Black Tea and Butterflies: Our Search for Space
We started Suan Tian Stories in a garden.
Quiet, secluded, tucked between two adobe-colored buildings. A flight of wide concrete steps opened into a small, grassy amphitheater.
I liked it because the birds would come and peck freely in the soft green grass, while the ants attended to their business in rhythmic precession. It was as if we had discovered a secret corner of the world, a place where nothing could disturb us—a place open to all our dreams.
Outside, the COVID-19 pandemic raged across the United States. Tensions and fears were high. Neither of us could work at home—our family circumstances wouldn’t allow it.
The garden was ideal for brainstorming. San Diego weather, silence, shelter from the chaos outside. There, we spent hours working through ideas, excited about starting something new together.
Sometimes Cory would hang from the guardrail on the steps to help him think, his feet grazing the ground. I would sit with my back against the stairs, laptop perched on my backpack, taking notes.
What should we name our stories? What should our URL be? What should the site look like?
Simple questions echoing into a future where we could do what we dreamed of doing—storytelling—together.
But soon, things changed. It grew cold, winter made its swift descent into our valley, and for our health and our safety, we needed to find some place else to call home.
From that moment on, our enchanted garden became another memory, a placeholder from which our storytelling journey began.
We tried Balboa Park next.
We bounced around at first: The benches at the Organ Pavilion were too firm, the tables at the Japanese Tea Garden too crowded.
We landed near the botanical garden for a while, where musicians rotated in and out of high-traffic spots. We made friends with a trio of mallard ducks we named Mac, Cheese, and Butter.
But the music and constant flow of visitors broke our concentration.
So we moved again, this time to an elevated patch of grass outside the Old Globe Theater, where we lay a tarp and a blanket under the shade of a small tree.
We sat cross-legged in front of our two wooden crates—makeshift desks Cory and his mom made—and worked, taking the occasional snack break, the occasional nap.
Soon, we became part of the landscape, a consistent scene that blended into the surrounding area.
We came to know an older woman who walked her golden retriever through the park every Tuesday, the landscaper who groomed the plants every Thursday, and Jose, the man who sanitized the tables and chairs every morning. Some days we shared the grass with families who played tag, built forts, did cartwheels with their children.
Everyday at noon, we’d pause, and lay in the sun to listen to the three-song concert of the American Belltower. Melodic chimes rang out familiar tunes, from an emotional version of “Hallelujah” to Taylor Swift.
I’d close my eyes to listen, opening them occasionally to see Cory’s face turned to the sun. It was a period of great warmth and comfort, springtime in San Diego.
But the crowds returned, the beauty of the Old Globe with its butterflies, laughter, curious ducks and baby explorers took our focus from the work at hand. We needed a chamber of silence, to channel our thoughts and the light tapping of our fingers against a keyboard.
We heard of WeWork through one of Cory’s friends. It seemed innocuous enough—a shared office environment, where there were closed spaces to work. They had a one-month free trial, and we needed to write, so we figured: why not?
That last day in Balboa Park, as we folded up the blanket and the tarp and grabbed each of the boxes, I stopped and turned to look at our home for the last few months.
I looked for Jose, hoping to say goodbye, knowing he would be expecting us tomorrow.
“We’ll be back,” Cory said.
I nodded. We left the same way we had come, with an openness to a new chapter.
I cannot describe to you how suffocating the office was.
How being enclosed in a cosmetic, superficially-cultivated landscape pulls at the soul, how challenging it is when self-entitled individuals use the entire quiet floor to shout into their phones in meaningless meetings.
For a while, it did the job. We endured the stifling atmosphere because we told ourselves we couldn’t find any other quiet places. The only consolations were the large windows and the fact that I could freely use the white boards.
But the oppressive vibe, the clientele, it got to us. So by the month’s end, we got out, and vowed never to come back.
But now where?
The next morning we stopped for breakfast at Panera, unsure of where to go.
“LeStats?” Cory suggested with a hint of desperation. A coffee shop, it had been hit-or-miss in the past.
We’d already run through ten other options, and realized that none of them were going to work. We needed a space, and other cafes opened late, or were too noisy.
“Yeah,” I said. “Let’s try it.”
Was it really so hard to find a quiet place to do work in today’s world?
We passed a patio with defaced gargoyle statues, cigarette butts in the planters. Inside, an assortment of bricks layered the interior wall, the dried cement between them uneven and thick.
We ordered two black iced teas. A few people sat scattered about, laptops out, focused.
It was quiet here. Almost completely silent.
We spent the rest of the summer in LeStats, sometimes sitting outside under the peeling white canopy, batting away the flies, sometimes indoors in the corner under the watchful eyes of Frieda Kahlo and stencil portraits of Salvador Dali.
Cory drafted a book there, I studied Chinese. We planned four breaking competitions, experimented with videography and portraiture. We created stories, charted a pathway for our future.
More than a year and a half passed from the start of the pandemic. With each space, we searched for quiet, recognizing the absolute necessity of silent spaces in a world filled with noise. We sought purpose, embracing the power of what meaningful work can do to the human psyche.
But most importantly, we came to really understand the importance of relationships, what happens when we don’t have them, when they are frayed or fraught with pain, the beauty when we have someone to help us weather the tough times.
The pandemic distilled for us what we need the most. It made clear what happens when we don’t have it.