My elbow nudged the mug off the corner of the bathroom sink. It toppled to its side and slid gently into the basin. The good news was that the hot tea was captured and drained immediately. The bad news was the mug suddenly was a mug no more. It looked like it had been mugged, and it was a fatality. What had once been a singularly useful object had been instantly partitioned into an unholy trinity: a three-quarter near-mug, an elongated sliver of porcelain, and an almost circular finger-grip handle that then attached only to air.
It had been a good companion. I felt like giving it a eulogy. My cup of kindness began its life with me back in Alabama as a coffee mug. The orange lettering spelled “Tennessee” in that familiar font that had become a comfort, for it reminded me of my birthplace and of the university that carries my home state’s name. I bought it after moving to Alabama as a visible link to my beginnings. After many life-changing years, I moved to Brooklyn and brought it with me. As a nod to Park Slope’s literary culture, I switched from coffee to green tea, finding my mug readily adaptable to its new purpose. I was changing, but here was a familiar item that physically connected me with my past. Its demise produced an odd feeling of loss in me that went well beyond bemoaning the simple breaking of a piece of porcelain, beyond losing a favored utensil. This was a mighty chalice, holding more than the simple comfort of a warm beverage. It represented my history, memories, home.
Western thought perceives the mind as a “tabula rasa,” or blank slate with which we are born and upon which we write our life story. However, I think I prefer the Eastern philosophy that pictures an empty box that we must carry and that we fill with our finest memories and precious possessions over time. This viewpoint warns that there is only so much room in our box. As we continue growing and adding items, it becomes necessary to discard some of the older treasures already there in order to make room for the new. Otherwise, we become burdened by the weight of the box we carry.
I retired from running a business back in Alabama and came to New York City to write—again. Writing, as a columnist at a daily newspaper, had been my first love and had provided my first real job. That homecoming to a life filled again with trying to shape words into poignant phrases and works of wonder was a dream I had nurtured for many years. Getting here—to New York City and back to writing—required a great deal of sacrifice. I left behind parents, a young adult son, and friends. Family tends to be accepting, if reluctant, of actions and events in the lives of their loved ones—even of those decisions that they don’t understand. On the other hand, friends are often less accommodating. Perhaps that fact is another way life reviews and adjusts the contents of our box. True friends allow us to change, to grow.
I don’t mourn the loss of the mug per se. I grieve the loss of close contact with family, friends, and the Southern culture that it represented. Nor do I regret my decision to come to the greatest city in the world. In fact, I confess to having a bit of a love-hate relationship with my Southern culture. As such, I have tried to make a clean break with my Southern past by acknowledging its contributions to my character and reconciling myself to its peccadilloes—and mine. I will never forget my upbringing, and I will apply forever the lessons I learned roaming the rolling hills of rural middle Tennessee and walking along the banks of the Tennessee River as it wiggles its way to the wide Mississippi. But even that mighty Mississippi River still must empty into the great ocean, and I have found my own way to the sea—alongside Lady Liberty in New York Harbor.
So, with all the changes in my life yet to come, I know that from time to time I must be willing to make room for all the new treasures I am now storing in my personal box. I guess the mug had to go.