Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Importance of the Vessel

Here's something no one knows about me. Chris, if he is very, very observant of my daily patterns might know it . . . but I don't think he does.

Anyone who knows me, does know that coffee is extremely, perhaps unreasonably, important to me. They may know, too, that since Chris became an avid home brewer and undeniable beer expert, beer has become, if not deeply important to me, at least highly respected and greatly enjoyed. A few of you likely also know that I love bowls and treasure a small collection. But here's what perhaps no one but me knows:

If I am kicking off my morning coffee routine with drip coffee, I always drink it from this. This is the only suitable vessel for my cup of drip coffee:
A set of four, given to me by my mother, made at Mud & Fire Studio in Little Meadows, PA, my hometown.

If, instead of drip coffee, I decide (as has been the habit of late) on coffee made in my Italian stovetop espresso maker, then I always drink it from this:
One of two Denby mugs given to us as a wedding gift by friends who now, like us, have three kids, live far away, and who we never get to see.

If Nespresso with cream, this is my cup of choice:
Mass produced somewhere; purchased at a mall in a "mom needs some work clothes and some alone time" outing. It's actually a set of measuring cups, but I thought they deserved to have something wonderful savoured from them rather than just dumping their measured contents and being tossed aside.

But if I'm frothing or foaming milk to turn that Nespresso into a latte or cappuccino, then I will always choose this:
Purchased from Ikea because it was the perfect size for a cappuccino and the perfect simplicity to let something wonderful just be what it is.

Just about every evening, when the kids are all finally in bed, I make myself a hot chocolate--not one of those sicky-sweet-yet-terribly-thin instant mixes. No. Mine is cocoa, milk, and honey warmed on the stovetop, and I always, always, always drink it from this:
Also mass produced and purchased at a mall (the same "mom needs clothes and alone time" outing referenced above). What can I say? The design strikes me as a little bit Russian, a little bit Asian, a little bit 70s Retro, a little futuristic. I love it!

When I paw through cupboards, I can't believe the amount of tea piled in my home. I don't drink it very often, but when I do, I sip it from here:
Two mugs that came to us when Grandma Kay was moved out of her house and downsized to an apartment. Origin unknown, but I love the understated beauty of these and imagine them to be some unappreciated masterpiece that I alone see the greatness in.

Wine is another rarity, but when I do pour myself a glass, it's always in one of these:
Actually, this is sort of a lie. I always drank wine from another set of wine glasses, but the last one broke in a sink full of dishes right before Christmas. This new, equally wonderful set, was one of Chris's Christmas presents to me, and this is now the new wine vessel.

Beer is not a rarity at all, and most frequently, I pour that beer into one of these:
When Chris really got into craft beer and homebrewing, the search for good tulip glasses (that would not cost us $100 for a set of four from The Bay) went on and on . . . and on. And then I happened to walk by a specialty kitchen store on the last day of their going-out-of-business sale. Practically the only things left on the shelves were these tulip glasses. "Chris! Look what I found!" I called as I walked in the door. I was a hero!!!

But if it's a Hefeweisen or a west coast pale or something very crisp and clean. Then I'll pour it into this:
From the first set of beer glasses I bought for Chris in the great beer glass search; it's the soul survivor now, so must never be left to languish in a sink full of dishes.

But this . . . particularity?. . . peculiarity?. . . of mine doesn't just apply to beverages. Even on a busy weeknight, it at all possible, I serve dinner, not from the pans it was cooked in, but from something like this:
From an antique store in Wisconsin.

or this:
From a tree somewhere.

or this:
A wedding gift from another close friend we now rarely get to see.

or this:
Another antique, purchased in Wisconsin.

And even our compost convalesces, and then journeys to its final resting place, in this:
From Lindgren Pottery near Huntsville, Ontario and a decision Chris and I made to prioritize art and beauty in our lives.

I seem to be somewhat OCD about the above (and perhaps a few other things in life, too). It's really not that I just prefer to have drip coffee in a Mud & Fire mug or my hot chocolate in my Russian/Asian/Retro mug. If these things are dirty, I won't just say "Oh well," and grab another mug. I will locate the missing object, wash it, and then proceed with the treasured routine. Even when I am visiting family or traveling, and these chosen objects are not available, I seek out the "right" vessel from what they have available . . . and if there is nothing "right," well, it kind of bothers me. I'll still drink my coffee or beer or whatever, of course, but the experience is just not . . . whole. 

