Celebrating 15 Years of Marriage Blessed by Our Tea Workers

“Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.” 
-Zora Neale Hurston

 

Dear friends,

15 years ago, our Tea Family threw our wedding…here is the story...

Inspiration for a happy married life comes from gazing into the eyes of your soulmate while sipping a cup of Soulmate tea scented with the ephemeral perfume of roses, chocolate and raspberries. The vines of wild roses intertwine with the high grown Camellia Sinensis plants perched on the ledges of the rainforest tea fields, mimicking the perfect union of soul and body. 

This precious and rare potion inspires men to kiss the jeweled feet of their lovers. It can turn a frigid woman into a wildfire. One sip of this tea opens a woman’s heart and body like a sacred flower. One sip for a man and he falls deeply into the sensual exploration of his lover’s erogenous zones, as if her body is the universe, because he realizes it is the universe. Limbs unwind into desirous and expectant poses. The little white flowers sprinkled into this tea burst in your mouth like a French kiss. When this rare tea is sipped on a full moon, while planets glimmer in the high-altitude sky, its spell ensures your rapturous love will stand the test of seven lifetimes.  

***

I couldn’t believe he loved me. He was so handsome, polite, responsible, successful, sexy, and even funny. He had a big range too- from uber-professional in a suit and tie, to domestic and thoughtful, always jumping up after a meal to do the dishes. I was madly in love with him, but I didn’t have time to mess around. I was a mom and growing a business and I wanted to know he was serious so I took Sage on our third date. We met at Paradise Cove beach in Malibu and Sage allowed himself to be bribed with French fries, telling Gerard all of my secrets - exposing my most flawed self. 

Nearly four now, my son Sage had established to Gerard that he wouldn’t allow another man to hurt his mama. On date four, under the stars at the Hollywood Bowl, Sage demanded to know if he loved me.

“Yes.” Gerard stated, matching Sage’s sober tone.

Sage wanted proof. He pointed to an imposing security guard standing tall at the entry gates of the concert venue. Her stern look was intimidating and she had to be at least six feet tall!

“If you love my mom, you’ll kiss that big lady on the cheek.”

Without hesitation, Gerard went over. Her severe expression evaporated when he explained that the little boy over his shoulder was demanding proof he had good intentions for his mom, and she sweetly held out her cheek for Gerard to peck.

Sage crossed his arms with an air of satisfaction. In his mind it was settled. In my mind the war of doubts was just beginning.

Here was a guy so good that he got up every morning at 4am to meditate. He never drank or cussed. A world traveler, he had stories from a castle in Transylvania to bat caves in Belize. He was voted most likely to be president by his class at his wealthy high school in Orange County.

I was messy, busy and often stressed. In Los Angeles with its millions of beautiful women, he picked a short, single mom who toiled long hours for her small tea business and lived in a tiny guest house all the way up in Ojai. I wanted love more than anything, but I’d learned that no guy was ever ready for the whole package. When they found out I wasn’t going to backburner my business, my kid, or my mission to help the tea workers and make them the white-hot center of my world… Well, let’s just say I’d been through this a few times and I thought it would break me in half when he left, so I worked extra hard to scare Gerard off. But, he kept steady.

He proposed to me on Mother’s Day in Big Sur, and I told him of my promise to Gnana, our tea estate manager in Sri Lanka, that one day I would be married in our fair trade tea estate, with him and our workers. When Gerard agreed to elope to the tea fields of Sri Lanka with me, I took this as a sign that he really did know what he was signing on for. 

When I told Gnana the news over Skype, he laughed his gentle rolling laugh and I could hear his smile through the phone as he said, “Zeeena, you have kept your promise, and now it’s our turn to help you have a blessed married life.”

When Gnana explained that the ceremony would be in the Lakshmi temple on the tea estate, I was thrilled. I had paintings of the goddess Lakshmi all over the tea company and a big altar with offerings to her of milk, honey and flowers in my office. Lakshmi cares for the poor, and offers abundance and prosperity to those who call upon her. She looked on peacefully, as our tea employees of Zhena’s Tea fought for shelf space and brand awareness in the western world and we attributed to her the daily miracles of our mission. She was our symbol of hope.

