Treating Myself: A Brightening and Hydrating Facial from Silver Mirror Facial Bar

NB: I was given a 20% discount on this service when I offered to review it. All opinions are my own.

When I was in my last few months of pregnancy, walking from the gym to work in the mornings, I noticed a new facial bar along the way. It opened recently, and I finally remembered to jot down the name of it when I was walking from my favorite pastry shop, and emailed them for information. Silver Mirror Facial Bar was originally opened in New York City by co-owners Cindy Kim and Matt Maroone with the mission of making regular facials more available to US women. Kim was also a co-founder of Korean Beauty retailer Peach and Lily and was inspired by the skin clinic culture in Korea.

The bar offers just facials, with 30-minute and 50-minute offerings, as well as extras and add-ons. I received a 50-minute Brightening/Dryness Facial, in part because of some rough dryness I’d had around my jawline, and just a general desire to look a little more awake after months of an uncertain sleep schedule. Walking into the facial bar reminds me a bit of a mix between a fancy salon and a minimalist doctor’s office, with a white reception desk, a minimalist shelf displaying the products they sell, and a small waiting area. I checked in on an iPad and the receptionist offered me a drink (it was one of the hottest days this year), which I accepted gladly. I spent just long enough in the waiting area to finish my cup of watermelon water before my aesthetician Olga met me and showed me back to the treatment area.

True to their minimalist, clinical aesthetic, the treatment area is just one large room with curtains to separate different clients’ beds during facials, somewhat like a chic emergency room. There was a bin for my purse, a charger for my devices, a mirror, and a bed. I did not have to remove anything (although I did remove my shoes), but simply lay on the bed in my clothes. Olga covered my legs and feet with a blanket, my neckline with a towel, and wrapped my hair out of the way, and then began.

The facial began with the typical steam and cleansing. She did a double-cleanse using a brightening facial cleanser with vitamin C and lactic acid. This was followed with an enzyme mask, a delicious-smelling lavender toner, and then extractions. After extractions, she used some high frequency to zap bacteria. I’d had this done before years ago, but somehow it was less zappy than I remembered.

Up until this point, the facial was like virtually every other facial I’d had and I wondered if I would be disappointed. Then, she brought out the derma roller.

Derma rolling uses a wheel of tiny needles to make micro punctures in the skin to increase product absorption and improve collagen production. It feels a bit like someone is rolling a miniature version of those “bed of nails” mats all over your face. Not painful, but not what I’m into. She applied a hydrating serum over most of my face, skipping over the more sensitive areas, and then applied a hydrating sheet mask under a warm towel for a few minutes to hydrate my skin deeply.

After that, she used the bar’s signature vitamin-and-oxygen mist, which felt incredibly soothing after my derma rolling experience, and then set me up with eye protection so I could rest under LED to help with anti-aging and brightening (red light). An application of SPF finished off the facial. I looked in the mirror and found myself pink-cheeked and fresh looking, and then went back to the office. The whole experience was exactly 50 minutes, though it packed more in than many 1-hour facials I’ve had in the past.

Of course, as with any facial at a salon that sells product, there was a bit of a sales pitch at the end. Olga brought a package of the lavender toner, the delicious scent of which I’d commented on during the facial, and offered it, though without any pressure. When I said “not today,” the subject was dropped.

Over the course of the day, I noticed that my skin felt the ambient heat a little more, and I had a bit of sensitivity on my walk home. But when I woke up the next morning and washed my face, I was amazed at how smooth my skin looked. While I have pretty good skin to begin with, the facial brought it to the next level. And my normal forehead wrinkle has remained much softer in appearance. I’m rather impressed the results of this facial, and I’ve already made an appointment to return for a 30-minute facial entirely on my own dime so that I can see if the shorter facial is similarly impressive. Perhaps I will become one of those women who gets a monthly facial.

On Self-Care, Skin Care, and the Changes of Motherhood

I like to keep up with Stephen Alain Ko’s Beauty Recap each week (especially now that he has made it easier by posting swipe-up links in his Instagram Stories). And the other day, he linked a great article in Verily Magazine about the distinction between self-care and skin care. I’ve already been thinking a lot about beauty standards, skin care, and how capitalist colonial ideals inform our standards of beauty, but this was a fresh look at the fine line between encouragement and marketing when discussing self/skin care. Of course, skin care can be immensely powerful, as evidenced by my introduction to Korean beauty, Jude Chao’s seminal work on skin care and depression, so I thought a little about how skin care has fit into my ideas of self care and how that is distinct from buying product.

I happen to be undergoing a period of rapid change and, often, stress in my life. I had my first child and have been working to rebuild the shaken foundations of my self image while also existing on not much sleep and even less free time. Oh, and I’m now back at work full-time, too. So it’s been difficult sometimes to find time just for myself. I always have my tea and I’ve been making time for crafts, but both of those things are often things I do while I’m with Elliot and Dan, so beauty has become my true private time during the day.

