The Tea in Me
Featured in Travelers’ Tales book The Best Travel Writing, Vol. 10
Winner of the 2014 Solas Awards, Grand Prize Gold
Read at BestTravelWriting.com or below.
It looks like a dance floor, a thirty-foot-square section of smooth wood among the rough planks that make up most of the flooring, all surrounded by giant locomotive-like drying machines. I’ve been waiting at the cool, dark packing station just inside the front door of the tea factory, and alternately in the warm April Sunday morning sun just outside, for my packing shift. Packing represents the final step handled here at the factory, completing my education in the processing of my favorite tea.
At 4,600 feet above sea level in the Himalayan foothills of India’s Darjeeling region, I’m at the 150-year-old Makaibari Tea factory perched on a slope just below the town of Kurseong. I’m just over a week into my physical travels across northern India, but a dozen weeks into the personal journey that began with giving notice on a twenty-year career, and planning my solo wander across a land that has existed in my mind as a magical and challenging destination, no more or less real than Narnia or Brigadoon.
After an hour of waiting, four large full tins of finished tea from the sorting room—carried two-ladies-at-a-time—are dumped on the shiny floor, filling the air with the rich, dark vegetal scent of black tea leaves. A man, barefoot, wearing gray dress pants, a white t-shirt and, amusingly, a Starbucks baseball cap, shovels and sweeps the tea into a single well-blended mountain of the finest grade Makaibari Estate, First Flush Darjeeling Tea. We wait, he and I, for the inspector to ensure the quality of the grade, and then begin filling twenty-kilo foil-lined brown paper bags, one scoop at a time into the chute engineered into an upper corner of each bag. Easy at first, it becomes very difficult once the bag is over half full and has to be repeatedly shaken and shifted—the entire bag lifted and dropped—in order for the tea to settle and make room for more. We’ve been joined by a woman, swiftly scooping tea and maneuvering the large bags with an urgency and confidence that compensates for her diminutive size and arms that are, at their widest, the size of my wrists.
“She filled two in the time it took you to fill one,” the foreman teases after watching my slow struggle with the process, “and then finished yours off for you.” It’s not true! I started two different bags, handing one off to each of them for the challenging final touches. It is true, though, that each of them has done twice the work I have. He smiles, “She says you should only get half pay.”
Packing is the only part of the process that—as far as I’ve witnessed—employs both genders. The gender roles are strong, each stage of the process (plucking, withering, rolling, firing, sorting) is handled either by men or by women, never both. The process begins and ends with women, and the distinction can be drawn along the lines of precision. If the work is delicate enough that human hands are involved, they must be women’s hands. The gross handling of larger actions (and larger machines) is done by men.
In any case, here I am, one man interested in experiencing each step of tea processing as my own process unfolds, far from home.
Tea is both art and science. It is the careful, methodical refinement of a bulk raw material that is pure potentiality. If handled correctly, it can become a brilliant and universally captivating expression of this potential. It is a delicate and many staged process, however. When it’s harvested, how—and how quickly—it’s processed, the precision of brewing, etc., all affect the degree to which the essence is optimally revealed.
I see this clearly from my position here on the tea estate, surrounded by dramatic hills carpeted with hundreds of acres of what many consider the world’s finest tea. The drama of the place comes from the geography, the grade. Simply put: It is steep. These are young mountains, the Himalayas, and that must explain their boldness. These foothills burst out of the plains below with such urgency that a flat surface is nearly impossible to find. On a clear night I can easily see Siliguri, a plains city only twenty-two miles down Pankhabari road, yet more than four thousand feet below me. The roads attempt to follow the ever-ascending ridges, and this is where the towns are. The tea villages and fields are in the startling, swooping valleys.
That’s where I’ve spent these last several days, above nearly vertical fields of the robust little shrub, camellia sinensis, in a village homestay just down the road from the factory, the oldest one in the region, still processing tea today the same way they have for more than a century.
“Makaibari” is stenciled in white paint—each letter three feet tall—on the green corrugated tin roof of the rugged old building. Truly unchanged for well over one hundred years, even the machinery inside is pre-1900. The factory opened in 1859, not coincidentally the same year tea production began in the region. Mechanization came in the next few decades, and that’s about it. The rest has happened day in and day out with very few changes over the next dozen decades.
