I pulled out my art journal. It’s been more than a week. I’ve been working on single pages recently. I had this sense of wanting to spread out – be bold, put the work down in a book where it feels more “permanent” because it’s bound in. 

This image that emerged could be a reflection about being with different people in my life who have different ways of expressing pain.

Over one cup of tea that day, a friend talked aloud with me to explore some of what she was wrestling with.

Earlier that day, another friend had dabbed hide tears in her eyes and asked simply, “want a cup of tea”?

I noticed how much I wanted this friend to put her tears into words. I guess that’s about me wanting connection, clarity and also wanting her to experience self-acceptance and self-compassion.

But I’m celebrating that I picked up her cues and after sitting in silence and making a few guesses out loud at how she was feeling, I followed her lead when she asked me about other parts of my life. We chatted about other parts of our life – still precious things, our kids and parenting. 

I guess in that moment my friend wanted company and for some relief from thinking about the situation that had stirred up the tears. Having a cuppa and chatting about life outside of the four walls we were in was a strategy for that. 

I receive the “cup of tea” that emerged on this page as a gentle encouragement to myself, a relief, some peace. I can tune in to what others are seeking. With empathy, I can be kind to my own longing to connect more deeply and at the same time open to following the lead of the person who’s in distress in that moment. I can hear and respect their request: presence, privacy, company, distraction, relief, perspective.

There’s no “right” way to be with sadness. I’m just glad I could be there. To me, the gift of seeing the true tender emotion of another human being – its joy, or its hurt and grief — is beautiful in any way it comes.

As I tore open the tea bag and sprinkled it, I remembered hearing Marshall Rosenberg talk about the power of silent empathy. I think silent empathy may be the richest and most connected human space of all. This is precious for me to learn, because words come easily to me in many situations – however they may block connection. Silent attentiveness is so precious.  

So much of our human experience is beyond words. But hearts sense other hearts, deeply, often bringing such relief and lightening in ourselves when we do. The pain doesn’t necessarily go away, the problem isn’t “fixed”, but compassionate presence dissolves suffering in a flow between giver and receiver in that way Rosenberg described: it’s impossible to say who’s “giving” and who’s “receiving”. An utterly mutual connection between hearts.

I guess inviting someone to have a cup of tea is a beautiful expression of the mutual giving that we want between hearts. It can feel uncomfortable to receive a listening ear. We want to be safe from judgement and also to know the other person is gaining something from giving their attention. And we can gain so much: authenticity, company, comfort, shared-reality, connection with another human heart, getting outside of our own pain. It can be hard to believe that a person who says they are here and wanting to hear is really willing to listen. 

Our bodies often doubt: can another human really be enriched by being present to my pain? I guess tea helps that trust along. When we both have a cup of tea in our hand, I can feel a little surer that they too are getting some comfort and warmth from the encounter. And there’s the warmth of the tea itself. Oh, I received so much more! I’m still savouring this days later, first in the visual expression and then revisiting it today. All from those two heart-to-hearts over a cup of tea. In both cases, words were only part of the connection. 

I’m also learning from the wisdom of my friend’s strategy. She didn’t want to become more distressed, not in this setting anyway. So she looked for other strategies – time out, a cup of tea, and a change of topic to one of her choice. I’m so enriched by experiencing her wisdom in that approach. It reminds me that when I feel hurt or angry, I have a choice about whether to fuel it further in that moment. I can gently “park” it as something to work with later. One of my buddies tells me she makes a mental note to self and trusts it will come back later to work with in her journal or talk through with an empathy-pal. When I feel a surge of emotion, I can open to it with acceptance – yes, I feel and accept this experience in my body — and I can also ask myself: how do I want to feel right now? What will help me feel safer, soothed, calm and in control of what I decide to do next? Breathing, a walk, a cup of tea, silently naming the things I can see, feel against my body and hear around me. 

Yep, I was enriched by both cups of tea. One, exploring the heart in words, the other indirectly asking for support to be soothed and calmed in this moment so she could continue with what she wanted from the rest of her day.

Are you interested in hearing what’s in the journal layers? The base was a collage of a picture I’d sketched in a cafe a few months ago, surrounded by Derwent Inktense colours. Then I added gel medium to prime the pages. I’d done that priming about 6 weeks ago. On Tuesday, that page “called” me. 

I added a layer of oil pastels, then shades of yellow paint and red. Then I scraped back with a splade. Oh, love that. Seeing the colours emerge from the crayons underneath. Then, the scary part, inviting myself to add a symbol. (Thanks Connie at #dirtyfootprintstudio for that tip!). I find adding symbols scary because of that message about I “can’t draw” and “am not an artist”. Also, there’s the risk that what I see in my mind won’t look the way I want it to. It never does. But I’m finding that’s exciting. My trust is growing. 

It is so juicy to jump in anyway and know that the symbol will offer me something, no matter what others see.  The image of the tea-cup and the tags popped into my mind. I wanted some texture – and even the senses.  I had been reflecting on both of the conversations as I worked. So I made the shape of a cup with gloss medium then grabbed a tin of loose tea-leaves (earl grey if you’re curious) and scattered onto the sticky lines. I then scraped back a bit more with the splade to get the shape a little more distinct. On when the tea-bag strings – two in honour of the two different friends. I went to work and added the labels onto the teabags when I got home, then sprayed all over with fixative. I can still smell the tea-leaves on the finished product.

This page is so exciting to me because it was creative, a little scary, and a marvel to find how each layer comes to me to play when it’s ready. I hope you enjoy seeing it too, and have some inspiration to play with layers, symbols and materials that aren’t “art” supplies. I’ve prepped another journal page, ready to play tonight.

And I don’t have to take it too seriously.  Just play and explore. To remind e of that, here’s what Joy the cat thinks of it …

Thanks, Joy. Yep, it’s all adventure and play – and a beatiful way of being close to my heart and growing my tenderness for others.