When we met with our doula, her most important postpartum recovery tip was to have a morning routine and an evening routine that is simple enough that you can do it every day. She wasn’t talking about skin care; she literally meant that you should have something to separate day from night during those first few weeks when you’re awake basically around the clock. Because I’d had a c-section, I was supposed to limit my time walking up and down the stairs, so my main morning and evening routines were transitioning from upstairs to downstairs, and vice versa, but my skin care routine added an important element of reconnecting with myself. Each morning, Dan would give me at least five minutes to wash my face and put on moisturizer, and then in the evening, he would take Elliot for an hour or so, which gave me time to do a full skin care routine and take a nap before he brought Elliot up.

In the early days, when I could barely stand long enough to shower, this often involved a lot of shortcuts, like cleansing water and toner pads, and has evolved nearly back to my full, complicated routine. Contrary to the consumerist ideal of shelfie skin care, I’ve discovered a profound comfort in stripping my skin care routine to its core and using the same products over and over again. It does not make for good Instagram photos, but when I never know what my life will look like on a given day, it’s nice to know that my cleanser is an old standby. I haven’t felt nearly as much need to experiment with products, despite the importance of my skin care routine in maintaining my sense of normalcy postpartum.

But the one thing I have added to my routine is a nightly facial massage with my stone gua sha. I use this video tutorial from Sandra Lanshin Chiu to inform my routine. Each night, after I’ve fed Elliot and put him in his crib, I sit at my vanity and perform this nightly ritual. With most of the lights in the bedroom off to allow Elliot to sleep, I often do my massage by the light of a lavender-scented candle. I start with a few sprays of pure rosewater for some hydration, and then press in a generous amount of rose hip oil, but it’s not about product. You can use whatever you fancy and have on hand. I don’t use anything particularly expensive for this because I use a lot and apply it to my face, neck, and shoulders. Then, I begin smoothing my gua sha tool over my skin, feeling the coolness of the stone, and the pressure when it encounters a knot in my muscles. I can feel it help relax my neck, shoulder, and face muscles, relieve mild headaches, relax stress and worry that I’m holding in my face and neck, and stimulate blood flow.

Usually, Elliot is sleeping while I do this, but every once in a while, he doesn’t fall asleep during his feeding, and he will stay awake in his crib, watching me from across the room. I like the idea that he will grow up with memories of his mother caring for herself, although at this point it must be pretty boring because he is usually asleep by the time I finish. Other than an occasional silent observer, I am alone for this ritual while Dan finishes the washing up. There are no demands on my attention other than what I am paying to myself. And when I finish my massage, I apply my moisturizing lotion and get into bed.

I have other forms of self care, but so much has changed since becoming a mother. I can no longer make as much time to go to the gym or do theater. But my skin care routine is still there, even without any shiny new products, and it has helped me maintain a connection to my sense of self, as well as take time to center as I enter motherhood.

In my Cupboard: Investigating the Gaiwan

As my Instagram followers may know, I have a varied collection of teaware from around the world, in many different styles. I’ve decided to start a series where I talk a little bit about the different styles of teaware I use, their history, and how I use them.

When I wrote my tea primer, the third “level” was the use of the gaiwan to brew tea using a technique called “gong fu cha,” or “tea with great skill.” In modern times, the use of the gaiwan of a brewing vessel, from which the tea is decanted into serving vessels, is taken largely for granted, but offhand comments of people on Reddit, as well as what I’ve seen on historical dramas, suggested to me that the gaiwan was originally used as a brewing and drinking vessel. Intrigued, I decided to do some digging and explore how the use of the gaiwan has changed over its history.

One of the seminal works on Chinese tea preparation is Lu Yu’s Classic of Tea (or Tea Classic), and yet this work makes no mention of the gaiwan, instead describing a method of preparing tea by whisking powdered tea in a tea bowl. It is believed that the gaiwan was developed during the Ming Dynasty. It’s not known exactly when the gaiwan began to be used, but it was a regular part of teaware in the early 18th century. Sadly, this means that the depictions of gaiwan that delighted me in the Yuan dynasty courts of Empress Ki were probably an anachronism.

The blog Tea Guardian offers this pictorial history of the gaiwan, which shows a vessel that is recognizable as our modern gaiwan, which dates to the early 18th century, though predecessor lidded bowls also exist. In a post on using the gaiwan as a cup, the article states that the Manchurians began using the gaiwan as a brewing and drinking vessel. They favored green and jasmine-scented green teas, which are brewed at a lower temperature, and can be easily drunk from the gaiwan before the tea steeps long enough to become unpleasant. Other sources suggest that this would have been an early form of tea cupping, where the tea is sipped throughout the steeping process in order to determine at what point the tea is to the drinker’s taste.

Armed with some research, I resolved to try drinking from the gaiwan. I chose a gaiwan with a deep saucer, and the tallest one I own, in order to  adhere to the suggestions in the post above. And I chose a Longjing tea, which was a favorite of the Qing Dynasty, when the gaiwan arose for certain. Drinking from a gaiwan is similar to drinking grandpa-style, though the smaller quantity of tea makes it easier to finish a cup of tea before it overbrews. There is a unique sense of both informality and ceremony in it, as the tea is not carefully timed, but the ritual of tilting and holding the lid, and carefully holding the cup by the saucer rather than touching any part of the bowl itself feels special. It is oddly one of my favorite ways to drink tea at my desk now.

