Riding with Rilke

Author: Ted Bishop
Published: 2005

I was first given this book in late 2017 and ripped through it in a few short days, under the mistaken impression that I had to return it to the lender. I thought I was borrowing the book, when in fact it was being added to my library. As I didn’t take the time to savour the book the first time through, I have chosen to read it now for this blog and to pair it with some wonderful tea.

Ted Bishop teaches creative non-fiction at the University of Alberta and has become my new inspiration for writing. As big as this world is, it’s still very small. I travelled to D.C. in fall 2017 for educational pursuits, only to be handed a book set in my backyard. The route that Bishop cycles in the book, I have driven in a mini-van (well, I was a passenger who slept the entire way, but fairly similar circumstances!). I know what it’s like to drive the Queen Elizabeth Highway that runs north-south in Alberta; I know the feeling of the last stretch south into Calgary and all the jacked-up heavy-duty 4×4 trucks racing by as they come back from their shift in the oil patch. I know the sudden gut-clenching anxiety that comes from watching a semi-truck cut across more than one lane at a time as if the driver owned the road and other vehicles are mere figments of imagination. His writing penetrates my brain, electrifying my synapses, and awakens the sensory pleasures throughout my body. Lucky for you, you can experience the exact same thing if you drink the following tea flavours as well!

IMG_2669In the beginning of the book, Bishop describes the library at his parent’s home that he grew up with. The sultry and mesmerizing image he paints on the page felt like I was standing right there beside him. The image is so powerful that drinking a bold tea, or conversely even a weak-flavoured tea, would have detracted from the image he was creating. At this point, I had just grabbed a random flavour from the shelf. It ended up being a Vanilla Maple Cinnamon black tea – light on cinnamon, subtle on the vanilla, with no hints of maple that I could detect. However, I’d like to draw parallels between the lack of maple-flavour in the tea and the blond-oak shelves in his parent’s home that remind me of maple cooling on pure white snow. What a treat, if you’ve ever had the chance to experience a maple harvest in winter!

Drinking the vanilla maple cinnamon throughout the beginning of the book and rereading everything, felt like coming home. It’s a weird feeling to not be grounded in a geographical location (as I’m currently experiencing) but then to pick up a book and a cup of tea and know that everything is alright. That everything will be alright, and all you need to do is come home. On page 36, Bishop talks about the ‘archival jolt’; the inclusion of tactile, auditory, gustatory, not just visual, in pursuit of scholarship to achieve a corporeal knowledge. This short paragraph, less than half a page, sparked the idea for this blog. Without someone else vocalizing what I was thinking and feeling, mostly rebelling against, I don’t think I would have created this blog.

What I mean by rebelling has been addressed in other blog posts and the ‘about’ section as well. Too many well-meaning people make book/tea pairings without actually trying the pairing to know if it’s good. Too many suggested fall flat because the person hasn’t actually tried the tea, or they base their opinion solely off of the vendor’s description of what the tea should taste like. I have had the bitter pleasure of drinking a passion fruit tea that was marketed as smooth, with a full-bodied flavour just like a tropic island! I have never once gotten down on my knees to lick a tropical island, so I’m not too sure what a full-bodied flavour of the tropic islands is supposed to taste like but I can assure you it’s not the bitter taste of that forgotten-named tea. While the memory of its after-taste lingers years later, the name of the company has escaped me.

I stuck with the vanilla maple cinnamon tea for the majority of this book because it fit so wonderfully well with Bishop’s writing style. In fact, on page 57, Bishop’s specifically states that, “when you find yourself making a list of virtues, you know it’s not love.” He was referencing a motorcycle that didn’t fit him but the notion is applicable to every part of one’s life. In this case, the vanilla maple tea was perfect for this book and I will not list the virtues because then it will no longer be a loving enjoyment for me. I love to read and drink tea, and sometimes I want to tell you about the feelings the tea evoke in me while reading some books, but in this case I can’t put appropriate words to paper without making a list of virtues. You will need to experience the book and tea on your own; to engage with it in a way that makes you love it.

What I attempt to convey by talking about my feelings and experiences with the tea and the book, is what Bishop calls ‘Paratext’ – all the things that you go through while reading. You have to go through the cover to get to the words. Some times there are maps, indexes, forwards, copyright pages, etc., that all come before you actually turn that final page and start your journey through the text of the book. The size, font, label, page thickness, also add to the paratext of reading because everything evokes a mood in the reader. I gave a very brief overview of the book Audacity of Hops in a previous blog entry. The small font of the book made it impossible for me to want to sit down with a cup of tea and explore the relationship between flavour and words. In that example, the paratext was constraining for what I wanted to do – write a blog about the book and the teas I drank. In Bishop’s case, I took the time to allow the paratext to settle into my stream of consciousness to the point that I would often stop reading mid-sentence to write down what I was thinking/feeling/experiencing so that I wouldn’t forget anything by the time of writing.

The vanilla maple cinnamon tea, while a mouthful of words (punny!), has a very mellow taste to it. It’s not a full-bodied mouthful of flavour, which is amazing because you don’t need something so heavy or full of multiple flavours to enjoy the book. But both the book and the tea together add to an existing sensory feel of being at ease, of coming home, of being enveloped in a giant warm hug. I did eventually branch out into other flavours with this book – Coconut Calypso white tea, and Mudslide Rooibos. The coconut calypso was an ok selection for the second half of the book where Bishop gives more in-depth information about motorcycles. I am not biker or a rider, so this section was bland for me. The white tea is fairly bland as well. It’s a great base to pair with something stronger and I definitely should have reversed the order of teas for the last half of the book because the Mudslide ruined a major sensory experience for me.

On page 209-210, Bishop gives a very vivid description of the wind in Arizona on Highway 93. This wind has currents and tendrils that curl around a lover’s neck, with a brief caress of the ear. A very sexual sentence about the wind and it was ruined by drinking a tea that pulled no punches! Dammit! The mudslide rooibos, similar to it’s alcoholic namesake, is strong and comes with a bite. I was almost expecting the sugary liquor taste to make an appearance and burn on the way down, but it was the bite of the tea that made a lasting impression if only in the way of ruining such a beautiful sentence. The coconut calypso would have been a better tea to drink when reading this sentence.

IMG_2671And so on that note, I leave you with a final thought. In the epilogue, Bishop says that he needs his daily dose of reading to feel whole, to keep the itchy-scratchy insect crawling feeling at bay. I feel the same way when it comes to tea. I need a cup of tea at some point during the day to feel whole, to feel like I’ve accomplished something, to feel human. Tea, the world’s number one consumed beverage, and the daily dose of sanity (humanity) that I need.


Tea’s I drank:

  • Vanilla Maple Cinnamon – Steeped Tea, Black
  • Coconut Calypso – Steeped Tea, White
  • Mudslide – David’s Tea, rooibos