The place is run by the vital and eccentric Swaraj Kumar Banerjee, the “Rajah of Darjeeling Tea,” a man in his early sixties, graying hair around his sharp, handsome Bengali face, and often a somewhat devious smile like a child with a secret. Known simply as “Rajah” Banerjee, he is the fourth generation Banerjee to run the estate, and the man responsible for bringing organic agriculture to India’s tea lands, indeed changing the way things are done outside the factory in the fields.
Rajah and I were crouched in the dirt outside of his office one afternoon as he counted types of uncultivated flora growing between the bushes. “…three, four, five…” Then turning to me, “You have a brother? Same genetic make-up, same cultural upbringing…right?” I agreed on all counts. “Tell me, placed in a room together, facing, talking, how long would it take before you had a disagreement?”
“Two hours?” I considered.
“I bet it’s more like fifteen minutes, but O.K.” He resumed plucking fronds and flowers, all in reach from his squatting position between bush and building, all voluntary growth, “…six, seven, eight…” He stopped at fifteen. “This,” he declared, handing me the bouqueted cluster of flora, “is what happens naturally.” He was referring to the stability of a complex ecosystem vs. the fragility of genetic homogeneity, like brothers or chemical-dependent monocrops. “This is what creates sustainability: diversity!”
Diversity is subtext, however, as are the words mulch and dung and compost. To distill Banerjee’s ever ready lecture to a single word it would be: soil. “Healthy soil is healthy mankind,” is his mantra. The result is better tea, healthier workers, and a product that just might be reproducible for another 150 years, and then another after that.
Days later in his home, in a smoke-filled living room with two enormous taxidermied tigers and two very alive German Shepherds, I sipped sparkling wine with Banerjee and his wife, and their daughter-in-law and six-year-old grandson visiting from Bangalore. “My father was one of the greatest hunters in India,” he proclaimed as I inspected the very large, catatonic, dusty creatures. “He took down eighty-six such beasts in his day.”
I was glad to hear this placed him among the best of hunters, the notion that this might be an average performance made my stomach turn. “I think he might be singlehandedly responsible for putting these on the endangered species list,” I said.
He smiled, accepting the jab, but was unapologetic about the contradiction. This man with his impressive legacy in organic agriculture and fair trade business practices, this champion of biodiversity, remained very proud of his family’s legacy as well. Even those elements that depleted the local tiger population.
It’s Makaibari’s environmental record that intrigued me into coming here. That and the ad hoc homestay volunteer program. A love of tea, too, factors in. Particularly Darjeeling’s lighter body, golden-brown liquor, floral astringency, and tannic bitterness. But I come without substantial expertise on the beverage, and my work here is not directly related to tea. I’m volunteering among the villagers—many employed by the tea company, but experts, each, in a single process, not a finished product—thus I’m not substantially progressing my tea knowledge save for a few shifts on the factory floor. My expertise on the topic of timing and handling comes from an uncanny sense of fellowship as we, leaves and I, are plucked from our framework and set on course to reorganize ourselves into something new. In fact, that is precisely my work here.
The story for both of us begins after the roots and branches have been well established; after the various feats, cultural and agricultural, that brought us to this point of readiness.
Supply and Demand
Three months earlier at a corner table in Boulder, Colorado’s Dushanbe Tea House, I sat flanked by my sons, both of them smiling and joking and masking their competition over a shared scone and a small cup of Devonshire cream: sixteen-year-old Henry’s self-assured attack on the thing, and Simon at thirteen demonstrating a more reserved—yet frustrated—politeness. Across the table, mirroring my chai sipping, sat their mother, my ex-wife CC, her tall frame and long brown hair framed by the tall windows and long drapes—pulled back to expose the cold January morning and the half-frozen creek outside. I looked forward to these family meals—they were good opportunities to catch up—but they tended to be scattered. We often failed to drop deeper than friendliness or remain on a single topic for more than a few uninterrupted lines.
That morning a new element was added to the mix: anticipation. There in my hands was a Lonely Planet Guide to India and a yet-to-be-opened card. On the table sat the handprinted gift wrap and raffia that had just come off this belated birthday present.