But, as soon as we announced our wedding date and set up the travel to Sri Lanka, the universe seemed to protest. First, Gerard’s jeweler lost a 4-carat blue sapphire. When the replacement arrived, it was cracked. So, Gerard had no wedding ring. In the taxi to the airport, the stone escaped from my ring. When I hugged Sage goodbye, my prized meditation necklace, which had been blessed by a monk for our safe travels, broke. All of the amethyst beads disappeared down the airport street drains.

Then, we were not allowed to board because my passport had less than six months left on it. We spent the next four days at the government building in LA trying to get a rush replacement. I sobbed the whole time. I just knew it had all been too good to be true.

When finally we arrived in Sri Lanka, almost six days late for our own wedding, we discovered the sari and jewelry I’d brought for the ceremony was all wrong. Gnana took one look and shook his head, “Oh Zeeeena, you are one with these people, you will wear exactly what one of them would wear at their own wedding.” 

Even more disorienting, we were prepared for a Buddhist wedding, but Gnana told us we would be having a Tamil Hindu ceremony because that was the religion practiced by the workers and that they wanted to share their rites with us on this most important day of our lives.

When our wedding planner, Dayan, heard this, he grabbed his stylishly coiffed hair and shrieked, “You cannot just switch religions like that!” Gerard and I hadn’t considered religion for our wedding, we only thought about love and expressing it. We were happy to share in whatever rites our workers wanted to teach us. Honored of course by the entire experience to be married in a place so sacred to all. 

Before he would marry us, the priest would do our astrology to see if we were compatible. That just about made me run. I didn’t want him to look at our stars. The stars had been throwing tacks under our tires. 

Sensing my distress, Gerard whispered in my ear, “I’ll marry you no matter what he says.”

After much deliberation at the Hindu temple in Bandarawela, the priest announced that we were in fact compatible. But, the Tamil ceremony called for a wedding necklace, a Thali, not a ring. 

So, now we needed to have the Thali made, fit me for a new Sari, rent a traditional Tamil Hindu jeweled wedding set and find a wedding ring for Gerard. In a day. 

The sari shop looked like a library of every hue possible in the world with thousands of brilliant, bright bolts of color. Gnana and Dayan and my wedding assistant, Nisha, made a quick business of pulling the bolts down, discussing very seriously this one and that one up against my skin. After an hour of this they settled on a rich pink and gold satin sari, all nodding in unison. 

As soon as we walked into the little red velvet-walled jewelry shop, I saw the perfect wedding ring or Gerard with a yellow sapphire.

Gnana said, “Ahhh yes, very good luck!”

 “Oh, I really wanted a blue sapphire,” Gerard said, “but we lost one and the other was cracked.”

Gnana tilted his head, “Blue sapphire is the stone for hard lessons. Bad luck for a wedding ring. Yellow sapphire is for wealth, prosperity, happiness, and joy. A much better choice for you.” 

“So it was a good thing the blue sapphires were lost and cracked,” I teased Gerard.

He handed the ring to the jeweler to be sized.

Gnana said, “See, the auspiciousness is already working, Gerard.” He and the jeweler both bobbed their heads in approval. 

“For your wedding thali, Zeeena, I have chosen for you an Om symbol, which will bring you much peace in your married life.” Gnana spoke with authority, adding, “You cannot take this thali off until you die or your husband dies.”

“At which time, you will throw your body on my funeral pyre,” Gerard added with enthusiasm.

Gnana frowned, but then they both started laughing.

In the back workroom, three Tamil men sat on the polished dirt floor making refined gold jewelry with small, blackened tools. An old coffee can with an oil-wicked flame swayed with the movements of their quick hands. Gnana explained what was needed to one of the craftsmen and he nodded and smiled at me shyly.

I sat next to him on the floor. Hunched over the flame, he formed the gold loops of chain, sealing them with quick motions, then wiping the black from the gold to reveal its shimmering pattern. I had never seen a chain made, and while Gerard and I gazed watched, we said little vows about our love and life together, so that each link was infused with intention.

We tipped the jewelers and Gnana went back up front to negotiate for the jewelry. The chain, Om pendant and wedding ring came to only $500. So much gold, and it was barely more than the original sari. At this rate, the balance of our wedding savings would be substantial. The flash of excitement I felt as I thought of giving the surplus to the workers was tempered by a thought – This wasn’t my decision alone anymore. How would Gerard react to the idea?