And if the depiction in my favorite drama is anachronistic, I do still feel a bit like a fancy court lady.

Meditations on Matcha and Father’s Day

NB: Those of you who don’t know, my father died in late 2012, so this is not an entirely happy post, especially since we had a rather tumultuous relationship before that.

It was Father’s Day yesterday in the States, and a friend’s post on Instagram got me reminiscing about how my father indirectly introduced me to matcha. The following story may shock and horrify you, particularly if you’re something of a tea purist, but I feel like I’ve learned a lot from this time in my life, and I’ve tried to bring it to my current understanding of tea.

Since I was a teenager, I had a somewhat strained relationship with my father, which fractured entirely when he divorced my mother. In college, I made the decision to stop speaking to him entirely, a decision that led to seven years of estrangement. Eventually, we reconnected and started rebuilding a tenuous sort of relationship. A couple of years later, I would lose him, so I suppose it was fortunate that we were able to mostly reconcile before his death.

When my father was diagnosed with cancer in late 2011, he embarked on a rather aggressive treatment regimen, and my stepmother, likely in an attempt to bring some sense of control to a terrifying time, threw herself into researching complementary therapies. She particularly looked into diet and supplements that could support an anti-cancer lifestyle. This led to the purchase of a great deal of “health food” and various forms of green tea, including a tin of matcha powder. Now, my father decided he liked the matcha-dusted green tea bags they got, which he dubbed his “macho tea,” but no one much liked the plain matcha powder because it was such a strong green tea flavor.

At the time, I was living with them because I had separated from my first husband, and as both a green-tea-drinker and one who hated waste, I started drinking the matcha. Of course, I also started baking with the spelt flour and flaxseeds and cooking with some of the healthier food (I was going through a pseudo-vegan phase at that point), and at one point I had a rather large master list of the vegan muffin recipes I had developed.

In the spring of 2012, my father finished his treatment and was deemed cancer-free, but in fall of 2012, it returned, more aggressively, and it was likely not going to go as well this time. So even though I had since moved out of their house and into a shared house in the same neighborhood, I spent much of my time at my stepmother’s house. By December 2012, it was obvious that it was the end, possibly any day, so I spent my days sitting next to his bed while he slept whenever anyone else from his large family wasn’t there to be with him. I would occasionally sing to him, and occasionally read a book while he slept, but I always had my mug of tea.

As a raw newcomer to the world of matcha, my preferred cuppa was a large mug with a teaspoon of matcha in the bottom, filled with hot water from the insta-hot water tap and stirred with a spoon. No sifting, whisking, or controlled water temperature. No fancy teaware, or even particularly good matcha. Just a mug filled with a somewhat-sludgy, swamp-water concoction that tasted like green tea, kept me feeling alert but calm throughout trying days, and could be refilled occasionally as the powder settled out.

It’s not a sophisticated way to drink matcha, and that’s okay. I came to tea slowly, in increments, starting with a love of tea parties with bagged Twinings, and then on to loose leaf from Teavana, so beginning with matcha by unceremoniously dumping a spoonful of low-ish quality powder in a large mug seems almost fitting. And no matter how intricate my own personal tea rituals may become, sometimes I like to remember their humble beginnings.

So to commemorate this Father’s Day, I made myself a spoonful of matcha in a mug and sipped it slowly while I remember the lessons of tea my father probably never knew he’d taught me.

Adventures in Crafting

My longer-term followers might remember that I have been a crafter for a few years, and even crocheted my own wedding shawl, which I have saved for a future generation. But, as my life has become more hectic, I’m finding myself with less time for crochet and other crafts. So in recent weeks, I’ve been endeavoring to find more time to myself, and since we have not yet fully unpacked, our television is largely useless, and I’ve turned to crafts to fill some of the time with contemplative leisure.

Of course, I’ve come to realize in recent years that large crochet projects are not something that I enjoy. While I appreciate ultimately finishing a project, more often than not, I get bored and abandon the project before I can finish. So when we moved house, I decided to get rid of almost all of my yarn, save a few special pieces for smaller projects. I kept my wool from the Knockando wool mill in Scotland, for example. I also found a new craft kit that I’d bought a while ago, when I was trying to find ways to distract myself while we were trying to conceive: an embroidery kit.

Like many, perhaps, I watched my mother and other female relatives do cross-stitch when I was a girl. I even wanted to try my hand at it, but perhaps from my natural inclination for abandoning past-times, I never got very far. But when I saw these floral initial kits on the Instagram page for a local fabric and craft store, I was smitten. So I bought one. And then I put it in a box and forgot about it.

The first day we sent Elliot to daycare, I was lost. I had the entire day completely to myself for the first time in months. So I picked up this embroidery kit and started it. It’s relatively simple and has everything you might need, save perhaps a small pair of embroider scissors, which really do make a difference when snipping tiny threads. I enjoyed sitting on my sofa and making my tiny stitches like a genteel lady of the past. And it reminded me that I love stitchery. So not only am I eager to finish this project and start a new one, possibly of my own designing, but I’ve also started looking into trying my hand at sewing. And when I say “trying my hand,” I mean literally, as I have neither the equipment or expertise to operate a sewing machine. So after I finish my embroidery project, I’ll be starting on my first proper sewing project, with a pattern and everything.

