Books: Interview with Zhena Muzyka
The Many Things to Love About Life by the Cup
There are so many things to love about Zhena Muzyka’s autobiography Life by the Cup that you’ll want to read it slowly, savoring each chapter. Muzyka, who founded Zhena’s Gypsy Tea, started out as a single mom without enough money to pay her bills and transformed herself into a successful businesswoman with a thriving tea company. Life by the Cuptakes you on Muzyka’s journey to success, however, it isn’t your typical rags to riches story. Since Muzyka has gypsy heritage, the story is infused with magic and spirituality. In this story, tea isn’t just a drink, it is an elixir that can bring health, happiness, and peace.
Muzyka’s book is also full of insights into prosperous business practices, and into the way that fair trade practices can change the world. In this way, it provides nourishment for the mind and the spirit.
Each chapter begins with a cup of tea. The first one describes the cup rather than the tea in it. Muzyka talks about what it feels like to drink from her Grandma Maria’s teacup, decorated like an Ukranian Easter egg in burgundy, pink, forest green, midnight blue, and egg-yolk yellow. She describes it as a type of ritual that inspires feelings of tranquility, warmth and nourishment. It is also in this chapter that she tells a story about a Tibetan man she meets that makes her think about pain in a new way. He likens people to blocks of wood that are formed and shaped into teacups by the pain they experience. Eventually, the sides become thinner, and they become one with everything around them.
This story provides a lead in to a discussion of one the events that changed the path of Muzyka’s life. When her son Sage was four weeks old, he was diagnosed with kidney failure. He required immediate surgery and faced health challenges for years to come. Faced with mounting medical bills, and a desire to provide for her son, Muzyka strapped her son on her back, bought a beverage cart and set out to share her tea blends with the world.
Along the way she met with many different kinds of challenges. She describes the difficulty in convincing wholesalers to sell her tea in small amounts, finding and buying organic ingredients, and aligning herself with investors who had the same vision. At times, Muzyka had to make decisions, such as only using organic ingredients, that initially appeared to be a disastrous business decision, but ended up setting her on a path that led to success.
One of the most memorable descriptions in the book involves the moment Muzyka opened up her first box of tea. She talks about it as a magical moment in which she felt a connection to the fields and people that had produced it in Sri Lanka. From that moment on, she became an advocate for tea workers’ rights and, eventually, for fair trade practices.
Here is a conversation with the author about tea, her family and fair trade tea.
How would you describe your relationship with tea?
A love affair. I’m rarely without a cup of tea in my hand. Even though I’m not involved in the day to day of the tea company anymore, I’m still making my own blends in my kitchen, and playing with ideas. It’s just something I can’t stop doing. It’s almost an obsession. I love the idea of making potions. I do it for skin care products. I do it with my essential oils. I am constantly mixing and exploring botanicals, beauty products, and essential oils.
How did starting your tea business help you connect with your gypsy roots?
It helped me claim it really. When my grandmother passed away, it all came out that we were gypsies. She hadn’t wanted anyone to know because she had been thrown in a concentration camp and really hurt terribly for being gypsy. She had escaped Stalin. She was Ukrainian. She passed away in 1995 and my great uncles and my grandfather said, ‘Time to level with you all. We are gypsies. This is our blood.’ I thought, ‘This makes so much sense.’ I had been reading tarot cards, and doing others things that were considered gypsy. All of a sudden life made sense.
How did your son’s illness propel you along your business path?
I don’t think I would have done it with out it. When I went to Sri Lanka in India and was touring the tea field, the conventional ones, I realized that in some of these gardens, a woman had a 50 percent chance of losing a child in their lifetime. I looked at that and thought, had I not lived in America, and had the generosity of our welfare system, I could have been that woman. He (Sage) could have perished, and I wouldn’t even have known what was wrong, and I wouldn’t have had anyone to go to. That’s the reality for the women in the tea fields, without healthcare, maternity leave, childcare, no guaranteed clean water systems, the housing is hideous … I went and saw all that. Had I not had the experience with Sage, I don’t think, number one that I would have started the business, and number two, I am a firm believer in destiny, meeting those woman and realizing I needed to advocate for them, it was the last puzzle piece. After what I went through, it fueled me to help them.
How did opening up your first crate of tea lead to a desire to help tea workers?
That was awesome. As soon as I opened up that first crate, I needed to connect with the tea workers. I realized, like holy cow, there is so much tea, who did this? I mean the energy in it, you can feel the energy in tea, and that’s why you have to store tea far away from other things, you can’t put tea in the cupboard with garlic powder. Tea absorbs everything and it definitely absorbs energy.
You emphasize the importance of buying fair trade certified tea. What does this certification mean?
The fair trade certified label means that a product has been audited, and that the tea estate has been audited. It means that the company who is buying fair trade tea, for every kilo that they buy, not only do they have a minimum they have to pay for it, but then they put aside a Euro for every kilo. Then, they transfer that money to the tea workers, and basically they get together. There’s a fair trade group in the garden, usually mostly women, and they vote where they want to put the money that quarter. So, if they want to build a school, they can vote to put the fair trade premium into building an infrastructure for the school.
Why is buying fair trade certified tea make such a difference?
It’s really, really critical. They have third party audits, and they actually do guarantee that the workers will have health care, maternity leave, childcare, clean water systems. It’s a simple change that we can make that is actually the most effective thing you can do to save the world.