The morning of the ceremony, Nishanti put the tailored sari top on me; it was so tight that I could only pant to breath. Once it was zippered and buttoned, it forced an unattractive roll of fat out from under it, which was on prominent display since the sari exposed my midriff.

“Oh my, Nisha, what about this?” I pointed to the roll of fat. 

“A sign of beauty,” she said, smiling.

“Not in my world.” I didn’t think I wanted Gerard to see my belly looking like a Sharpei puppy, “Can’t we hide it?”

“Zeeena, it is truly considered attractive here. I am not lying, I promise,” she patted my shoulder.  

Nishanti deftly folded the layers of the sari and pinned then to my skirt.  They then added the jeweled headdress, ear coverings, earrings, barrettes, arm bands, nosepiece, bangles, short necklace, long necklace and belt over the sari and pinned the long garlands of jasmine flowers to my hair, so they would trail down my back.

I expressed my concern about the makeup, which was far too heavy but Nisha said, “in case you cry, we need to have strong makeup.”

Dayan burst into the room, took one look and threw up his hands, “Zeeena, you need more makeup!”

He squinted, building out my eyeliner, concentrating on making me look as authentically Tamil as he could. 

Then he led me to the garden where Gerard was standing. He wore a simple cream-colored Indian suit and scarf with a dark grey, long, Indian style vest. He looked understated and classy, while I looked like an explosion of paint and tinsel. 

He stared in awe, “You are my Goddess,” he breathed, and then he gently kissed my cheek while I fought back happy tears.

***

Our little white car pulled into the space in front of the temple where hundreds of people stood waiting for our arrival. The tea workers were beautiful in their best saris. I hugged and kissed those that I knew, careful not to mess up the makeup or to hit the sharp clasp that hung from the center of my nose.

Gnana led us to the temple as the factory workers beat drums and blew horns and the tea pluckers threw jasmine flowers in the air above us. Mothers guided their sweet-faced daughters to walk next to us for the photos.  

There were handmade garlands of red, green and yellow folded paper birds interspersed with garlands of Betel leaves strung in hanging chandeliers from long jute string overhead. Through happy tears, I looked out at the sea of beaming, smiling faces from the raised wedding platform. Each woman’s dazzling, special occasion bindi sparkled from the center of her forehead, making a glittering star field as they bowed, repeating, “Namaste, Namaste.” 

One of the tea managers carried the red velvet box that held my Thali, my engagement ring and Gerard’s wedding ring in it and every person in the temple touched the box and made a prayer over it.

We were handed the rings and we put them on each other’s fingers, and then Gerard put the Thali around my neck, it shone in the light of the flames and felt wondrous to me. 

 In accordance with tradition, the priest had Gerard vow that he would forever see every other woman as his mother and I vowed to see every other man as her father or brother. We vowed to see only one another as lover. Then Gerard draped a bright red sari over me, as instructed, and with this he vowed to buy me beautiful dresses for the rest of his life.

The priest then declared us married and told us that we were united for seven lifetimes. Gerard and I giggled at that.

“Thank God, we like each other so much.”

We were led around to the very back of the temple where a stone Lakshmi was draped in garlands. 

“You now have one whole minute to ask Lakshmi for anything in the world that you want,” Gnana said, “Whatever you ask for now, will come to you and be true.  Ask her now for what you want.”

I got on my knees before her, then Gerard did the same. Given the opportunity to ask for anything I want, I let thoughts flash through my heart and mind. 

What came out was: Perfect health for Sage, A Happy Married Life with Gerard, A Daughter, and the ability to serve the people of this tea garden with funds for education, to care for them as I would a family, to give them everything I could and be given more to give.

Then we were brought to a small brass bucket and Gnana explained that in the muddy water was a ring and a conch shell and that we were to plunge our hands into them and get whichever one we could, we would play the game three times.

The first time, I easily grabbed the ring, while Gerard brought up the shell. The second time, he fought a little more for it and I still got the ring. The third time, he went after the ring with a grabby, sibling like intensity, but it floated right into my hand and I pulled it up. Gnana and the priest laughed while the crowd all laughed too.