Perhaps I get this from my mother. If you know my mom, really, really know her, you probably know, or have heard someone say, "Well, Joyce is very . . . particular." And its true. She's also very aesthetic and creative and loves beautiful objects and has a close connection with things that are important to her. I love this about her, and I like to think I have some of these tendencies as well.

A few of my mother's more playful things.

It would be easy to think we are this way because we are shallow people, putting far too much value in, and assigning far too much meaning to, goods and products and material things.

Well, maybe. But I really don't think so. Chris and my other family members might laugh at me when they read this, but the truth is, I really don't care that much about things

. . . Except for the things I care about. Those things, I care a lot about. And most of them seem to be related to those fundamental pulses that the rest of our daily lives are oriented around: the morning waking ritual, the family sharing of food, the evening relaxation.

Now, I'm not going to go out on a limb and say that the flavor of my coffee or beer or food actually tastes objectively different because it was served in one of these objects I seem to care so much about. But I will say with absolute certainty that my morning coffee, our family meals, my evening hot chocolate are altogether experientially different for the vessels in which they are served.

And this experiential difference is not simply because of the way these objects look, although in all of the above cases, I do think they look very nice and very much enjoy looking at them. Nor is it due to some symbolic value assigned to these objects because of the individual stories of how they came into our possession and the connections to other people in our lives they therefore represent, although that is also certainly important to me and a joy to remember. But (and here you might think I'm a bit on the wacky side--but, hey, I can only drink my coffee out of one particular cup, so maybe so) for me, the experiential difference comes from the objects themselves and something intrinsic, yet mysterious and ultimately unknowable, carried in them from their creation.

Each of these objects--even the mass produced ones--comes from a person, an individual, a creative human. It also comes from a human craft, tradition, history. Someone, somewhere conceived of this object, imagined its design, drawing both on their own creativity and on accumulated knowledge and tradition to do so. In some of these cases, that same person carried out its creation with their own hands, investing, immersing, and expressing themselves in creating the object long before I ever engaged in the experience of using it. I think objects carry something of their creators in them; they are of them, and when using these objects, we are connected in some way to their creators, even though we cannot know those individuals. We are connected, too, to those other creators who contributed to developing that craft, that human tradition, over time.

And for some of these objects, all of the thought and care and tradition of the design is, somewhat amazingly, put forward, not for the object itself, but to pay homage to the creation it will hold and to enhance that creation for the person partaking in it. These are both beautiful in their simplicity and brilliant in their form, form that at once cradles and offers up the beauty and artistry of another. I appreciate this attention to design meant for honoring other crafts every time I look, sniff, sip, and marvel at one of Chris's fermented creations and wonder at his ability to explore, learn, analyze, experiment, and participate in a craft people have been developing for millennia.

I certainly don't consciously think about this every single time I drink my coffee, pass a bowl of food around the table, or lift the lid to drop carrot peelings into the compost. In fact, I'm not sure if I ever really consciously thought about it before writing this post. But I don't think I need to be consciously considering it to be enriched by another human's thumbprint purposefully placed where I will grip my coffee cup, another person's finger tips spun into ridges on the outside of the bowl I grip then pass to my children's waiting hands, another person's consideration and decision on the smoothness of the glaze and the swirling of the pattern across the lid I lift. Whether I'm consciously observing it our not, the experience is better, the pulses of daily life are fuller, connection is deeper, for the human hand that contributed to my small, seemingly mundane, moment of living.

Eating, drinking, breathing, sleeping, gathering our loved ones around us, nourishing them, holding them close, sharing joy with them, and doing our best to secure them: these are the unchanging things that life always has been and always will be. And while there is an impulse to categorize existence into sacred and profane, to view life as important special moments separated by long expanses of mundane, and to assign value to the rare and wonderous but to discount and discard the normal and everyday, this is a limiting and, to my mind, ultimately unfulfilling approach. Life, the sacred, the wonderous, the meaningful, is in the everyday. And those people who put such care and energy, such craft and artistry, into the simple creations we use for the most regular and routine activities, can help us experience something larger than the swallow of that coffee, be connected to something bigger than ourselves and that one routine moment.

So, yes, as my friends and family all know, my morning coffee is extremely, perhaps unreasonably, important to me. And so is the cup I drink it from. The experience, in its entirety, is something I savour every day, day in and day out, and no day would be quite as good, quite as fulfilling, quite as as whole, without it.
The essentials for living.

1 comment:

  1. I can't tell you how much this resonates with me. Coffee in certain mugs depending on what I'm feeling in a deep way, certain bowls for certain soups make them taste a little more homey, etc. Perhaps it's an OCD thug but I prefer to think of it as a little knowing of our own souls. Loved this!