I have of course, been warned about the tedium of hand-sewing, particularly on a garment with a rather large hemline, but I do find the simplicity almost meditative. I enjoy the moments I have to sit and stitch and focus my mind on that task, feeling how such crafts connect us not only with our own minds and hands, but also with the centuries of people who did the same for their own garments. And who knows? Perhaps I shall hone my sewing skills enough to be able to mend my own clothes more readily, which seems an admirable goal in this age of sustainability and an avoidance of waste.

And so I’ve found myself returning to the quiet, old-fashioned pastimes that I’ve done before. Of course, such hobbies go beautifully with a cup of tea to fortify oneself. What are your favorite crafts, readers?

On “Mom Hair”

A couple months ago, someone on Instagram suggested I post a tutorial for my standard daily bun, and when I was thinking about filming that, I realized that I haven’t done a hair update in a while. Not a whole lot has changed since my last update, in terms of technique, though the products have changed, but I’ve definitely spent a lot more time thinking about how hair care fits into my identity as a mother.

The “mom haircut” is almost a Western cultural archetype, a symbol of a woman’s changing identity upon becoming a mother. Kind of like mom jeans for your head. Apparently the modern idea of “mom hair” hearkens back to the mid-90s, when politicians were desperate to win the “soccer mom” vote, but the idea that a woman should change her appearance when she becomes a mother has deep roots, at least as far back as the “separate spheres” philosophy that situated women at the center of the moral compass for a family. Interestingly, the bob haircut has gone from a statement of protest against cultural norms of a woman’s place (see Joan of Arc or flappers in the 1920s) to a sign that a woman is fitting into her designated role as a mom.

There is also the undeniable convenience factor. Many women find short hair much easier to care for, and of course, the reality of postpartum shedding means that long hair is a lot more visible when it falls out in clumps on the bathroom (and bedroom, and living room, and kitchen…) floor. And I’ve definitely experienced that in the last few months.

But I have personally chosen not to get a “mom” haircut. While the hair loss is striking, my hair is still thick enough that it’s difficult to style into a contained style if it’s shorter than my mid-back. So as far as keeping my hair out of tiny hands, my best options are long enough to put in a bun, or a pixie. And since I can trim my super long hair myself, rather than visiting a salon every 6-8 weeks to maintain a pixie, long hair wins out for me. So I’ve decided to keep my long hair. It’s currently down nearly to my waist, and while I’ve noticed a decrease in thickness as it sheds, it’s still pretty thick.

Elliot loves to grab at my hair, so I generally keep it up and away from him. My go-to style is a bun called the Nautilus Bun, which I originally learned from The Long Hair Community. It’s a simple, well-balanced bun that sits close to my head and doesn’t get uncomfortable or heavy after a whole day. It’s a set-it-and-forget-it kind of bun. I can anchor it with a fork, stick, or a clip, and the construction makes it easier to fasten securely without being too tight. And it has a rather nice look to it. So that’s how I handle having very long hair around a baby. I do sometimes wear it in a braid during the day, and I always braid my hair at night, but I have to be careful to keep it away from curious hands. I posted a video of me putting my hair up in this bun on Instagram, but my favorite tutorial can be found here.

But how do I keep such long hair clean? Well, the most important thing to note is that most of my hair care takes place outside of the shower. I wash my hair 2-3 times a week, and I only condition in the shower once a week. This works for my hair, which is relatively sturdy, and that almost never experiences damage from dye or heat styling. I also condition my hair outside the shower, with leave-in conditioner and oil, so I can watch the baby and take care of my hair. Luckily, Elliot likes to watch me do my hair.

So that’s it. That’s how I care for my very long hair, even with a baby. I’ve kept up this routine throughout my maternity leave, including during my husband’s three out-of-town trips since Elliot was born. I really only need five minutes or less in the shower most of the time, unless I’m doing my once weekly deep conditioning, so it fits really well into my life. At this point, I think I might be seeing my hair loss start to taper off, too. I’m curious how others have handled the idea of “mom hair” in their lives.

Notes from Moving House

Last week, we packed up and moved to a new house. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know that I arrived at the new house to find the yard an absolute riot of roses in full bloom, which I took as a sign that this was the right place for us. We’ve spent the last week settling in and learning how to feel at home in this new place. And also unpacking. It’s the first time I’ve moved in nearly 5 years, and the first time Dan and I have moved together, so I had forgotten what it’s like to be thrown into a new environment. Add to that the unique challenge of sorting out two houses while caring for an infant, and suffice to say, it’s been an interesting week.

Getting out of the Dirty Work

Because we have Elliot, one of us always has to be around to watch him when he’s not at daycare. We wisely scheduled our packers and movers to come on Thursday and Friday so we could take him to daycare, and then return to help with that. It was very smart. Unfortunately, there was enough left to be done over the weekend that we had to decide which one of us had to stay at the new house with Elliot and which went to the old house to scrub five years’ worth of grime out of the crevices that had been hidden by furniture. Because I have the milk, I got to stay at the new house and got out of all the cleaning. In case anyone thinks this was unfair, Dan decided on this arrangement before I had even thought about it.

