It was last on my list.
I didn’t want to go to Chinatown.
But, the wife of Captain Sterling, Anne Marie, was visiting San Francisco for the weekend. She emailed to ask if I could be her tour guide one morning.
I met Anne Marie and her husband earlier this summer when I went to Nashville for the first time to lead a three-day Spiritual Whitespace Retreat for the Military — the Warrior Transition Battalion, serving the “Screaming Eagles” Airborne Division.
They introduced me to cheesy grits and inducted me into the downtown Nashville scene by taking me to the coolest honky-tonk bar decorated with Christmas lights, where I tasted my first sip of southern whiskey mixed in Tennessee Iced Tea.
I emailed her a list of my favorite spots to enjoy spiritual whitespace in the city. Was she interested in a hike among the Eucalyptus trees in The Presidio, a trail with great views of the Golden Gate Bridge, tasting the most amazing breads or tarte au citron at Tartine, or maybe a sidewalk lunch at a kitschy North Beach cafe?
I was about to hit send, when something inside me felt prompted to add one more entry to the list.
It’s where I was born after all.
I put it last on the list.
Because I didn’t want to go there.
I hadn’t gone to Chinatown since I got married eleven years ago. I wanted to leave the past behind me.
Well, four years ago, before I began to write the book proposal for Finding Spiritual Whitespace, I did return. I wanted to make peace with the past. I was about to pick up my pen, so I needed to reconnect with the little girl who wanted to write.
I wanted to find my voice. So I went back to Chinatown a couple weekends, to find what I lost somewhere along the way. I found what needed to back then.
But, its streets are still loaded with memories, like a minefield of stories I am not eager to revisit.
So, I quickly added “Dim Sum lunch in Chinatown” to the list — without any description, unlike the other ones on the top of the list.
Anne Marie responded right away.
I have always been intimidated by dim sum, she wrote back. If you’re willing to serve as guide, I would love to experience that.
Sometimes, the parts of us we often shy away from are the parts of us that can become a guide to others.
We can be a light through the way we’ve journeyed.
Not because you and I have reached any destination.
Not because we have somehow attained or perfected the journey.
Simply because we can be a sojourner.
We are sojourners who can experience new discoveries together.
Life is a lot less lonely when we can share the things that are newly forming.
When we are unsure, yet hopeful, we invite curiosity into our friendships.
There is a lot more space to be real and spontaneous when we don’t have things figured out.
We make room for God to invite us into experiences that are unplanned and much more personal.
There is room for spiritual whitespace.
I think the experiences that have left us most vulnerable and tender offer us points of real connection with each other.
I didn’t know what to expect that morning we parked in the garage in Chinatown.
I had mapped our way to my favorite Chinese bakery and was going into my auto-pilot tour guide mode, pointing out things here and there, when suddenly Anne Marie paused in the doorway of a storefront.
She was peeking into a room, whose walls were lined with rows upon rows of glass canisters labeled with Chinese characters and their English translations — for tea leaves.
It was a tea tasting room.
And as she walked in to look, I followed her, only as an observer.
The woman behind the counter gestured us to sit down. Would we like a tea tasting session?
Yes! Anne Marie answered.
So, I sat down.
She asked us what tea would we like to taste and I found myself answering “bo lei” (treasure petal) tea.
Pu-erh is a fermented black tea from China’s Yunnan province.
It is the tea I first drank as a little girl, sitting next to my mother for meals, watching its tea leaves float like a snow globe to the bottom of a glass each time I took a sip, with my teeth straining it from swimming into my mouth.
As the woman behind the counter prepared the tea, she pinched some tea leaves my tea cup, poured near boiling water in, swishing the leaves for a few shakes.
Then to my shock, she turned the tea cup upside down, as I watched my cup of tea thrown away.
She was washing the tea leaves.
I had forgotten.
The first brewing of tea is throw-away tea.
In the Chinese brewing style, the tea is rinsed before steeping it to drink it.
The tea is rinsed to awaken the tea.
Washing the tea with hot water softens and opens the leaves to release aroma and flavors that gives it personality, body and deep, rich tones and flavor.
Dust gathers as the tea is dried on the floor, exposed to the elements, and washing the tea gives it a clean and smooth texture, lifting away the bitterness and yields the sweetness of tea.
It’s the second brew that is worth savoring.
As I put the cup to my lips that morning, the sweet fragrance of my childhood tea broke open an invisible dam, and an ocean of happiness mixed with sorrow burst through my heart.
As the liquid so hot, it felt spicy on my tongue, filled my palate, I began to cry.
I was tasting the bitterness and the innocence of my childhood — no longer alone. I was with a friend.
An unexpected relief crashed inside me, like a shipwrecked survivor washing onto the shore of some unknown island. My childhood self surfacing, like a buoy from deep within. And my friend Anne Marie was sitting next to me smiling, inhaling tea with a cup in her hand.
“It’s good, isn’t it?” she smiles back.
“Yes…” I laughed, cackling like a woman who just remembered her name. “It’s so good,” I said as tears washed out from my yes. “…I love this tea.”
And I began to cry fresh tears again.
There are stories hidden inside of you and me that have been bitter and have maybe even grown dry and scorched under the unforgiving heat and swelter over the years.
There may be a part of you, young like a child, smoky with sweetness and a cured with a sorrow that you find difficult to reawaken.
Let go of your plans to go on in auto-pilot mode.
Allow someone else to join you on your journey.
Take in a new experience.
Be someone’s guide by allowing a part of you that’s been quiet to emerge.
Follow and allow yourself to be guided. Invited.
Remember the first time we’ve lived through our stories might have been like that first brewing of tea.
It’s just the first wash.
We must live our lives for the second brew.
Tears are a soul’s journey to reawaken.
To come alive to God’s touch.
And and reconnect us to who we are.
And to other in an honest way.
So, our hearts and our stories can steep — with God’s love and tenderness — in God’s time — to open, soften and be real.
The second brew is worth savoring.
Just as tea is rinsed to awaken its flavors, make room to feed your soul.
Make room for you.
Even if you’ve put yourself last on the list, you are first on God’s heart.
It’s never too late — to live the childhood God meant us to live.
“But thank God, who is always leading us through Christ…
He releases the fragrance of the knowledge of him
everywhere through us.
For we are the fragrance of Christ..”
2 Corinthians 2:14,15
What’s been last on your list — that’s worth savoring new?
Is God prompting you to make room to awaken a new journey?
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“Whitespace is soul grace. Bonnie Gray ushers weary women into the real possibility.”–Ann Voskamp, New York Times bestselling author of One Thousand Gifts
“Women need this message. If you want to hear Jesus speak more tenderly to your soul than ever before, this is the book for you.”–Lysa TerKeurst, New York Times bestselling author of Unglued
“We live in a culture that brags and boasts about being busy. Into that reality steps Bonnie with a new idea.”–from the foreword by Jon Acuff, New York Times bestselling author of Start