Sunday, October 31, 2021

beginning with coffee

“As soon as coffee is in your stomach, there is a general commotion.
Ideas begin to move…similes arise, the paper is covered.
Coffee is your ally and writing ceases to be a struggle.”

~ Honoré de Balzac

Physical space and creativity are inextricably related. My present reminder of this emerged as the disruptive tavern next to my apartment dismantled their covid-era drinking and smoking tent for the winter. As soon as I heard their fussing and chiseling this recent Saturday morning, I immediately began repatriating my writing desk and related materials from my kitchen (as far away from them as possible, short of being out on the sidewalk), and back to my usual spot which is between two windows. Concurrent with the disassembly a few yards away outside, I was gently migrating and reassembling inside. Having had my study and writing perch in the kitchen since May, I had to remember where everything was supposed to go, while rebuilding. When I moved into this apartment, the first piece of furniture I situated was my desk. My desk since age 17, having a surface only 20x30", is just right for my location of choice- with room for an adjoining set of shelves. With everything resettled, tidied, and polished- in the novel absence of the bar people- I brewed a pot of coffee. Indeed, savouring, reacquainting, and writing beckon.

cross-apartment relocation day

These times humble the ambitious. Pondering and writing about the regaining of lost ground seems a poor use of time and ink. My preference, albeit against the grain, is to look ahead as much as possible. It is enough to acknowledge the arrival of yet another pandemic season. This recent year has been my first without a retreat in more than two decades. My earned-time accrued equals upwards of two months, yet various logistics make traveling and significant respite impossible for the calculable time being. Work and survival stand on equal footing. Covid-era “extravagances” are very humble versions of the old pre-2020 fluidity. My journal entries have many notes amounting to descriptions of “covid-era values,” describing the strange life of isolating and distancing. And fatigue. There is no overestimating the worth of keeping one’s wits sharpened.

Thinking about how basics have become luxuries, I remembered the title of an oft-quoted little book of Depression-era reminiscences called First We Have Coffee. Written by Margaret Jensen, whose parents had immigrated from Norway, the family recollections are as warm as they are austere. A kind of gentle severity, attesting to its time and culture. The underlying aspect of beginning conversations by brewing coffee represents a metaphor about how problems can be reduced and managed by sitting and chatting over the familial (and vital) hot beverage. Coffee can power individuals into their workdays, but it can also have social aspects. As with journaling at my little desk, sips and words rotate with reckoning. Jensen’s preserved gems from her hospitable mother include how “when you have heart-room, you have house-room,” along with how miraculously there was always enough food to go around. Her traditions bring to mind the film I Remember Mama, which was about a struggling Norwegian immigrant family in early-20th century San Francisco. The film was a favorite of my father’s, and remembering him continues to happen for me quite effortlessly. Remembering goes with writing and plenty of contemplative coffee.

29 February 2020 was the last time
I wrote and visited with friends in a café.

This ongoing pandemic has eliminated conviviality from the lives of most of us. I am surely among those who miss the eclectic and animated company of sharing meals and ideas. Social distancing has also meant coffee without the sounds and society of cafés. In my estimation, over the past nineteen months, I haven’t purchased more than ten cups of coffee that were not made by me. Moreover, all of these were consumed either outdoors or in my car. As with a great many social venues, cafés and restaurants have been more like vendors than places for congregating and savoring. It has taken time to get used to that- more for some people than others. For me, the shock was immediate; solitude has its place, but quarantining continues to feel unnatural. It will for the duration, unknown as that is. As I moved my desk, radio, lamps, and writing accoutrements- followed by cleaning and organizing the room- I set up my coffeemaker. The latter provided a consoling aroma, enough for me to reach for pen and books. The sum-total is surely modest, perhaps austere to many others, but for me and for now this is humbly civilized.