On a recent work trip, I lost my red coffee mug.
A svelte 12 ounces and very good at its job of keeping hot beverages hot and inside, this travel canister is branded with Gimme! Coffee logos, etched with mountains and stars and is a distinctive color easy to spot from across a playground, one of the reasons I hadn’t lost it yet.
But this work trip was a little insane and something was bound to slip away from me.
I’d driven from Boston with my two year old to Ithaca, where we’d met up with my parents for three nights in a rental house and three very full work days (care of Grandma’s Day Care) including an evening event and a story about it due the next day.
The longer I parent the more I subscribe to the notion that possessions are extensions of our minds. Lost objects represent lapses in concentration. And boy did this trip involve a lot of objects and a lot of concentration.
Tuesday around 4 p.m., I filled my travel mug from the office electric kettle and dashed out to meet a friend.
The evening went on: quick stop at the rental house to check on the family, then a walk up Buffalo Street to Cornell’s Schwartz Center in time to greet guests and take notes at “Free Press in a Free Society: US Newsrooms on the Front Lines.” I got back to the house around 8:30 p.m., ate some dinner. But when I reached for my trusty travel mug–I wanted to sip tea in bed while I started my article–I found it missing.
Wednesday, the mug was not at the office. And even with my deadline looming, I wasted writing time retracing steps from the day before: up the hill, into Goldwin Smith Hall, three steps down into Temple of Zeus café. No red mug.
By then, my ability to work had been tainted by the itch of missing thing + subsequent self-judgement, dialoging in my head:
I want it back!
But it’s a stupid object. Why are you so attached to things?
Because things are important.
Looking back, I honor my attachment to this red coffee mug for two reasons.
First, I take delight in specific possessions, and I consider this a good trait. A thing can be valuable because it’s useful, beautiful, or has sentimental value – and my red mug has all three. At some level, having it in my hand, filled with tea, made me happy.
Second, I want to live by a principle of reuse. So much in this world is disposable, and not just the made-to-toss paper cups at coffee shops. More and more, “permanent” stuff like bed spreads and cookware and sneakers and, yes, coffee mugs are so abundant and cheap (imagine a stroll through a Target store) we buy and toss, buy and toss, every time we move house or get tired of the color or run out of room. I want to not be a part of this wasteful way of living, even though by now it’s deeply entrenched in the American psyche – and economy.
In contrast, a scene from The End of Drum Time by Hanna Pylväinen comes to mind. The novel is about Sámi reindeer herders living in the far north of Sweden/Finland nearly 200 years ago. The day one of them, Risten, gets married, she sneaks some brandy into the wooden guksi she carries with her everywhere and thinks back through the way she’s drunk water, milk, coffee from this very same vessel since she received it as a girl.
One drinking vessel: yours for life.
Something about our ability to reorder another thing immediately after losing it bugs me.
In the case of my red mug, a memory glitch prevented me from jumping online and compulsively ordering another. I couldn’t remember the brand of the mug. A four-letter word starting with “M,” I knew that much. Moon? Muon? My internet searches got me nowhere but science for kids sites.
Distracted by physical objects (or the lack thereof), I finished my article late. And for all my worrying and theorizing, I had no familiar mug to hold my tea Wednesday night when I finally did turn it in.
Thursday morning, I packed the car, got my kid ready to travel and left him with Grandma so I could attend one last work event. Then we would roll out.
As I walked to my meeting, my attention turned back to the mug. Far from letting it go, my subconscious was on this case. With nothing better to do for fifteen minutes, I let my mind run.
Back to Tuesday night: Working the lobby before the event, I’m trying to reach for something, to do something for myself, but I keep getting distracted. Amidst the arriving audience members and concerned colleagues pestering me with questions, I notice that a strange wooden ledge runs all the way around the Schwartz Center lobby, about shoulder high on me. A perfect place to –
Set down a coffee mug.
So that’s what happened. It was like reading a transcript pulled from my memory, and all it took was a few minutes to concentrate, the calming cadence of an uphill walk, and a brain that insisted on tracing an item with the persistence of a bloodhound after quarry.
I was about to walk past the Schwartz Center. I stepped inside.
There was the mug, undisturbed. The water inside was lukewarm.
If lost objects represent lapses in concentration, maybe found ones celebrate the power of the mind to recreate circumstances–and once in a lucky while reappear a beloved possession.
This ability reminds me of writing fiction, trying to discern a plot and deeper meaning from a collection of characters and interactions. Only instead of recreating circumstances, your novel brain is trying to suss them out before they [fictionally] occur.
Sipping water from my recovered, rinsed and refilled red mug, I basked in a private sunshine through the meeting. Victory: not only did I get my thing back, I’d done it through a trick of memory and a quirk of persistence – which will drive me nuts nine times out of ten, but this time, it came through for me.
And if you’re wondering the brand of this cup I like so much, it’s Miir. But I don’t plan to order another for a long time.