Our food arrived, just as the scone battle was won, and my two handsome sons dove into their breakfasts while they quietly watched me. I opened the card, a plain, store-bought birthday card, to reveal a $5,000 check and words that tumbled my heart in a way it is so rarely touched. “This is a thank you and an exuberantly offered investment in the second half of an already incredible life…now it is time to go and do something for you. Something a little crazy that feeds the soul and rocks the foundation.” Here were words of gratitude and generosity in the handwriting of the woman I’d married nineteen years earlier, the woman with whom I was still raising these two remarkable boys. A woman now married to another man yet with whom I have a somewhat stilted closeness and friendship, like an honorary siblinghood—but clouded by the historical fact of deeper intimacy. Most of all, here was gratitude for a “decade and a half of doing things to ensure our security and happiness.”
These words cut beautifully into the deepest wound from our divorce where my very loyalty to my work, my commitment to career in its conventional nine-to-five, day-to-day trappings, was the source of discontent for her. She couldn’t “respect”—her word—that relationship. And even today, seven years later, the wound trembles. This was the single most painful communication in our divorce. At the time all I could hear was the ingratitude and irrationality of it. Here I was “ensuring our security,” while she had left the paying work world in what was a long ascent to finding her true work, her passion. This search was honorable, but fettered me that much more, it seemed, to my office and my paycheck.
The searing word “respect” had long since been recalled, and time had erased my defensive reaction to it. I could see the complexity of our situation with greater clarity, and this gift testified that she could too. No doubt my career loyalty was honorable, but it was also sad and compromising as it became a defining box so sturdy it began to sprout bars. I did want out but lacked the courage to make the break.
“We are gifting you with a trip to a place that defines WILD—human and otherwise,” read the card.
India was not their idea, it was recognition of my number one travel dream. But India is not an extended weekend trip. It’s not even a trip one can do justice to within the three weeks of paid vacation granted by my work. My mind raced with excitement and gratitude—Was this level of generosity really happening?—and doubt and even irritation. For in this gift was a directive, and in that was a lack of understanding, perhaps even a subtle criticism, of the demands of my career. It’s not this simple, I thought. You can’t just say “go to India” and expect that my busy life will allow it. My head spun with the responsibilities that would make accepting this gift impossible. There was work and the money and benefits it provided. There was Melissa and the stumbling, fumbling romance we were struggling through. And there were the kids.
“We will help you as ‘ground support,’ your cheerleading squad and the ones who keep the home fires burning.” So, inherent in the gift was permission to temporarily downshift my family responsibilities. And with it, this excuse to maintain the status quo was removed. But still, I left the restaurant feeling both excited and uncertain how this would unfold and if I’d be able to pull it off.
It was three weeks later that I decided not only would this trip to India happen, it would be part of a more substantial breaking of the branch: I would quit my job of fifteen years (my career of twenty) and turn it all inside out. “I wanted my life,” as in Mary Oliver’s Dogfish, “to close, and open / like a hinge, like a wing, like the part of the song / where it falls down over the rocks: an explosion, a discovery; / I wanted / to hurry into the work of my life.”
It starts in the hills where women pluck the emergent green tips. Yesterday I accompanied a few of these ladies as they harvested the fresh first flush leaves and buds. Baskets on their backs, strapped around their foreheads, both hands engaged in this rapid but specific plucking, many of these women exceeded—some by a couple of decades—my forty-two years. Carrying nothing but a small camera, I tripped and floundered behind them, scraping my legs against the firm branches of the tea bushes. I was a harbor seal among mountain goats.
This place, the hills of Darjeeling, is like none I’ve witnessed. Each time I step outside, I’m struck by it. “Hold on,” I’ll say. “Let me take a picture.” I say this because I keep thinking that somehow, this time, I’ll be able to capture the magnificence of it, because, this time, the light is different. The light is often different: there’s sunrise and sunset and there’s mist. Sometimes the mist is so strong you can see only a few feet away, and like thick San Francisco fog it rolls over the place, a black-and-white filter stripping color out of the little that remains visible. Mostly it’s the rolling blankets of clouds that amaze, flowing into the nooks of these recklessly steep hills, sometimes swallowing the entire town of Kurseong in its perch at the peak of the next hill. I’ll muse as I sweat in the hot sun, that the people in town—less than two miles away—are cold and wet in that midday black-and-white fade. Sometimes the clouds are above me, but below the surrounding hilltops, transforming the landscape into an animated Japanese scroll painting.