Luckily, our former landlady was immensely understanding of the fact that we were moving out of a house that had been continually rented without totally turning over for years before we even moved in, and Dan didn’t need to spend too much time cleaning. Unfortunately, our mulberry tree decided to fruit and drop berries right on our front walk the week we moved, so the movers tracked mulberries everywhere, so he did have to clean that up. But he easily finished by Sunday evening, which left us most of Monday to decompress (before he left for a trip!).

You Live Among Boxes Now

Our new place is quite a bit smaller than our old place. Now, we didn’t have as much stuff as would normally fill a three-bedroom house, so moving to a two-bedroom wasn’t too difficult, and we were able to get rid of a lot of old things that we didn’t need, but it’s still a bit cramped since we haven’t fully unpacked. I’ve given us the reasonable goal of being unpacked before the end of June. The first room I unpacked was the office/tea room so that we have a nice place to sit in the mornings, with a relatively clear floor space for Elliot to play. Which is nice because our living room is currently the repository of empty boxes. Sophie has eked out a spot on the back of the sofa that isn’t covered in packing materials so she can rest and look out one of the many beautiful windows.

But for the most part, we are still living out of boxes and with boxes as our primary decor. We’ve cleared a sort of pathway through the boxes in the living room so we can walk from one end of the house to the other. And I still haven’t found the box that has my dirty laundry in it so I can have the clothes I wear most often. I was able to find one last work-appropriate dress this morning, hidden under a sweater in my drawer, but this weekend, finding and washing laundry will be necessary.

New Things and Old Things

I think the most exciting thing (for me) about the new house is that I have a more-or-less dedicated tea room. Yes, Dan’s desk is in the same room, but for the most part, our second bedroom is a space for me to enjoy tea, meditate, and do my yoga. Because we had to purge all the clutter that littered our old spare room, it’s going to be clear (as soon as we get rid of empty boxes!). We decided that it was best to put my tea things in a separate room so that we can close the door and keep Elliot out once he starts pulling himself up on the furniture. It also has an east-facing window, so it gets beautiful morning sun.

We also have a beautiful new kitchen, with more counter and cabinet space, a gas stove, and a dishwasher for the first time in years. Dan is particularly excited about that one, since he’s been on dish duty for the last five years. But I’m excited to start using my new kitchen. We’ve been eating takeout for the last week or so, so the first thing we’re going to do this weekend is sort out the kitchen so I can start cooking again.

But of course, the more things change, the more they remain the same. One of the things that saddened me a little was leaving all the neighborhood cats that I’d gotten to know over the years. So what do I see the day we get to the new house? A cat lounging behind our house! There are two cats that I’ve seen who like to lounge in our yard or sun themselves on the fence. I believe they live at the house behind us, since they look much too well-fed to be strays.

*                   *                    *

So that’s where we’re at moving. It’s been an exciting and terrifying week, but the new place is starting to feel like home. I can’t wait to see what it looks like when we get everything unpacked and decorated!

Tea Review: Yunnan Sourcing Oolong Tea Subscription

It has been a while since I’ve done regular tea reviews on the blog, but I thought I’d share a bit of what I’ve been drinking. While I was pregnant, I got very into oolong teas, and that hasn’t changed as I’ve navigated motherhood. One of my favorite things about oolong is that it’s generally the easiest tea I’ve found to brew grandpa-style because the leaves are very big, and I don’t find most oolongs get particularly bitter or astringent if they sit for a while. So when my mom offered to pay for a tea subscription to go along with the gorgeous silver teapot she bought me for my birthday in March, I knew I would be going for oolong, despite the fact that it’s perhaps not the best suited for brewing in silver.

So I joined the Yunnan Sourcing Tea Club and got a subscription for their Oolong Tea Box. Now, after three months of the subscription, I decided to cancel, but that was mostly due to having to save space for my upcoming move (although a bit of it is that my tea tastes run very seasonally — in the future, I might write a post about my ideal tea subscription). But for three months, I enjoyed a monthly box of surprise oolong teas (yes, they post what each month’s box will be, but I didn’t usually look before I got my package).

Because I’m not reviewing specific months, I’m not going to focus on the specific teas I received. In the future, I might start filming tasting videos again and share some of them. But as a whole, the tea box was full of interesting teas, many of which were styles that I wouldn’t have tried on my own. I’d never really gotten into dan cong oolongs and at least one month featured them heavily. It also featured teas harvested within the last year, so it didn’t feel like I was getting overstock of teas that didn’t sell.

The amount was actually maybe a little more than I could get through, given that I didn’t always want to drink the teas from the boxes, but I think that if I ever wanted to exclusively drink teas from a subscription, this would be how I would do it. My original thought behind getting a subscription was just that — as a new mom, I didn’t spend as much time looking at interesting teas online, so having them picked out and sent to me worked well. But I was getting in excess of 100g of tea per month, which, given my immediate-postpartum consumption of just 2-3g of tea per day (grandpa-style), was more than enough to hold me. Now that I’ve gone back to regular gongfu sessions, I could probably get through 150g or so in a month.

