Thursday, June 23, 2011

My Favorite Souvenir Coffee Mug

First, let me clarify something: I don't drink coffee; I drink tea. I drink lots and lots of hot tea, mostly varieties of decaf green. However, nobody says 'tea mug.' There are only three acceptable terms (that come readily to mind) for a hot beverage receptacle. There is a coffee mug, a coffee cup, and a tea cup. I don't drink tea from a tea cup. Tea cups are dainty little things that only hold about four ounces, often splay open at the top, allowing all the heat to escape in about two minutes flat, and usually come with saucers--an entirely unnecessary accessory unless you take cream or sugar and thus need a place to lay down your spoon. As a reformed coffee addict, I drink my tea from a mug. You just can't wrap your hands around a tea cup to savor the warmth and good company of a steaming cuppa. (Yes, linguistically, I do make 'a cup of tea,' but I drink from a mug.) All of this is to say that I feel a little awkward with the title of this post, but to refer to a 'tea mug' or a 'tea cup' just wasn't what I wanted to convey. I know you are with me, dear reader, so I'll move on.

When we were traveling as a family, we had the chance to visit our friends, Chad and Cindy Carlson, in New Orleans. They moved there with CRM in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and are helping to rebuild hope and community through personal relationships in this pain-filled city. I have a deep respect for them and the work they are doing there. They asked us what we would like to do while in town and we said our number one priority was to learn about the devastation from Katrina.

They took us to the Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood right next to the levee that had broken, the neighborhood hardest hit by the storm. It was sobering. The once densely populated area looked like a war zone. Badly damaged homes, sagging and tattered, clearly abandoned, dotted an otherwise blank land scape. Roads to nowhere in a neatly residential grid were lined with empty foundations where houses had once stood, houses that hadn't been razed in the clean-up efforts, houses that had been wiped off the face of the landscape (many with their occupants still in then)--tossed by the storm surge like chess pieces cleared from the board with a careless backhand. A few concrete front porches remained with no houses attached to them. Here and there, a handful of miscellaneous household items and personal belongings had been arranged on the steps, like shrines dedicated to the lives that had once been there. I stood on an island stoop and held my daughter to me and prayed for those who survived, those who are struggling still to rebuild a life somewhere, those who have been likely shaken to their very cores.

Chad took us inside one particular home he has watched over the years. He has seen it get stripped, bit by bit, of anything that could be valuable to sell--scrap metal, fixtures, hardware, copper wiring. It still stands, however, a shell of a home, its floors uneven and warped, filled with a springy cushion of what used to be carpet, now growing with all kinds of things I didn't want to identify. Chad warned us not to trust the staircase and not to touch anything or lean against any wall. We walked carefully from room to room as in a ghost town. An assortment of household items, things without enough resale value, apparently, were strewn about in no particular order, some broken beyond recognition, some oddly intact. Books with bloated covers. Broken dishes. A pile of pink plastic hair curlers. A child's toy truck.

I ducked under a sagging beam and went into what had been the kitchen. The empty cupboards were sagging forward, doors and drawers hanging open like gaping eyes and mouths crying out in despair. The floor was unrecognizable under several inches of dried mud and muck. I struggled with the reality that this had been someone's home, someone's safe haven. In the semi-darkness, I spotted the handle of a coffee mug sticking up in the grime. I poked at it with my shoe and found that it was whole. It had escaped damage somehow. I continued to wander around the sad remains of someone's life.

When we were ready to go, I asked Chad if it was considered poor form to take something from a home that had been abandoned for many years and would eventually be razed and tossed into a landfill. I didn't want to be a looter. He wondered if I really wanted to touch anything that had been in this rotting, contaminated, condemned home. I did. I wanted a new coffee mug. I wanted to remember.

I went back into the kitchen, gingerly dug out the mug, carried it back to the floor of the car and took it back to their house to wash. And wash. And wash. Trust me; there was a lot of sanitizing that went into this being a usable mug.

Since returning home at the end of March, I have had tea in this mug nearly every day. It's not my favorite mug. I have a mug that I brought home from Papua New Guinea in 1992. It was handmade by a local man and is inscribed on the bottom with the potter's name, the name of the city where I bought it, and 'PNG.' I love that mug. I have another mug that was given to me by a family friend, also a potter. It is well balanced and has a great feel to the handle. Likewise, it is inscribed underneath. I have a set of mugs given to me by my mother. They were special to me when I was a kid, because they were only ever used when we had company--and only then by the adults.

In contrast, the mug I rescued out of the miry clay is a cheaply made, mass-produced item with a simple painted pattern of pieces of fruit. It has a fairly unsubstantial feel to it, honestly, not like the heft and bulk and balance of my favorite mugs, nor like the daintiness of a tea cup. Oh, and it doesn't microwave well if I want to quickly reheat; I burned three fingers finding this out for the first time.

But this is my go-to mug now. Every time I use it, I remember. And I pray. After I've heated water in the teapot and poured it into the mug, I pray while I wait for my tea to brew. It's a simple little thing, but it has become one of the best parts of my morning. I pray specifically for the women of New Orleans, the ones who were hit hard by the brute force of Katrina. I don't know their names, but God does, so I ask Him each time to choose one woman to bless in a special way that day, on my behalf. Sometimes I am having a hard morning. If I am having a hard time being patient with my children, I don't pray for myself; I pray for a woman in New Orleans who needs patience with her children that day. If I am feeling tired and run down, I pray for strength and endurance for a woman in New Orleans--God knows which one. If I am feeling especially grateful for all the blessings of my life, I pray that God would remind one woman in New Orleans to be grateful also, to name her blessings one by one also and tell what God has done.

This is my daily habit now, one of the best habits I have. I wonder, often, if I will get to meet some of these women in Heaven. I hope so. I love the women of New Orleans.

I love that simple mug. It's about so much more than a souvenir, so much more than a reminder to pray. It's about redemption.


Amber said...

My friend Liz and I first had a discussion of the importance of mugs versus cups over one of our first coffee dates. This has become a test of friends we welcome into our coffee circle. Not how they take their coffee; but how do they like their cuppa?
I love this post. How much that one mug brings to your day and how you turn it around to bless others.

Anonymous said...

Hey Sherry - love this post. We all need reminders in our lives that remind us of significant things. Thanks for sharing. I read often but rarely comment - sorry!

I emailed you off of your website but didn't hear from you. We are coming your way and would love to see you. We are taking a trip to Yellowstone and would love to see you on the way back. Send me an email or through Andy's facebook page.
Take care - Stephanie Hagen

Bekah said...

You expressed so well what I have felt when I have had the opportunity to visit my sister and her family in NOLA. Thank you for sharing your experience and love for that city!
Bekah Oliver (Cindy's younger sister)

"Dat Wascally Wabbit" said...

wow, sherry

thank's for sharing this with us. I'm alittle late in reading it, but was very much moved by it. Thank's for putting a picture of the mug in.