I wish Dorcas Smucker lived next door. I would drop by regularly to steep myself in the vibrant activity of her household, the warmth and wisdom of her conversation, and the rhythms of rural life, while sharing sharing a pot of tea with Dorcas, of course.
In the absence of this opportunity, reading Tea and Trouble Brewing is not a bad substitute. I even had company at times, as Dorcas’s wit was too good not to share. Like this, from the opening essay, “The Perfect Cup of Tea”:
While I am still a loyal American, it troubles me to think of 90,000 pounds of tea being dumped into Boston Harbor. Such a waste of perfectly good tea, and such punishment for peaceful, hardworking New England women who needed that early morning pot of tea as badly as I need mine.
No doubt there were frustrated Colonial mothers who upbraided their Sons of Liberty at Sunday dinners for years, insisting that surely there would have been an alternate way to get their message across.
Or her chapter on her maternal anxieties over her children’s performances and competitions, in which she describes a basketball game in which her two sons play on the same team:
Suddenly it seemed terribly important to me that people comprehend that those two fine young men belong to each other, and to me. Especially to me. They really should put big round stickers on the guys and matching stickers on their parents in the stands, so everyone would know. (p. 30)
Fine idea. I think this is what I appreciate most about Dorcas—her frank openness about herself, her humanity, and indeed, the human condition. Who can’t find something to relate to in her writing? I have been surprised at the varied types of people who have told me they are faithful readers of her column.
Turning 40 this year precipitated not a little anxiety for me, so I was quick to turn to the chapter titled “Why Birthdays Matter.” What I found, in summary, was gentle and insightful encouragement to turn my gaze away from myself and count my blessings:
Everyone else in my life enjoys having their birthdays noted as much as I do, so I need to return the favor as often as possible. And getting older is truly a gift and a blessing—many people would love to reach my age and never get the chance. (p. 128)
“Rethinking Life Choices” reinforces the value of contentment, relating a brief period when, approaching 50, Dorcas began to contemplate the “what ifs.” What What if she had become a doctor and tended patients on the other side of the world? She asked a niece if she ever attended weddings and wished she had designed her own differently. The niece replied, “That’s a good way to go crazy. I just don’t go there.” In musing on her niece’s wisdom, Dorcas reflected that, regardless of what might have been, what is is most important. “Right now I need to sew pretty dresses for my daughter and take good care of the wounds that show up in my household, and I know this is what I’m supposed to be doing, here and now.” (p. 45)
Dorcas also writes with sensitivity and experience on the very common experience of motherhood. I have one child, in contrast to Dorcas’s six, but I could appreciate her confessions of maternal failures:
I punished unjustly. I got sucked into talking on the phone with a possessive friend and brushed off my frantic 5-year-old until she burst into frustrated teas. I bought too few Christmas gifts that the children wanted and too many that I thought they ought to want. I didn’t put sunscreen on the children that time they went swimming at a family reunion in the Midwest and fried their little shoulders in the hot sun.
Then, of course, there was the forgotten birthday, and many more dark examples that I can’t bring myself to confess. (p. 134)
Really? Dorcas Smucker has committed dark maternal sins she’s ashamed to confess? I’m not alone in that experience?
But Dorcas’s writing abounds with grace—the fact that we are all equally in need of it, and there is more than enough to go around. This formulation of her lifelong wish from the chapter titled “Resolutions” resonated with me: “I would like to, once and for all, get my whole life in order, get it all together, make it all work.” (p. 170) But she concludes with the resolve to remember that, “It isn’t about perfection and getting it all together, but rather about moving with the currents of grace that move all around me.” (p. 172)
In “Skipping the Garden,” Dorcas writes about the year she opted not to plant a garden. I fully expected her to conclude that the decision was a mistake, that planting a garden, no matter how small, was worth whatever small sacrifices she might have to make in other areas.
Not so. Instead, Dorcas wrote about what she learned from the experience—about community, and sharing, and unexpected blessings.
Most of all, I came to realize that most of my dilemma was not about having a garden.
Deep down, it was about trying to get it right, about being a good Mennonite and a good Oregonian. It was about being true to my heritage and other vague and noble concepts that are far too heavy a burden for a small patch up dirt to carry. (p. 40)
I appreciate Dorcas’s openness about her faith and how it is manifested in her outlook and lifestyle. As my husband said, a conservative Mennonite has to be a good writer in order to be a popular columnist in Eugene. Actually, it is interesting to note the values certain of us in the more conservative end of the spectrum share with those who lean the other direction … like simplicty, and the value of community.
I have my own ideas about how these should work out, along with my own realizations of how I fall short, and I tend to imagine that someone like Dorcas must have them more or less perfected. But what does that really look like? I wish I could observe on Dorcas’s household for a week—or a day—to see how a Mennonite household in the Eugene area operates. What insights would I gain or surprises? What would surprise me? What habits that I take for granted are completely absent from the Smucker household. What practices, foreign to me, are part of their regular routine. And what do Mennonite girls do if their American Girls dolls come with earrings? (p. 80)
I did learn from Tea and Trouble that the Smuckers are, indeed, acquainted with such facts of the modern world as cell phones, fast food, Duck football games, and Facebook. Dorcas even has a chapter on “Joining Facebook” and her discovery of all the friends and acquaintances who had already joined, including (the tipping point), “Harold Shrock, a burly, good-Mennonite stock truck driver for Smith Seed, the kind of man you hope will come by if you have a flat tire, but not kind you would ever expect to know his way around a computer, let alone Facebook.”
Suddenly I felt like I was out on the playground, picking dandelions, completely oblivious to the fact that recess was over and everyone else in my class had not only heard the bell and gone inside but had left on the bus for a field trip to the Umqua ice cream factory. (p. 89)
Dorcas gave me three copies of Tea and Trouble Brewing, one to keep, one to give away to a blog reader, and one to give to someone I know who “is having a hard time.” So in the spirit of sharing, I thought I would give a copy to a reader who intends to pass it on to someone else (after reading it, of course). So tell me who you hope to share the book with and also, if you had the opportunity to share a pot of tea with Dorcas, what would you want to discus with her … and what kind of tea would it be?
Failing that, you can purchase your own copy of Tea and Trouble from Amazon or directly from Dorcas. You’ll want a few extra copies after reading it, to give away as Christmas gifts. Dorcas recommends that those who want to pay by credit card should buy through Amazon (click here: Tea and Trouble on Amazon). To pay by check, send $15 to Dorcas Smucker, 31148 Substation Drive, Harrisburg, OR 97446.