Finally, I think one of the main complaints I hear about Yunnan Sourcing is that their selection is daunting. I get it. I pretty much only buy from them when I’m in the market for something pretty specific. But the upshot is that I don’t branch out quite as much. One of my favorite teas from them was a sample that Scott threw into an order. The tea subscription feels a lot like what would happen if you just asked Scott to send you something good each month.

So my bottom line is that if you’re a regular tea drinker, have a definitive favorite type of tea, and have decision fatigue, give the Yunnan Sourcing subscriptions a try. I imagine the “curated samplers” are similar in quality, for a one-off experience.

NB: While this subscription was given to me as a gift from a family member, I was not given any particular incentive to review it and all thoughts are my own.

Thoughts on Returning to “Normal” Life

It should come as no surprise to anyone that my life has changed in the last several months. For a while, I felt so irreversibly changed by the experience of having a child that I thought I wouldn’t return to this blog. But since returning to work, I find myself emerging from the haze of new motherhood and realizing that it’s time for me to find a way to merge my new life and identity with my old ones. Slowly, I’ve stopped seeing this as a complete change in identity and started re-incorporating my old loves with my new.

It was easy to see such a start transition. First of all, my nausea and food aversions ramped up gradually during pregnancy. Then, as soon as the baby came out, it was gone. I felt like a different person. Add that onto the perpetual hunger of breastfeeding and I was a bottomless pit, whereas for months I had had to avoid all kinds of things, simply because they didn’t play well with my pregnant body. There is also a mental difference. Beyond my postpartum depression, which I’ve discussed on my other blog, there is a certain ethereal sense of mental detachment that happens when your sleep schedule is so altered. I spent many weeks basically living my life around the clock, rather than having day and night. It was merely “upstairs” vs. “downstairs.”

And then there was the deep, unexpected sense of love that overwhelmed me from the first moment I saw Elliot. I knew I would love my baby, but I was unprepared by how all-consuming that feeling would be. I will leave it at that, mostly because I can’t find words to put to the feeling.

But then, after a couple months, something started to happen. I started to emerge. It began slowly, with a tea session. I spent some time to have a nice session with a new tea in nice tea ware while I was home with Elliot. And then, one of the early days that we sent him to daycare before I went back to work, I used my quiet free time to enjoy the backyard and have my tea outside, like I used to do each weekend. Finally, we got the news that my husband wouldn’t be taking a new job out of state, which meant that I would be staying in my job. I had spent so long trying to see myself as a stay-at-home mom because it seemed like we were probably going to move that I didn’t know how to cope with the idea that, yes, I was going back to work, and it would be for the foreseeable future.

I will be honest, I was not at all excited to go back to work.

But I had to. And the days of my leave counted down. I hugged Elliot a little tighter. The weekend before I returned to work was the hardest. And then that Monday came and I got up, did my morning routine, and got on the metro.

And I had a wonderful day at work. Being away from work has almost been like a reset. Motherhood has given me a limited willingness to put up with other people’s drama, so I take what I need and leave the rest, and it’s given me more clarity on my work. But even more importantly, it’s helped me see myself as something more than a mother. I’m not the “old” me, but I’m not entirely changed, either.

That has drawn me back to this space. I will still endeavor to keep the mostly specifically-baby-related updates on my other blog, but I am going to try to blend the two sides of this transition into one life, because I’m not one or the other. I’m both. I’m all of it. And it’s nice to be back.

The Tea Leaves and Tweed Tea Primer: Side Quest (Tisanes and Herbal “Teas”)

As I mentioned in the prologue, the primary focus of this tea primer is true tea, made from Camellia sinensis. As such, I am loathe to consider herbal infusions or tisanes as “teas” (heck, even Benedict Cumberbatch has waded into this fray). But I do frequently enjoy infusions and tisanes of herbs and spices, and I thought I’d talk a little bit about my philosophy on herbal teas, where I get my herbs, how I prepare them, and share some of my favorite blends.

First of all, in herbals as well as teas, I prefer loose-leaf. I will use teabags in a pinch, but I find the flavor from loose-leaf herbs to be far superior. Plus, I love to create my own blends. One problem I have with commercial herbal blends is that they often contain ingredients to make them taste sweeter, or to cover the flavor of less palatable herbs. In layman’s terms, this usually means stevia, licorice root, or cinnamon, all of which I don’t particularly like. Cinnamon I can tolerate in specific blends, but only if it’s there for a reason, and not just to elevate the flavor of a blend with a particularly unpopular taste. So obviously the blends and opinions I share here will be heavily influenced by my own tastes. But the nice thing about blending your own herbal teas is that you can follow your tastes and see what works for you.

A Note About the Health Effects of Herbal Teas:

Personally, I came to herbal tea from my investigation into amateur herbalism. I’ve taken some training over the years, and done some self-study of herbal medicine, and have a decent understanding of a limited field of common herbal remedies, which I use for myself and my family members for minor complaints. Do note that I’m not a medical professional or even a licensed herbalist and I can’t give you advice on what to use for your own complaints, just a description of what works for me. I’m talking about really gentle things like ginger for an upset tummy or a cup of chamomile tea before bed.