“You as a woman, are an incarnation of Lakshmi,” Gnana said, grinning. “The one who gets the ring is the one who attracts the wealth into the family, while the one who gets the shell has the job of protecting the money.”  

The final phase of our ceremony required the parents of the bride and groom give them their blessings. An older, quiet man dressed in all white with three white stripes across his forehead was now brought forward. 

Gnana introduced him, “Zeeena, Gerard, this is the high holy priest of Tamil Hindus of Sri Lanka,” Gerard and I both got on our knees and touched his feet. We had no idea that the high priest of the island’s Hindu faith was with us throughout the ceremony.

“He will act as your father, Gerard.  And I will act as yours,” Gnana smiled at me, then added, “It is very auspicious for him to join us.  He donated this land to us almost 25 years ago and hasn’t returned to see what we have done with it until now, at your wedding.  Very auspicious indeed.”

Gerard and I were both greatly humbled by this. I bowed again to him as the holy man placed vermillion on Gerard’s third eye. Gnana and his wife did the same to me.  The circle was complete.  We were married, and had seven whole lifetimes to enjoy each other. 

Outside, a long table held massive clay pots of steaming food.  The tea estate families waited patiently in a line that had yet to progress. They were honoring the bride and groom and we were to serve the first plate of food.  

We stood at the beginning of the serving station and the first child held his plate up to me.  I spooned a big heap of vegetable Biryani onto the plate. 

Gnana quietly whispered into my ear, “Zeeena, be extra generous with them, there is plenty. This could be one of the biggest meals of their lives.”  

I looked down into the child’s brown eyes and smiled as big as I could. He smiled back, and I piled as much food as would fit his plate.

While I was fretting over the loss of some beads, there were tea workers whose livelihoods depended on me to be strong and help. There was so much further to go. There were 2,500 people living in this garden and while this was the beacon of fair trade gardens, there was still lack. 

Gerard watched me closely, and I wondered again if he was going to be able to handle this. It would take focus to build the tea company’s mission and he would have to give me up to it. I would be in the tea fields and away from home. I wondered if he would be my partner in my mission or if he would eventually wish for a more traditional wife.

Gnana said, “Go, now. Sit and enjoy yourselves, you have had a very successful, auspicious wedding and I am sure you are tired.”

“No way,” Gerard said, “I want to keep doing this.”

I looked up at my new husband and felt gratitude.

He smiled at me and said, “I get it now, baby. Why you work so hard. You’ve got me to rely on now.”

And with that, I stopped nursing my doubt. Gerard had married me with his eyes open. The universe had been extra generous with me and I needed to receive fearlessly.

We served every person twice.  The rice, dahl, fried vegetables, raitia and chutney, never ran out.  We served some people thirds and when finally all were sated, we made a plate for ourselves and sat.  

Our arms were tired, we were tired, but we were happy.  The food was so spicy that my eyes poured tears and the black, oily eyeliner that had threatened through the ceremony finally did run down my cheeks. I had to remove the clasp of hanging beads from my nose, since it was running steadily from the tears and hot chilies.  

Nisha ran over to me with a disapproving look, her creation was coming undone and while she wiped my eyes with a wet napkin, I grinned at her like a child: mascara streaking, nose running, mouth on fire and heart totally open. 

***

When you pray to Lakshmi, your heart is allowed to feel the purity of her timeless romance with Vishnu. Your ego is quietly diminished as the vibrations of Lakshmi’s pure energy stokes your heart’s sanctity. She helps you to know deeply that true love is eternal and does not age, lifetimes pass but the love remains. May mother Lakshmi smile upon you and your lover. May you be given the respite from your ego of your one, true love. May Lakshmi smile upon you and bring you the wealth and prosperity of your destined greatness. 

I hope this story inspires love in you today and all days. This sacred story can actually be found among others in my book, Life by the Cup. It shares my extraordinary (and sometimes difficult) journey toward building a business and a meaningful life. It's a perfect companion for a cup of tea, offering lessons and wisdoms I've learned along the way, encouraging you to be audacious in your dreams and supporting you to overcome any setbacks you may encounter - to ultimately witness your passion transformed into possibility. You can learn more and order it here.

With Love,

Zhena