Saturday, November 27, 2010

Just Drinking Coffee

Yesterday morning, I used the birthday money my mother sent me to buy a pottery mug at the Worcester Center for Crafts annual fair.  The mug is amazingly beautiful and cost an unreasonable amount.  The marks of flame and ash from its wood-fired origins are the natural decoration on this smallish drinking vessel. The cup itself was pushed in as the handle was attached, so the sweet memory of soft wet clay lingers with the finished piece.  The handle itself is elegant, chunky and reliable.
I paid a wild forty dollars for the mug and probably wouldn’t have done it with ‘my own’ money.  But as a birthday extravagance, I could justify the purchase.  Having been a professional potter many years ago, I suspect that the maker of my mug works long days, both in the making and in the selling of his creations.  And if his annual net is thirty thousand a year, I’m sure he considers himself quite successful.
            Later in the day, I went to my local Ace Hardware store to buy a replacement halogen bulb for one of the space-age light fixtures that fly in the Temple kitchen.    Ace is the chain store that drove the previous locally owned hardware store with wooden floors and guys who knew how to fix things out of business ten years ago.  They often have great bargains because now they are hanging on for their economic life due to the Home Depot that recently opened just a few miles away.
            On the way out, in the center aisle, which is the seasonal bargain display, I saw a four-cup coffee maker along with the snow shovels and window scrapers.  I have been half-heartedly looking for a small coffee maker ever since I gave away our old one to my father last Father’s Day when he was passing through town on a RV camping trip and had forgotten his coffee maker.  So I checked the price on the coffee maker, and when I saw it was an amazing nine dollars, I scooped one up -- along with my tiny, don’t touch with your fingers, seven-dollar halogen bulb.
            Later this morning, I will go into the kitchen, turn on my seven-dollar light bulb, make ten-dollar a pound dark roast coffee in my nine-dollar coffee maker, and then drink a small cup of Joe in my forty-dollar mug.
              This all makes me conscious of the invisible webs of relationships I support as I live my economic life.  I know who made the mug, he lives in Maine and I am happy to share some of the money that people give me with him.  The people who made the parts and assembled the coffee maker and packed it and put it on the trucks and put it in the center aisle of Ace Hardware are more hidden from my imagination – I suspect most of them, like the potter, would be happy to make thirty thousand a year.  I feel virtuous about supporting the potter (even though it was my mother’s money).  And while I am happy to save money on my new coffee maker, I feel vaguely uneasy about the relationships I foster with my frugality.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Considering the Falling Leaves

Here in New England, the days have grown quite short now.  And just the other day we had our first wet snow of the season.  The nasturtiums that grew riotously over the slope behind the pergola now lie flat – victims of the hard frost a couple days ago.  The marigolds too, once bushy and covered with flashy orange blossoms, are brown and wilted.  Only the carcasses of tomato plants still stand erect.  The stakes and cages that once kindly held the weight of their fruit are now superfluous and seem almost cruel.
        Only the giant beech tree by the road seems to have missed God’s seasonal memo on the timeliness of letting go.  She stubbornly grips her green leaves, even while her partner, the majestic oak has dropped his leaves at her feet.  She studiously ignores his entreaties and holds fast to her own sense of things.  But even for her, it won’t be long.
This fall, though I have continued to love the endless falling of the leaves, I have been thinking more about the finality of the activity.  Of course it’s part of the cycle and I know these same trees will sprout new and amazing leaves in the spring.  But for the leaves that fall, this leaf identity, this leaf-life, is nearly over.  They won’t jump up in the spring and say ‘just kidding’ and find their way back to the branches from which they fell.  They’re not migrating birds who miraculously find their way back to their birth place.
In the midst of the cycle of the seasons, of light and dark, of life and death – there is also this one-way movement.  The job of the fallen leaves is not to rise up but to fall further apart – until there is nothing leaf-like that remains.  I rake them onto tarps and drag them ceremoniously to the six-foot pile by the back fence to await their dissolution.  Some day in the spring, several years from now, I will spread the humus of their remains back over the garden.  Or perhaps someone else will be doing that work by then.
I don’t mean to be morbid, but this dying business is not merely poetic.  It feels important this morning to find my way into both the closing of the season that only precedes next spring’s opening – as well as into that which is fully lost - the parts and pieces of life that only throw themselves forward into the future through completely dissolving.  I know that I too, in the midst of the cycles of the days and the seasons of my life, am slowly being called toward this dissolution.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

My New Friends

Last night I went into Boston to hear my potential future son-in-law – or perhaps I should say my current ‘son-in-law,’ Kevin, give a talk at Harvard Med School.  He’s a graduate student in immunology as was speaking as part of a series by a student run organization called ‘Science in the News.’  The topic last night was explaining some of how microbes (bacteria) function in our bodies. 
I learned:
            My body contains more bacteria than the number of people on earth.  Though if you scraped them off my skin and collected them from all the surfaces within and without of me, their total mass would amount to only about five pounds, they outnumber the actual cells of my body.  The densest concentration of these microbes is in my large intestine.  This is where, I learned, food stays for an average of three days as these microbes work to break down what the rest of my digestive system couldn’t.  There are so many different microbes that have such interdependent functioning in the large intestine that we don’t even know all of what is there.  Many of these microbes are essential to our well-being where they are, but could kill us if they travel to other parts of the body.  Some are so secretive that even scientists in their white lab coats can't culture them outside the body.
            I’m fascinated by all these parts of me that aren’t me.  These microbes are like independent contractors that have their own agenda.  I can’t order them around and I can’t survive without them.  On the bright side, I am the whole world to them.  But on the down side, I am just a food source, just a place to live.  As long as the nutrients keep on coming and I stay away from powerful anti-biotics, they are content to go about their microbial way and I should be grateful.
            So this morning as I go put the trash out, I have just a little more respect for the miracle of my large intestine – ‘the densest concentration of microbial variety on earth.’  I think I’ll start eating yogurt regularly as my way of saying thank you to all my unknown friends and allies down there.
            (for more fascinating microbial information and links to the talks – visit Kevin’s blog )