Sunday, February 27, 2005

Object Lessons

My old coffee maker died a couple of months ago, and I replaced it with a small, cheap one from the grocery store, which pumped hot water and coffee grounds all over the counter this morning. Harking back to a conversation with my brother, who had recently re-discovered the joys of the French press, I turned away from the mess in my kitchen in favor of mainlining caffeine as quickly as possible. I have a small French press coffeemaker in the cupboard. I’m sure there are instructions somewhere in my large cookbook collection, which fills one floor-to-ceiling bookcase and part of another, but it is quicker to go online for simple directions.

Ah. Ready. Two tablespoons finely, freshly ground coffee for each six ounces of water brought to a boil and allowed to cool just a few degrees. I even warmed my mug in hot water while I waited for the coffee to steep for four minutes. It is darned cold in this Vermont farmhouse this morning, and I need hot coffee.

While it steeps, let me note that I bought this particular French press coffee maker for some tiny amount of money (two dollars? or was it three?) many years ago because it was cute. It is a beaker with a bright yellow plastic piece on the bottom to stabilize it and protect a table surface and a yellow plastic top with a perky ball knob handle. As I fit the lid onto the beaker, I try to align it properly with the pouring spout of the beaker. I don’t really see how this is supposed to work, but maybe it will all come clear once the plunger is depressed. After all, my engineering skills are not at their best before coffee.

Steeping, steeping. Depress the plunger. Ah, that coffee really does look good. I can see a snowy Vermont hillside right through the coffee and my kitchen window.

Now if I could only get the coffee out of the beaker….

Sure enough, this particular French press has a design flaw. You can make the coffee, but the only way to get it out of the beaker is to take off the lid, releasing plunger and coffee grounds. After I strain the longed-for brew through a conventional coffee filter, I have to admit, it is a superior cup of joe. Perhaps that happy result is what makes it possible for me to move on to philosophize about my morning adventure.

Many years ago, I dated a psychologist who went to great pains to teach me that frustration is not an emotion but a state of fact. Many people use the word “frustrated” as a synonym for “angry,” but this usage is incorrect and misleading. This morning I was frustrated by my flawed possession, but I was never angry. Why waste good psychic energy being angry at an inanimate object? It has been what it is since it was made, and my emotional response to it does not change the object at all. The same can be said of people in our lives.

If not angry, how was I feeling? Fuzzy and in need of coffee. Bemused: how does this thing work? Pleased that my newly rebuilt computer has internet access and Google delivers the goods. Amused at myself for having carted around for a couple of decades a cute little pot that simply does not work. All the more amused because I have made several major efforts to pare back the number of possessions I cart around, and this pot has made the cut every time…even though it is completely dysfunctional. I wonder what character traits are the same.

It is an object lesson to me. That rule that organizers have about throwing something out if you haven’t used it in the last year…it’s probably a good rule. I probably should not let cuteness or familiarity override that rule.

Simplifying my life is an ongoing goal for me. When I left the house I occupied on Staten Island for ten years, I left behind rooms of stuff which I hired someone to take away. He was an unreformed packrat (it is good to know those when you are trying to simplify) and wanted some things, but I suspect that many ended up in the infamous, oddly named landfill at Fresh Kills, perhaps right alongside the remains of the World Trade Center. Many other things likely remain in his junkyard or his antique store or his B&B, waiting their turn to go to the landfill. Many people really enjoy their relationships to stuff; I have spent decades learning that I am not one of them.

When I left Chattanooga, I sold, gave away, or threw away huge amounts of stuff. And when I left New York City for Vermont, all my stuff had to fit in a twenty-foot truck. It was tight, and in my view, I still have way too much stuff.

Of all the things I left behind, I have only missed a few—my sweet little gas grill, which my mother adopted then returned to me here in Vermont, and my power tools, with which my brother did likewise. Like I said, when you are trying to simplify, it is good to know packrats, particularly good-hearted, generous ones. From time to time, I think wistfully of certain pieces of furniture that needed repair or refinishing, but honestly, it is easy to find more projects. The clear, clean openness of my home and my life are far more important to me than any of the things I have divested.

Clearly, I should have given away more! Each successive purge increases the risk that I will get rid of something I will regret, but experiences like this morning’s remind me that I still have way, way too much stuff. Imagine. A coffee maker that doesn’t work, and I have stored it, washed it several times, packed it in paper so it wouldn’t break for four moves, unpacked it…but never used it. Because if I had ever used it, I would surely have noticed that it does not work.

Probably there was some overlooked manufacturing step that would have pierced the lid’s inner rim to allow coffee to flow. I really, really like this little pot (don’t ask me why?), so I am actually considering getting out my power drill and putting a hole or two in the rim. I am also considering weeding my beloved but unwieldy cookbook collection.

If we can’t get my relationships to things right, how can we ever hope to get relationships with people or—as the Buddhists would say—with sentient beings right? I am working toward simplicity and compassion in my life. I think of how hard it is to love anyone properly: just look at what I put Max and Toby through in the name of reaching out to help puppies.

Right now it seems to me that my major challenges are acceptance of my own limited capacities and the need for vigilant awareness of the importance of being present in the moment. We are all constrained by the laws of time and space. Some days it is entropy that bugs me most; some days it is aging; some days it is the intricacies of human relationships in which none of us can ever do or be enough for the others of us. If I take the time to get centered, I see…again and again…that the world is things whirling in space, time having its way with objects. The greatest blessing in my life, for which I am deeply grateful, is the faith that however difficult it is for me to accept constraints, in the end what I have is enough.


Robert said...

Such a tiny, tiny font. That must have been good coffee.

By the way, you must have never been a cowboy; a cowboy would have strained the coffee through his teeth.

I understand the desire to simplify; I am surrounded by so much clutter you'd think I was a Clutter God. I look around and ask myself, "What was I thinking?" and then ask, "Why wasn't I thinking?"

Excellent post, small font and all.

Karen said...

Sorry, Robert. I fixed it, I think. I rebuilt my laptop over the weekend and am still sorting through standard settings.

I fixed the coffee pot, too, me and my little drill.

Karen said...

Sorry, Robert. I fixed it, I think. I rebuilt my laptop over the weekend and am still sorting through standard settings.

I fixed the coffee pot, too, me and my little drill.