A week and a half ago—the first Wednesday of April—I arrived in New Delhi en route to where I am now. The Wednesday before that was the middle of my final week at work, the last of some 750 Wednesdays I’d made my way into my office. Now on a tea estate on the other side of the world from my former job, my family and my girlfriend, I watched these durable, weathered women busily pluck tips from the bushes only days after the fresh leaves and buds had emerged. These first leaves of spring, the first flush, represent some of the finest tea and will command high prices for their delicate flavor.
There’s a later “second flush,” May harvest that is considered just as good by many. In fact, its richer “muscatel” character has always been my choice for a fine cup. This is a relief, too, because I fear I missed my own first flush and began to wilt on the branch a bit. A bright green leaf of potential, I believe I remained too long, especially in my job.
It was confusing to find myself in a career, reasonably well paid, working for a company of good people driven to do good in the world, yet to be disenchanted. It was only my second company in two decades of nonstop forty-five-hour work weeks, commutes, cubicles, and eventually my own office. I ran the eco-friendly products division of the company, selling goods to consumers who wanted to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. This was not blood money, it was an honest, right livelihood. Almost.
There was compromise in every direction. The product could reduce energy consumption, for instance, but may itself be manufactured of nonsustainable materials and shipped half way around the world. The consumer culture could be affected, inspiring people to live more simply or closer to the land—and likely was—but increasingly the job became one of failing budgets and discussions of profitability. My primary focus had shifted from eco-green to financial green and my interest faded.
I wilted. My potentiality began to droop. Not so much directly from the work, but indirectly from the stagnation that results by not finding passion in what I was doing. And the fear that kept me where I was, afraid to risk my employment, to jump ship, to reach out and find a better expression of myself. This fear deflated my spirit, and that rippled out into other areas of my life, other relationships. Like romance and family.
If the quality of output (my sons) is any testimony, my parenting is commendable. But exhausted and stagnating, I am often less present than I’d like to be, less attentive to their needs, less patient. Less aware in general, really, but nothing is more important to me than my sons: Henry as he forges his way, in the second half of his second decade, into a sense of self-reliance, yet still craving—in subtle ways—the parental boundaries of childhood. Simon, having just entered his teen years, asserting his own style despite the strong pull of his brother’s character. Both of them unfailingly impressive in their brilliance and competence—in everything they attempted—yet too often disenchanted and discouraged—with school, with friends. With me.
The days or nights with them that were defined by my impatience and short temper are tragic moments in my parenting memory, burned in my mind. Thich Nhat Hanh says it’s possible, firmly grounded in the present, to transform the past. He says, “the traces of a bad drought can only be erased by a bountiful rainfall, and rain can only fall in the present moment.” I love and need this. But presence, a simple word and a simple act (or non-act), is so difficult to achieve—all the more so when palpably dissatisfied and restless.
Romance, too. Such a conflicted dance this has been for the last decade. Divorce, adolescent emergence (yes, at thirty-five), a constant dizzying centrifugal spin engaging woman after woman, and the breakaway and recoil that inevitably followed. And recent history, sharing this dance with just one beautiful and patient woman. Pulling, pushing; wanting in, wanting to escape. Desiring her in one moment and desperately needing aloneness and quiet in the next.
Six weeks before I left on this trip, Melissa and I went on a painfully ironic Valentine’s Day walk. It was an unseasonably warm afternoon, and we were walking along a winding path between square, ordered backyards and rolling, golden open space. “Do you think we need to break up?” she’d asked in the office, prompting the walk.
Melissa is a beautiful woman, no less so that afternoon, and we are capable of coasting blissfully together. But not always. Too often the familiar tentacles of anxiety constrict in my upper chest when I’m faced with the pressure of our relationship. On the walk I explained to her that without knowing why, I felt an ill ease too much of the time. “I beat myself up trying to understand it, to find the reason. But really, the why of it isn’t as important as the fact of it.”
She stopped and looked at me, her blue eyes the color of a bottomless well of generosity, and asked, “What do you want to do?”
“I think we need to end it,” I said, feeling a great conviction to keep away for the next several weeks leading up to my trip, and to go to India unencumbered by a relationship that competes for limited space in my limited heart. “To spare each other.”
I don’t know if I thought then of the half-dozen other breakups I’d engineered in the last few years, and the greater number of fade outs from undefined relationships. If so, I may have noticed the glaring common denominator. A few days later I would admit to myself a hope to take time away and to finally find the ability, some months down the road, to be in a relationship, and to find Melissa still willing to be in one with me. But if I had this awareness that Valentine’s day, I withheld my confusion. We both needed my decisiveness. “Yes. I do think we should break up.”
