I spend a lot of time alone these days. This summer I moved from the city where I lived for the last ten years to a small town in the middle of Ohio. The move was practical—I was no longer commuting an hour to work—and in moving away from the city where I became an adult (and got two graduate degrees) to a town where I knew very few people, it felt like the beginning of a new adult chapter in my life. Of course, it’s a truism of the 21stcentury—and especially of millennials—that we are never entirely alone because of social media. And yet, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram are not a replacement for the glory of a long conversation in person or going to a good (or enjoyably bad) movie with friends and dissecting it over drinks afterwards.
But social media also permits new forms of sociality, new ways of being alone and together at the same time that perhaps muddle the too easy binaries of either IRL or online. The first week in my new apartment I pulled out my phone and googled coffeeshops and set out to explore places that made a good cup of tea. This is not a story of how I made new friends by talking to strangers in coffee shops—although baristas are often some of my favorite people—but rather a story about how I went off in search of a good cup (or pot) of tea to enjoy with a good book. I was searching not just for a place to study or prep lesson plans, but also a place to continue my ongoing Instagram series of photographs under the hashtag #teatime. Photographing the tea I drink, the pastries that accompany the tea, and the books I’m reading has become a way for me to build a kind of community by sharing the ritual and ambience of #teatime. Tea and reading are my OG loves, and Instagram allows a vehicle for me to share a piece of that. Coffeeshops and libraries have always been my first stops when I move to a new place and so that first week in my new home, I went out exploring and via Instagram I shared where I went, the donuts and scones I ate, the books I read.
I grew up in a house overflowing with books. Seriously, in our tiny apartment my parents had a library with built-in bookshelves. As a child I would take books with me everywhere and frequently was scolded for reading while walking (you’ll fall or run into something!) or reading at restaurants (not at the table while we’re talking!). I am certainly not the first bookish queer child who escaped into books and found obvious parallels between my life and a motley crew of characters as diverse as Fanny Price from Austen’s Mansfield Park, Janie Crawford in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and the sexually repressed Puritans of The Scarlet Letter (I was definitely the only person in my class who thought this book was sexy).
Along with books, my parents gave me a love of tea. Around middle school my mother switched from drinking coffee to drinking tea and I joined her in her very British tea habits – a pot of black tea twice a day taken with milk. In college I had a table in the corner of the dining hall where I would set up shop with a pot of tea and stacks of books as I read and wrote and tried to be the very model of a modern English major.
Taking tea is ritual and communion in many cultures. For me, the entire process of making a cup of tea is about a pick-me-up—not just the caffeine but also the soothing nature of waiting for water to boil, steeping the leaves, and finally adding the milk. That first cup is perfect. Making tea for others is care work and kindness; consider the Britishism for serving tea to a crowd, “I’ll be mother,” which perfectly encapsulates the complex of feminized badassery wrapped up in providing for others. When I visited China as an undergraduate, Chinese table manners dictated that one always asks if others need tea before refreshing your own cup. Sharing tea can be the perfect setting for conversation but also the ideal accompaniment to reading. If that morning cuppa ushers you into the day, that afternoon one can allow you a moment to unwind. You can disconnect from the weight of the day, take a moment to sit with that book you would rather have been reading all day (silly work).
I was a late adopter to smart phones but in 2014 I finally switched over to the 21st century’s cyborgian extension, downloaded Instagram, and posted my first few pictures. Among these was a snap of a cup of tea and a book splayed open on my lap with the hashtag #teatime. The framing is bad, the cover is illegible, the filters are awful, but what I sought to capture was that ambience of sitting with a good book and a hot cup of tea. I’ve posted dozens and dozens of pictures of what I’m reading and drinking and eating since then, and what I try always to present for those scrolling past is the coziness of a world where reading and thinking and drinking tea allows for the long stretches of unstructured thinking so often absent from our everyday.
In the five years since I posted that first picture, I’ve developed some rules for myself about posting #teatime pictures: first, no books I haven’t read in some way (whether it be cover to cover or just dipping into for research); second, the books should represent an array of my interests and loves (and not just make me look like some sort of platonic ideal of a scholar), and, finally, if possible, each picture should feature somewhere or something new or different. The photographs have become an alibi for exploring new coffeeshops, trying new books, and taking a moment away from work to just sit with myself. Of course, these pictures are curated, contrived, and performative—it would be facile to pretend I wasn’t presenting a version of myself. But I’ve found that constructing these images makes me truly step back and think about what I’m reading and how I’m fully exploring the world around me.
And yes, I am thinking of the people who look. I am thinking of a kind of shared community to which certain books signal certain things and for me that makes me feel not quite as alone. As a scholar of Black feminist and queer theory and African American literature, I take advantage of an audience to signal boost books by diverse authors. Friends and acquaintances ask in the comments if a book is any good, where I got the beautiful piece of pie, or tell me that they just started the same book. I am not unique in sharing images of books I’m reading. Instagram has become dense with artfully arranged book pictures. And friends often share their own pictures and tag me in a kind of homage—which is very sweet and helps me feel that I am in a community even as I sit alone and often a day’s drive from my closest friends.
When I was an undergraduate, I had a tea party for my birthday every year. I would make a batch of scones and my friends would all join me for cups of tea and card games. In graduate school I would often read and write surrounded by friends in coffee shops. Now I often sit alone in coffeeshops and I want to share the coziness, the insularity of the world we build as we read, by snapping a picture and uploading it to Instagram. #teatime has become a kind of brand and balm for me. In their work on Black Twitter’s use of hashtags, Pritha Prasad and Tara L. Conley both describe how hashtags allow for users to connect in ways that mess with normative ideas about temporality and physical space; hashtags allow a simultaneity of experience that is both timeless and grounded. #teatime is a minor hashtag in comparison to the politically charged hashtags discussed by Prasad and Conley, but what I find true in my own life is the way hashtags and social media posts can provide a bridge across time zones and physical locations. As Dickinson might say, this is my letter to world, or rather, my pot of tea. With each #teatime post I’m asking you to join me for a cuppa and a chat about the good book you’re in the middle of (currently I’m luxuriating in Jasmine Guillory’s lovely The Proposal). I’ll be here waiting for you with a fresh scone. What’s the tea? I’ll be Mother.
J. Brendan Shaw is an Assistant Professor at Central State University. His research examines African American women’s literature and visual art, Black feminist theory, queer theory, and popular culture studies. He drinks a lot of tea, reads a lot of books, and sometimes accepts the indignity of putting creamer in a cup of tea when it’s all a coffee shop has to offer (sorry, Mom). He makes a damned fine scone. You can find him on instagram @jbrezandan and on twitter @jbrendanshaw.