"The tea is my teacher," says Larry Murphy, smiling through a Merlin-like beard in a light-green Chinese tunic and red Converse shoes. He was an architect once, and the Zen Dog Tea House Gallery on north 85th St in Ballard, Seattle, is the house where he raised his children. Now he gives people tea, even people who can't afford the exquisite Chinese pu-er that smells like the earth after rain. One homeless fellow left behind a mousetrap and a candle on the doorstep to thank him for the cup of tea Larry offered. The lady of the evening who came by just afterward gave Larry a hug and asked him to pray both for her and mousetrap guy. Millionaires stop by too, on walks with their spouses. Everyone gets tea, and Larry will remind you he is merely the tea keeper.
As for the architect thing? "I spent a couple years near the ocean, camping, after I retired. The Tea House began six years ago." Larry looks around at the cozy gallery upstairs, bright bamboo plant on the camphor tea table, soft throw pillows, and Chinese artwork from collaged media to meditative calligraphy on the walls, as though joyfully amused that his life transformed thus. The calm humor is a twinkle in Larry's eye. He calls it a state of no-mind. Out the window, the skies open and pour lashes of silver rain on the Puget Sound.
I was dreadfully new to Seattle, a misplaced Californian on a depressed December jog. The red globes of light outside of Zen Dog festooning the house and trees make it look like something out of A Midsummer Night's Dream (people call it "the fairy house"), and I, like most people, wandered in because I felt drawn, maybe a little lost, but certainly curious. So did mousetrap guy, the President of the Board at Copper Canyon Press, and the gifted, kind-hearted members of Satellite By Night, a folk fusion groove band from just up the street. Larry gives everyone tea, no questions asked, and serendipity seems to follow him up the stairs from the beaded entryway, where beside the shimmering bamboo plants one can help oneself right there on the stoop to tea-to-go.
Every month in 2010 at Zen Dog there has taken place a Lunar Festival in celebration of the full moon. Mike Antone, a guy whose Niel Young-like talent has made him a small sensation in Europe and whose "Song for Aging Warriors" made it to the top ten on Mr. Young's own webpage, played with Satellite By Night. Gabe, Mas, and CJ, the band members, weren't people whose names I knew yet but I still swallowed my nervousness and asked if I could sing one of the poems to their accompaniment. Larry told me later that the sound we made gave him gooosebumps. Turns out Joseph, the President of the Board of Copper Canyon Press, was there, and a local metalworking artist called Endearment Israel, an elf of a girl whom I'd met through a friend at an arts festival years beforehand, a friend she was now set to marry the following week. I stopped questioning the coincidences then and there because for this all to be happening on a rainy January night in Ballard with perhaps fifteen people in the whole gallery was a little too much for me not to simply accept as a Seattle Newcomer's Miracle, or Tea Wizard Miracle. Ren Zhi Xian demonstrated Chinese painting methods downstairs. We drank jasmine tea out of tiny delicate cups.
On the lunar New Year, we all ate sugared plums, drank, as always, green and jasmine and pu-er tea, and filed outside to the back yard where a young girl floated a lit red lantern a measure above the firs. It bobbed, a red jellyfish in the ocean of night sky. We beckoned in the spring that way, and I focused on the ruby glow and gave thanks for the moment Larry Murphy, Ballard's own Lao-Tzu decided to give everyone passing through his life the gift of tea, which, he'll always tell you, is the gift of wisdom.
Follow Ming Holden on Twitter: www.twitter.com/minglishmuffin