But I think it is important to remember that herbs do have constituents that can affect our health, in both positive and negative ways. Personally, when I use herbs, I like to stick to traditional methods of ingestion: mostly infusions in water, with the occasional salve/oil/tincture/vinegar. I don’t generally take tablets or capsules of whole plants because most plants weren’t just eaten whole, unless they were food plants. Plus, I find a lot of benefit, personally, from the experience of a nice cup of tea than from popping a pill. But that’s just my preference.

All that said, most herbal teas, drunk for taste and pleasure, are probably not going to have enough plant matter in them to cause a strong reaction, unless you have a specific condition. I think it’s important to know what’s in your teas and what effects it can have, but for the most part, expecting a strong medicinal effect from the amount of plants used in a cup of herbal tisane drunk for enjoyment is unrealistic. Personally, I’ve started keeping more of an eye on this since becoming pregnant, as the body can be more sensitive to certain actions, and also I sometimes brew my loose-herb tisanes stronger than the typical cup made with a teabag.

I generally consult multiple sources to determine if there is any evidence that an herb might cause an adverse effect. Of course, almost all herbs are labeled with an obligatory “if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, consult your doctor” because there just aren’t a lot of studies of herbs on pregnant women. And similarly, there just aren’t a lot of studies of certain herbal remedies. So when I’m curious if a tea might have an adverse effect, I tend to check these three places: Mountain Rose Herbs (where I buy a lot of my herbs), Botanical.com, and WebMD.

These three resources give different layers of information. WebMD gives me information any known interactions with medication or specific medical conditions (such as the possible blood-thinning effects of chamomile). Mountain Rose Herbs usually gives a warning if there is a specific action that you should be aware of (such as using caution when taking chamomile if you are allergic to other members of the Asteraceae family, which includes ragweed). And Botanical.com gives a more complete picture of the chemical constituents of an herb, its historical usage, and how different parts are used. That said, these are not the resources I used to gain a working knowledge of using herbs for my health, but that is a topic for another time. If you’re interested in gaining more knowledge about herbal healing traditions, I’d highly recommend seeing if you have a local herb store that offers classes.

Finally, it’s important when choosing herbal tisanes and infusions to know exactly what plant you’re getting. True tea, as I’ve mentioned before, is from only one species of plant, Camellia sinensis, but herbs can have a multitude of names, and sometimes the same name can refer to different species of plants. Using the chamomile example above, “chamomile” can refer to Anthemis nobilis or Matricaria chamomilla. Fortunately, both of these have similar effects. But another example is cinnamon: what most of us have in our spice racks is actually cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia), which contains a chemical constituent called coumarin, which can have adverse effects in the body. Another kind of cinnamon, Cinnamomum verum, which is called Ceylon, sweet, or true cinnamon, doesn’t contain these coumarins. Both are sold simply as “cinnamon,” so it’s important to buy from a reputable seller who provides full Latin names if you have a condition that could interact with coumarins, to make sure you know what you’re getting (in fact, the form of cassia cinnamon sold at Mountain Rose Herbs is a third type of cinnamon, Cinnamomum burmannii, which can have even higher coumarin levels than C. cassia, but they clearly label the Latin name of the form they sell so you know what you’re getting).

So Where Do I Get Herbal Tea?

This all leads nicely into the discussion of where I source my herbs. As I mentioned, Mountain Rose Herbs is where I get a lot of my bulk herbs. If you’re very new, they sell herbs in a variety of sizes, so you can buy just an ounce or so of a bunch of different herbs. The shipping costs can be steep, but it generally balances out, and the quality is high. In particular, my absolute favorite dried peppermint comes from MRH. When you open the bag, your eyes water from the mintiness. And they ship things in thick, resealable, plastic zipper bags, so you can store your herbs in the bags they come in and be relative sure they will stay fresh. They offer a large variety of different herbs and spices and give the Latin name clearly, as well as a brief overview of uses and precautions right on the website. Plus, they have some extra things, like oils, butters, and accessories.

As I mentioned, the drawback of MRH is the shipping cost. Sometimes, if you’re only buying a little bit, the shipping cost will be as much or even more than the price of the herbs themselves. So when I’m buying small amounts of herbs to test out an herbal blend, I will often turn to Etsy sellers. In particular, for herbs, I’ve liked what I’ve gotten from Mortar and Petal, which is sadly currently closed for the holiday season. But when I was buying small amounts of herbs to test out a new blend for my pregnancy tea, I liked that I could buy just half an ounce or an ounce of a few different herbs and have them ship in a small padded envelope, rather than paying for the whole box-and-bubbles deal that comes from MRH. Plus, it’s less packing material.

But what about when I’m not in the mood to measure out loose herbs and muck about with an infuser? I’ve already admitted to using bagged tea for a real cuppa, and I will admit to drinking bagged tisanes as well. While I love my pyramid, whole-leaf bags for herbals as well as true tea, I also drink paper teabag tisanes. My favorite brands of tisanes that I can get in my store are Traditional Medicinals, Celebration Herbals, and Buddha Teas. All of these brands offer herbal “simples,” which means bags with just one kind of herb, which is nice, as well as blends. It’s important to read the ingredients lists and supplement facts for the blends to make sure you know what exactly is in the tea, though. I find that Traditional Medicinals, in particular, likes to add licorice and/or stevia to their blends to sweeten them, which I dislike. Also, other than Celebration Herbals, they’re not great about putting Latin names on the boxes sold in stores, so if you’re concerned about that, you’ll want to look them up on their websites.

