A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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Like a lot of people, the closest thing I have to a meditation practice is making coffee every morning. The process begins the night before, when I make sure the pot I’ll heat the water in is clean. If I have to wash a pot, I’ll be grumpy — I know this about myself. What I want is to enter the ritual with as little forethought as possible, to seamlessly transition from the dream state of sleep to standing at the sink, filling the pot and looking out the window. Depending on the time of year, it’s dark outside and winter blue, snow piled on the roof of the old shed on the hill, or the sun has already risen and begun to shine pink on the white birch trees. While the world cycles through its changes, my coffee making remains the same: I fill the pot and carry it to the stove and switch on the back left burner. Since that burner sometimes shorts out, I hold my hand over the coils and wait for them to glow. This is a meditation within a meditation — the growing warmth in my palm a memory that draws me back to every other morning I’ve made coffee. Sometimes late in the afternoon, apropos of nothing, I’ll suddenly recall the heat in my palm, and I’ll remember the snow-blue shed or the birch trees. Or my annoyance at having to clean a pot.
Once the water is heating up, I spoon sugar into a mug, set the pour-over dripper on top, and push a recycled filter inside. Then I put the dark grains in, spilling them from a bag, eyeballing it. Unlike the poet T.S. Eliot, I refuse to measure my life in spoons. No two of my cups are the same, the way no two days are the same. When the water is nearly to a boil, I ladle on just enough to wet the grounds and open them up. Half a minute later I ladle on more. I have read about the science behind the process, but I prefer the poetry of it — the pause between the streams of hot water, the sugar dissolving like breath into a word.
I don’t drink the coffee myself but carry it down the hall to my wife, who is still in bed. I wait until she has taken a sip before I leave her be. It’s not often the coffee needs more cream or sugar or is too weak, but if it is, I want to fix it right away.
This has been our routine for three years — a thousand cups of coffee. It’s a privilege to bring something warm and slightly sweet first thing in the morning to someone you love. Whatever else happens in the day, it will have started with a kindness. Not a special kindness; an ordinary one. The coffee arrives like dawn, as a matter of course. I say a thousand cups, but I’m not counting.
I don’t make the coffee to earn some kind of husbandly credit or to balance out the household labor. It would be foolish to even try. My wife is always working, mothering, dreaming up something for the good of us all. When I had to give up coffee to heal an ulcer, I started making it for her because I wanted to and could.
Like anyone with a meditation practice, however, I don’t always love the ritual. Some mornings I would rather shut out the world and go back to sleep. Some mornings the trees outside are so lusciously green I want to lie among them like a moss-covered log and watch the clouds pass overhead. On those days I linger at the kitchen window, marveling at the birds. What must it feel like to command the air with a voice, with wings? What do the brown wasps feel, droning their way along the window screen, mindlessly bumping into it? Spring after spring I have watched the oak trees on the hillside sprout leaves and feast on sunlight, and I am no closer to understanding them. Nor am I any closer to understanding what it is in me that wants to know any of this.
But that’s some days, not most. More often than not, I go through the motions of making coffee the way those wasps tap at the screen. I don’t lose myself in ecstatic visions; instead I hum a song, thinking about the minor irritations of work and family life, moving on autopilot between sink and stove and fridge. Weeks sometimes pass between moments of real awareness. It’s like arriving at your destination after a long drive, only to realize your mind has been elsewhere the entire time and you have no memory of the lights you stopped at, the turns you made, the glide in and out of traffic. Morning arrives again, and I stand in the kitchen, startled to exist.
I imagine great spiritual masters like Thich Nhat Hanh as baristas who have given their lives over to making the perfect cup. They understand the significance of the roast of the bean, its region of origin, the coarseness of its grind, the ratio of water to grounds, the timing and temperature of the water. Every last variable is included in the care they take. It’s beautiful, even maniacal. I respect the dedication, but I’m happy enough making imperfect cups of coffee and meditating imperfectly. A Zen parable I have always loved has it that two monks were arguing about how best to achieve enlightenment and ran to their master to settle the dispute. The first monk said, “Master, isn’t it true that a monk must always strive to become enlightened?” The master said he was right. The second monk said, “Master, to achieve enlightenment, don’t we have to give up everything, including striving for enlightenment?” And the master said he was right. A third monk, overhearing the conversation, interjected, “But they can’t both be right!” The master said he was right, too.
In the parable I hear delighted laughter in the master’s voice. In the urgent questions of his students he recognizes his own ambition and naiveté. Trying to pin certainty onto a paradox — how very human.
I share their predicament. I want the coffee I bring my wife each morning to mean something, to serve as an emblem of our days together. I want it to be a manifestation of my love and commitment, a salve against the day something changes and I’m no longer able to be of such service or one of us is no longer here. But another part of me wants to empty the ritual of its meaning, to let go of the nagging obligation to memorialize everything I love as a charm against losing it. I want to look out the kitchen window at the old shed on the hillside and let life happen to me, like the carpenter ants chewing tunnels in the damp wood of the shed’s walls. Let me collapse in a heap on a spring day years from now. Let the coppery pine needles cover me like a shroud.
Thich Nhat Hanh sees the whole world in a single sheet of paper: The clouds that held the rain that watered the trees that became the paper are there. The sunlight shining on the forest. The air all around. Everything that exists is what it is by virtue of everything else. The sky is the sky because the rain is the rain and the forest the forest. On this sheet of paper is my morning, a flake of it, its light and shadows, its windows and shed, the dim hallway I walk down with my wife’s coffee. She sits up in bed, fixes her pillows, pulls her hair into a ponytail, takes the mug. She says thank you. She sips. It means nothing and everything. And I delight in that. The constancy of the ritual is a contrast to the change all around me, what is in my control and what is not. Earth spins at one thousand miles an hour, and I don’t even feel it. Some days I wish I had never been born. Some days I weep at the tenderness of a breeze in the pines. No matter what I write on the blank page of my life, it’s a comfort to come home to myself after a spell of distracted thought. How lost I would be if I never got lost.