The Tiger who Came To Tea
Drop-in posts written by Dr Kitty Wheater
Welcome back to the mindfulness virtual drop-in. I hope this finds you all keeping well, and looking forward to some rest and respite over the weekend.
In this week's drop-in, we give thought to how to listen to and nourish ourselves, and reach out to others, in what are, for many, very changed circumstances.
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been struck by how many in our University community are currently guests or hosts. Vulnerable family members have moved in, or we have moved to be with them; friends are in the spare room, caught off guard by travel restrictions or closing borders. With the onset of online studying and meetings, even if there are no literal extra persons in your home, we are visiting each other in unusual ways. We become conscious of the artwork on the wall behind us; small children grumble in the background; and of all our fears right now, our greatest is that we will have to stand up unexpectedly on a call with our manager or tutor, revealing…pyjama bottoms.
As guests and hosts, with end-dates unknown, we are thinking more carefully than ever about how to sustain ourselves and those around us. As I steadily work through the soya milk I took, by special request, when I travelled to be with family in the south, I keep thinking about Judith Kerr’s 1968 illustrated book for children, The Tiger Who Came To Tea.
For those who didn’t grow up with this treasure, Sophie and her mum are sitting having tea when the doorbell rings. It can’t be the milkman or the grocer’s boy, says mum. Indeed not. It is an enormous tiger, in search of his own tea. In he comes to join them. He eats all the sandwiches and all the buns and biscuits on the table, and drinks all the tea and the milk. Then he eats everything in the kitchen, drinks every last pint of dad’s beer, and even drains the taps. Off he goes eventually, sated – but now there is no water left for Sophie’s bath, mum has nothing to cook for supper, and hungry dad’s arrival is impending.
I’m thinking about The Tiger Who Came To Tea partly because the world it conjures up – a world where the milkman and the grocer’s boy come to the house – seems to have reignited afresh, as those with underlying health conditions self-isolate, online supermarket delivery slots remain elusive, and vegetable-box sellers, milk producers, and bakers ramp up their provision.
But I’m also thinking about it because it invokes the physical and psychological guests, hosts, and hungers of this pandemic.
The extra hungry bodies in the house, who may ask politely, and be beloved – in Kerr’s illustrations, Sophie curls up with the tiger, stroking his tail, and playing with his whiskers – but will nonetheless clean you out of house and home. If you are living on the breadline, the clue in that word: the real chance that you will run out of food. The fear that you are the tiger, and that you are burdening others. The sense that there is a tiger at the door, who will take everything you offer and more, draining your very taps, until you have nothing left to give. The sense that however much you try to nourish yourself in this time, it’s not enough, and that nothing can give you what you most need.
‘I don’t know what to do,’ says Sophie’s mum, when the tiger has finally gone; and that can be exactly how we feel.
How might the story end? In The Tiger Who Came To Tea, Sophie’s dad comes home, and Sophie and her mum tell him what happened. They go to a café for supper, and the next morning, Sophie and her mum go shopping. They fill the house up with food again, and Sophie buys a tin of tiger food, too, just in case.
I like this ending for two reasons. I like it first because it begins with people talking to each other about what has happened to them. ‘I don’t know what to do,’ said Sophie’s mum – and yet she does: the first thing to do is just to talk about it.
The second reason I like this ending is that it’s not just one deed that saves the day. It’s multiple deeds, triaged. First, people gather round. They tell the truth of what is here, and what has happened. Then, together, they attend to what is needed right now: they are hungry, and must eat. Next, they prepare themselves for the hunger that may lie ahead. And finally, they bolster themselves against what made them hungry: not with a gun, or a trap, but by preparing to feed the hungry tiger, should he return – with tiger food, and not their own sandwiches.
It can be difficult to talk about our hungers. We may feel ashamed, or think that nothing can be done. But the response to the pandemic – the hundreds of thousands signing up as NHS volunteers; the flood of Whatsapps and text messages from neighbours, colleagues, friends – has shown us that we are not alone. We can talk to each other about what we need, whether it means turning to the person next to us, picking up the phone, or writing. In so doing, we treat our hungers and fears as honoured guests. We nourish ourselves, so that we are full enough to feed another.
In the spirit of this, for this week’s practice I invite you to try a body scan, by Melanie Fennell. The body scan attends to each part of the body in turn, from the tips of the toes to the top of the head. It listens to everything, and neglects nothing. By gently acknowledging what is here, the body scan creates a wise foundation for observing what is really needed. And then, perhaps, you might like to talk about it – with your family, a friend, with me, or just with yourself, in a diary or on a walk.
May you and your tigers keep safe and well over the next week. I leave you with this poem below, The Guest House, by Rumi.
With best wishes,
This being human is a guest-house.
Every morning, a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.