09 April 2011

Coffee, room for cream

I have often enough described the ritual of my morning coffee. How it is simply brewed by pouring hot water (208 degrees I am told is optimal, so as not to burn the grounds) into an unbleached #4 sized filter atop the stove. I listen for the sound of the liquid dropping into the Pyrex Mellita pot to ensure that the tiny hole has not been clogged by a previous user who carelessly permitted the grounds to run over the filter paper; I turn a low light under the coffee to ensure that the liquid remains hot. I fill my favorite mug—a gift from my daughter—with hot water to prepare it for the dark elixir, and wait calmly for the water to drip through the prepared grounds. When the dripping has all ceased, I empty the hot water from the mug, pour in the syrupy steaming liquid, add a dollop (love that word!) of ½ and ½ and carry the elixir out to my work space to begin the day. It is a wonderful ritual that eases me into the efforts of the day and thought.
And so traveling demands that I somehow enact the ritual in some different but similar manner. I must search out a reputable coffee house where the brew is fresh and strong; if the establishment is close enough to the hotel room then I can carry the cup back and sit in the quiet of the room and engage in some reading and writing. Should the coffee house be just a bit too far to make return convenient, then I sit in a corner with a copy of the New York Times (should it be available) or some local paper that contains a fair share of national news. I may be away but the world remains. I finish the coffee and the paper and the day has honestly begun.
These rituals are acts of homecoming in the process of leaving home. They are means by which I situate myself in a strange world where I am surrounded by none of the things familiar to me and by which I establish some bearing. Traveling I constrained by what I have packed in the suitcase; my comfort foods are unavailable and expensive, and I must continually search out my food that are always prepared by someone else. The calm I derive from preparation is unavailable when I travel, and I must find another avenue to peace. It is often companionship, but sometimes it a lovely glass of wine or a single-malt scotch. Of course, I tote a considerable amount of reading material to keep me company. 
In “Of Solitude” Montaigne writes, “We must reserve a back shop all our own, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude.” This most public man never advocates retreating from the world; he did, after all, publish these essays exploring every aspect of his personal and intellectual life. He was married, had children and engaged in a very public civic life. Montaigne never advocates that we live in seclusion from the world; indeed, he knows clearly the obligations that such social engagement entails. But in this back shop “our ordinary conversations must be between us and ourselves, and so private that no outside association or communication can find a place.”  In that back shop we must develop the strength to be alone. 
Too many have no opportunity to create such a back shop in physical space; it is indeed a luxury we appreciate not enough. I despair that it is not a social goal to ensure that everyone can share in the privileges now enjoyed by the few of which I include myself as one. But perhaps in our private rituals we can create such a locus for the uses of our inestimable solitude. I think we might begin to teach people how to create spaces for their private conversations and to teach them to engage in such efforts. 
Of course, even those of privilege have no capacity to be alone: the ubiquity of cell phones and iPods and iPads give evidence of our inability to endure solitude for very long, if at all. People walk out of crowded buildings and meetings and immediately call or text someone on their cell phones. In any crowd a large percentage may be found with their hands to their ears talking on cell phones. Many walk about with blue tooth devices in their ears talking, it would seem, to no one. There was a time when such activity might be looked upon with suspicionperhaps they still arebut now such behavior is mostly acceptable. There are fewer places to create back rooms. In the hands of so many rests the phone to which constant attention is paid, checking with some frequency for incoming messages and calls. And upon the arrival of some message, usually containing not a great deal of vital information, the receiver engages in immediate reply. And the cycle has begun. Few are now ever wholly present; they are always somewhere else. Few ever withdraw to a solitude available in their back rooms. It is too public a world. 
Thoreau complains, “Society is too cheap. We meet at very short intervals not having had time to acquire any new value for each other.” So is it in our contemporary society. And we are so afraid of solitude that we spend considerable effort to avoid it. We fear not only the other but also ourselves. We are terrified of cultivating solitude. “But a man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will.” Too much time spent avoiding solitude suggests an absence of meaningful activity and thought.  We have boarded up our back rooms and placed a sign on the door Danger: enter at your own risk
And so my morning ritual is the creation of my back room when the physical space is unavailable. When I am at home, the coffee accompanies me and when I travel it creates the necessary space for my solitude.


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