I made my wife a cup of coffee this morning, and an image of totem poles came to mind. You’re due an explanation.
About ten years ago, James “The Amazing” Randi and I were in the small kitchen at the former James Randi Educational Foundation headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Most mornings, this rooms was filled with heady conversation about politics and philosophy, but for whatever reason, it was just the two of us this time.
We were both there for coffee. Randi had an odd habit of drinking coffee that was left in the pot from the day before, but I insisted on making a new pot. As the Mr. Coffee dripped and sputtered, Randi took a mug from the rack and handed it to me.
He said, “This is a special mug, and I think a special person should have it.”
I took the mug with gratitude, but I was a bit confused. It wasn’t an attractive mug. It had a confusing logo on it that looked like a bird being hanged over a Canadian flag. But the shape was interesting. It was tall, and flat on one side. The bottom had 12 little ceramic feet that prevented the cup from leaving rings, and it felt good in my hand.
“That mug was given to me by Dean Gunnarson. He bought my escape act.”
For those who don’t know, James Randi was a magician and escape artist. When he turned 60, he gave it all up, and sold his props and secrets to Dean. Randi went on to tell the story about how, like Randi himself, Dean came close to death in an escape gone wrong, leading their mutual friend Johnny Carson to refer to him as the “Crazy Canadian.”
I’ve kept that mug for ten years, and there’s no telling how long Randi had it. It’s my favorite mug and I use it often. But today, as I put it under the coffee machine, I felt something odd on the handle. I expected that it hadn’t been cleaned well, but on closer observation, I learned that the handle was cracked, and the glazing was coming off. This mug was finished.
A wave of loss came over me, only to be followed by a mental image of a majestic totem pole. Most people see totem poles in museums or in curated places. The stack of figures is cared for and preserved so as to last as long as possible. But as part of their creation, totem poles were meant to rot in place. Not only did the figures tell a story (from bottom to top), but the decay did as well. It reminded people that all things return to the soil and that it’s OK. When they’re preserved, their story is put on hold. It’s as if the museum pressed the pause button, and only a single image from a feature length is visible.
When I realized that I valued the mug, I thought “I shouldn’t use this lest it get broken.” Yeah, I really use the word ‘lest’ in my head. But then I thought, no, it’s a mug. It should be used. And when it breaks, that will be the end of its story.
I learned from the totem poles not to be afraid to use things that I like. Yes, they will get damaged, lost or destroyed. But the alternative is to put them in a box and never see them again. If someone finds them many years later, they’ll find an old mug and have no idea of its significance to me. Far better, I think, to use the thing, and let it live.
I won’t save the broken mug, even though it could still hold pencils or something. It’s going in the trash. I’ll keep the memories. And tomorrow I’ll drink coffee from a mug given to me by another Canadian friend. It seems I have an entire forest of totem poles.