic; the emails, the odd per-chance meetings; the occasional struggle to fill the awkward space of silence – the profound lessons he’d been learning from each and every encounter.

“I know now more than ever how important it is to have conversation. We’re pushing away from each other and we need to push back in the other direction, we need to really see each other again,“ he explained.

Soon the story of Greg was becoming very clear to me. This young Canadian man, a self-admitted non-social-butterfly, whom I’d never seen, nor heard of, who had taken a plane to New York, a bus to Philadelphia, slept in a hostel, and made his way through a strange city for a stranger…was the perfect person for me, or anyone, to meet for tea.  Because, as evidenced in his poetic one hundred cups journal, he is not only a delightful storyteller, but he is blessed with the gift of listening.

After three and half hours, it was time for us to part ways. I walked to my car, stuffed a soggy parking ticket in my purse and smiled as I realized something that I will carry with me for the rest of my days. Hmm. Just one cup of tea and we are no longer strangers.

I sat and jotted a few thoughts…

I think, some day, this young man’s life may be quite celebrated; at least for those who need him to be.

I think I will drink more tea.

I think I will one day write more of an ordinary Canadian who chose to have tea with 100 strangers — and in doing so, achieved the extraordinary.

I think someday, because of him, there will be a little less loneliness in the world.

I think there will be more empathy.

I hope so.

It’s such a beautiful dream…


 Phantom Tea for Two

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