“O.K.,” she said. I watched her lips—heart-pink against winter white skin—the symmetry of which had magnetized me for two on-and-off years. “I love you,” she added. Then flatly, without venom, “Good luck, you sad and foolish man.”
We kissed. I smiled, gently despite a torrent of conflicting emotion. My head smugly received the drama of the event and the clarity of the decision with a misbegotten satisfaction, while my heart raisined one more dark, retreating step down into my gut.
Wilting on the branch, indeed.
We continued to see each another almost daily at work, and the attraction prevailed as it had before. We got back together—albeit somewhat tentatively—at the end of February, perhaps stronger (us), definitely still confused (me). And now, 8,000 miles away, I feel closer to her than ever.
After the first flush harvest there is a nonproductive period of four to five weeks, called Banji. In his book, The Rajah of Darjeeling Organic Tea: Makaibari, Banerjee describes the climate during this period: “Fast moving rain-bearing clouds sweep up from the Bay of Bengal, and on collision with the Himalayan foothills, inundate the Darjeeling district with short but fierce bursts of precipitation.” Ah, yes. I’ve stumbled back from Kurseong twice in these storms. He continues, “These are the awe-inspiring Norwesters. In a flash, dark clouds appear out of clear blue skies. The lashing is intense, with copious rain accompanied by streaks of lightning and deafening thunderbolts. God help those who do not unhook their electronics, as they blow up instantly. Within an hour, it is all over and the sun appears with clear skies. This is a magical moment. Overnight, the region is a riot of green and is abuzz with the emergence of all life forms.”
This is when the emergent second flush shoots signal readiness to harvest a tea darker in liquor and fuller in flavor, the rich Muscatel Second Flush.
Certainly I’ve ridden out my own Banji. A general climate of complacency hit with occasional storms of doubt, fear, and even misplaced anger when I’m stretched to my limit.
A bitterness sets in at these times, but maybe also a richness. Self-plucked late in the season, I now find myself halfway around the world, unemployed and alone, and ready to refine my character.
The refining process isn’t immediate, of course. The first and longest step is “withering.” The leaves are laid out to dry under a mild air flow for about fourteen hours where they shrivel and lose about 70 percent of their moisture. They are beginning to decompose, to rot. At just the right time the following morning, the men overseeing this drying and oxidizing process drop the still-damp leaves through a hatch in the floor to the rolling machines below.
In this room, to the vibrating groan of monstrous machines, the leaves are churned together under moderate pressure. The mechanized rolling process hastens a more aggressive breaking down—the controlled death of the leaves—and is the height of the fermenting process, imparting the flavor style and caffeine. “This process of death,” says Banerjee in his book, “releases the enzymes that are so essential for developing the aroma and infusion of the tea.” Timing is critical to ensure that just the right amount of fermentation takes place.
What exits here is a shadow of its former self. Yet without the decomposition, the ultimate potential of that once bursting green leaf cannot be harnessed. For Darjeeling tea, the withering and rolling process takes less than one day. For me?
My last few weeks at home were hell. I’d given two-month’s notice at work that was followed, not by the great liberation I’d imagined, nor a dark apprehension about my unemployment, but by a holding pattern. My life was a movie playing in slow motion, punctuated with dramatic scenes of worry as I wrestled the practicalities of the trip into place.
I’d given myself, on the other hand, only three days between my last day at the office and my flight. This proved insufficient for any physical response—call it let down—to my life’s upheaval. My body, more aware of the situation than my brain, addressed the oversight with a profoundly inconvenient sickness (sinus infection, deep body aches, extreme exhaustion) for my last two weeks at home. Even as I readied myself and attended going away parties in my honor, I’d withdrawn. I began to emerge only somewhere between Newark and New Delhi airports.
Worry tackled me again in Makaibari by way of ATM failure. Days of marching up to the town of Kurseong to release my card into a machine and breathlessly await the bad news: “INCORRECT PIN,” written in aggravatingly plain English across the screens of all four machines in the small town. Each time followed by a deflating sense of hopelessness combined with the familiar upper chest choke of my anxiety.
And then my homesickness. Part three, perhaps, of my decomposition.