But for an easy cup of tea, especially when I’m not feeling well, I like using bags. It’s also the easiest way to carry herbals around without getting sideways glances for keeping a bunch of unlabeled jars of dried leaves in your desk cabinet. And it’s basically the only way I get my husband to drink a cup of herbal tisane when he’s sick.

Finally, for spices and fresh herbs, I often just get my materials from my local grocery store. I’m fortunate to have a store nearby that sells a large variety of bulk whole spices, plus I generally try to keep a knob of ginger root on hand. And some herbs, I can grow in my wild little herb garden (mostly sage and peppermint, honestly).

Preparing Herbal Tisanes, Infusions, and Other Hot Drinks:

So first a note about terminology: Typically, a bit of plant that is put in some hot water and left to sit for a certain amount of time is called a “tea” or “tisane” or “infusion.” Some herbalists differentiate between “tisane” (or “tea”) and “infusion” by insisting that an “infusion” is a very strong steeping of an herb, meant to draw a medicinal quantity of the active constituents into the brew. I’m not quite so pedantic about, but I generally consider an infusion to be stronger than a tisane, and I also generally consider an infusion to be a cuppa brewed more for the medicinal benefit while a tisane is often just for the pleasure of it (although of course the lines blur).

There are multiple ways to make a hot drink with non-tea plant matter. Personally, I like to steep most leaves and flowers similarly to how I would steep a tea — plunk a bit of it in hot water, let it sit for a while, and then pull the leaves out and enjoy. If I want something stronger, I’ll put a large amount of plant matter in a heat-safe jar, fill with boiling water, cover and steep for an hour or more before straining. But generally, I brew a cup of “herbal tea” by taking a tea bag or 1-3 teaspoons of loose herbs and steeping them in boiling water for 5-15 minutes, depending on the plant in question. It definitely helps to play with brewing parameters with herbs because different herbs have different flavors and strength of flavors.

Now, this is for dried herbs. It is absolutely possible to make an enjoyable tisane from fresh herbs, but you have to remember two things: 1.) fresh herbs have more water content and will have less concentrated flavors, so you will need more plant matter for a brew, and 2.) fresh herbs will often have a different flavor than the dried version. For example, I love fresh thyme’s citrusy notes, but dried thyme isn’t something I enjoy. One of my favorite herbs to steep fresh is peppermint, which has a green freshness that you don’t get from the dried herb. I take a handful of fresh peppermint from my garden, wash it, and steep it in boiling water for five minutes or so, often leaving the leaves in the pot while I enjoy the tea.

But you can also make a lovely hot beverage from spices and roots, which often requires different handling. I generally make spiced teas by cracking the spices slightly and simmering them in water for 15 or so minutes to fully extract the flavor (also called a decoction). An example would be the tea I describe in this post. Simply steeping spices in hot water often doesn’t yield a strong enough flavor, although one of my favorite spice teas is thin slices of ginger root steeped in boiling water for upwards of 5-10 minutes (I just put ginger in a mug, add boiling water, and drink it grandpa-style, refilling as the ginger punch becomes too intense).

Finally, you don’t have to steep your herbs and spices in water. My favorite nightcap is a mixture of lavender and chamomile, and it is particularly nice steeped in hot milk (or milk substitute) with a little dollop of honey. I don’t let the milk boil, but I bring it up to about 165 F and let it steep for a little bit before straining out the bits of herbs. Spices are also quite nice steeped in milk.

Some of My Favorite Combinations:

Spice tea: fresh orange peel, fresh ginger, Ceylon cinnamon, allspice, and cardamom (I developed this for my chai-loving, caffeine-averse mother-in-law!)

Pregnancy tea: red raspberry leaf, rose petals, lemon and orange peel, and lemon verbena (I’ve been drinking a cup of this every day since entering my third trimester)

Gardener’s Herbal Tea: Nettles, oatstraw, red raspberry leaf, and rose hips

Lavender and chamomile tisane: 1 scant tsp. of lavender buds and 1 heaped tsp. of chamomile flowers, steeped in a mug of boiling water for 10 minutes (my go-to before bed if I’m not making the milk-steeped concoction described earlier)

Fresh mint tea: a handful of fresh mint leaves steeped liberally in boiling water (brilliant for summer afternoons, especially with a lime wheel)

Fresh ginger tea: 5-7 thin slices of fresh ginger, steeped in boiling water grandpa-style, sipped until too strong and then topped off with more water (this one is lovely with a dollop of honey and a squeeze of lemon when your throat is a little scratchy, and I generally make it to keep backstage at shows)

Sage and honey tea: 1 tsp. of dried sage or 5-7 fresh sage leaves, steeped in boiling water for 5 minutes, and then sweetened with a generous dollop of honey (this is my personal remedy for a nighttime cough)

NB: I am not a medical professional nor am I a professional herbalist and cannot give health advice concerning the use of herbs. All the teas I describe here are my personal blends and favorites and I encourage you to do your own research and find your own favorites.