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I’m on the fourth day of my cleanse and no longer craving coffee. Weekend temptations are many, though. One way to focus on the positives and stop wanting coffee and wine so much is to think about something else. Tea.

Zhena Muzyka’s Life by the Cup is a business and life memoir steeped in the world of tea leaves and essential oils. Curiosity and a pretty cover made me want to read this book. I never heard of the author’s Gypsy Tea company, but was interested in learning how she went from being a single mom with a seriously sick child and $20 in her bank account to running her own organic, fair trade tea company.


Usually I refer to authors here and in my head by their last name. This story is so personal in parts, it feels right to put myself on a first name basis. Zhena tells her reader early on that the chapters are short enough to read over a cup of hot tea and be done before it gets cold. By the end, you sort of feel like a friend because you’ve had all this tea with her and a few interesting, however one-sided, conversations.

Each short chapter begins with a mouth-watering, vivid description of a particular tea blend and what it can do for the body, mind or soul. The descriptions alone are enough to temporarily convert the most deranged coffee freaks (like me), but I settled for the blends I had on hand. My favorite ones while reading this were rose and lavender green teas. I’ve had a humble assortment of loose tea and flower petals for some time. They became too precious and as a result I’ve hardly tasted them. When I do indulge, I make mine too weak so I don’t use it all. Ridiculous.

Zhena has the opposite approach to tea. For her, brewing a cup is an act of generosity intended to heal whatever might trouble you. The author knows about troubles and healing. She relates this one memory of a Tibetan couple she met who told her pain has meaning. They described to her how pain is the hand of God carving and shaping you from a block of wood into a deep cup:

The carving feels bad, but it is forming us into a cup that can hold more and more as each stroke of pain carves another rough piece of us away. And then we have more and more space to hold things: love, happiness, nature and beauty.

When Zhena’s son Sage is born with kidney problems that she has no idea how to pay for let alone where her next meal is coming from, she knows she has to do something drastic to support them and change their lives. Raised by strong women who taught her never to be a burden to others, it takes a lot of effort for her to call a neighbor and ask for help when she’s hungry and trying to breast feed but has no food.

Her dream of owning her own tea business and using the wisdom of her upbringing to support herself slowly begins to grow even though she has no capital to get it off the ground. She buys one jug of milk at a time and starts selling her tea lattes. She doesn’t listen to doubts. Instead she starts showing up for her dream. Sometimes the pages take on this generic, life coachy tone, but her personal story lures you back for another cup.

Zhena has admirable passion for her business. She brews tea for a full body experience from creating beautiful colors to smells you can taste with essential oils. Some of her messages ring true in a simple, why didn’t I think of that way. She points out that what you give attention to is what will grow. Give attention to creativity, follow the heart and intuition and that is what will grow.

As Zhena’s Gypsy Tea company takes off, she takes us on her trip to a fair trade tea plantation in Sri Lanka where the tea growers and pickers inspire her to support their environmental and humanitarian efforts. She shares what she learns from her employees, gurus, friends, investors and strives to celebrate successes rather than dread them and tries to present this wisdom in an easy-to-digest, applicable way for readers.

Tea can take a tough day and convert it to a journey of your soul.

The main thing that annoyed me (really annoyed me) was her constant reference to her Ukrainian Gypsy blood, gypsy soul, gypsy gypsy gypsy. I cringed every time. Granted, her company is named Zhena’s Gypsy Tea and she mentions wanting to claim back the word and turn it into a positive, but her use skewed less authentic and more hyping up the perceived whimsy and romanticism of this lifestyle. She’s a capitalist with every right to use the word, but it rubbed me the wrong way, though I imagine my Roma grandfather would’ve been amused at the term’s luxury branding.

The writing is on the flabby side; cut all the adjectives and you’d halve the book. Then again, these self-helpy businessy empowerment books aren’t my cup of tea. The author jumps around so much the book isn’t going to help you figure out the nuts and bolts of starting your own business. But that’s not what it’s trying to do. Her messages are often vague but positive, so reading a chapter a day serves as a nice mood booster. I skimmed over the ends of the chapters when she tries to give you an exercise to do.

I liked the book’s beginning and was luke warm by the end. If you love tea or reading about the stages of building an import business in a very general way, this may be for you.