My first Wednesday in the village I awoke from a long deep slumber, and after a moment of orientation, I lay in bed and cried. Tears running into my ears as I stared at the ceiling, or alternately as I stared with closed eyes into the beautiful smiling faces of Henry and Simon; and as I reached over, imagining the warm and comforting snuggle of Melissa’s body. It’d only been a week, but add to that the vast distance, both geographical and cultural, and the fact that there were nine more weeks in my journey, and the whole recipe became a bit more than I could imagine.
Why am I doing this? Why am I so far away from those I love? I wondered. Somehow I’d imagined I could book a trip like this, like a twenty-year-old, and become that twenty-year-old. But that is a time all about outward growth, expression, and expansion. A time when we are immortal and eager to run from home and establish ourselves as adults, as independent in the world. A time to push away from those we love and go explore.
I’m not twenty. And while I certainly wanted to shake things up and push away from the constructs and confines of how I’d been defined, I did not want to push away from Henry and Simon and Melissa. My money situation had drained my inner reserves, and I was destined to settle into weariness.
Later that morning I headed off for my first volunteer teaching stint in the village school, a modest single-story building housing four small classrooms. Availing themselves of my assistance, the school director and two teachers retired to a small office and heated their early lunch on a tiny, shoddy stove.
As the scent of curried potatoes and fresh flatbread roti emerged from the stench of dirty fuel, I found myself among the sweet smiling faces of a dozen uniformed children, trying to explain the math assignments in slow English. Then I sat at the desk grading their work one at a time as they yelled “finish!” and brought their workbooks to me. Exhausted by it all, I played with the globe that sat, almost cruelly, in front of me. I wanted to see if indeed Chicago was closer to New Delhi than New York is (made curious by a shorter flight time), but all I saw, little finger and thumb stretched across the top of the small globe, was that I could not, in the northern hemisphere of this massive planet, be any farther from Boulder, Colorado. My eyes filled with tears again. Not “finish!” yet.
How much more withering will I have to endure before a good firing ends the emotional decomposition and sets me on my new course?
Firing and Sorting
For tea, the breakdown is brought to a sudden end as the leaves undergo a firing process, a tumble down five layers of a conveyer system through a large coal-fired oven at approximately 100°F. This takes just over thirty minutes, after which the tea is roughly complete and ready to brew, but needs to be sorted and graded.
It is then wheeled into the sorting room, the most magical room in the factory. Tin-lined wood floors and large sorting machines are bathed in natural morning light from tall east-facing windows, while a dozen or more barefoot women in brightly colored saris move about carrying various baskets and tins and handmade grass whisk brooms through the sorting process. The room is filled with the vibrating hum of machines and tea dust in the air, and the choreography of the process is delightfully theatrical. Even the sunken floor adds to this sense; it’s like a black box theater—but a brightly lit set—with a thoroughly Asian performance art taking place. One of those theatrical endeavors whose brilliance titillates my senses, yet whose meaning escapes me: something about the meeting place of artisanal handiwork and larger-than-life technology, all in constant motion, a ritual dance of woman and machine alike. What flows out of this room, after hours of scooping, sifting, shaking and picking, is the beautiful finished product of some of the world’s finest tea.
Shipping and Handling
This is the fantasy, of course. That by simply taking the leap, things will all be sorted out and then cleaned up the way the ladies clean up the sorting room after each batch. Will I be so deftly handled? I have nine more weeks of travel ahead of me before returning home. I await the firing that will end my deterioration, and then perhaps I will adeptly sort it all out, the next chapters of my adult life. This, I suppose, is the hope of any good pilgrimage: that we will find some clarifying truth to hang our next actions on.
This first flush tea, packed into these twenty-kilo bags and ready to ship out into the global market, will be brewed—and hopefully enjoyed—by someone, somewhere; the finally released, fully realized potential of that recently plucked-from-the-branch leaf. But perhaps it’s too lofty an order. To take a wholly Indian view of it, it doesn’t ultimately matter—as long as we do our best in any present incarnation of the process—because even the finest teas become compost and piss shortly after that first satisfying sip, ready to start over again.
What I do know is the branch has been broken, the withering is underway and what will emerge—well sorted, expertly prepared, and fully appreciated, or not—will be a version of me at least a little richer in character. And maybe that’s enough. When I set out on this journey I wanted to know, returning to Mary Oliver’s poem, “whoever I was, I was / alive / for a little while.”