de(tales): coffee cup

de(tales): coffee cup


I found myself completely captured by the idea that Vanessa presents in this de(tale). It makes me wonder what ways I can give out coffee cups (metaphorically speaking) in my own life.  Enjoy friends. 


I was in my 20s and leaving for Canadian Northwest Territory. I’d be living with medical staff and 15 other wacky people whose idea of a brisk and enlightening volunteer trip was serving at a place 50 miles north of where the paved roads ran out.  The last thing I packed was a coffee cup, because the instructions said, "Bring a favorite coffee or tea cup - NOT an heirloom, but one you really like.” After we arrived, the director told us to sit at the dining table with our coffee cups. Then she told us to turn to the person on our left, hand our cup to them, and say why we liked it.

Inwardly, I groaned; after many years in non-profits, I’d had my fill of “getting to know you” exercises. I wasn’t particularly interested in spiritual lessons involving coffee cups.

The director said, gently, "You will be loaning your cup to this person for the rest of your stint here. It's not 'your' cup anymore. Living simply is the key to surviving here. And you must take care of the cup that's been entrusted to you, as you must care for each other.”

Some of us nodded gravely, some of us (me) rolled our eyes. We took each other’s cups.

After more than 20 years, I still remember my loaner cup. It advertised the PBS show Masterpiece Mystery. It showed a cartoon drawing of dancers in a 1920s ballroom. When the cup filled with liquid, the ballroom curtains disappeared, revealing a villain in a trench coat. After awhile, the cup did start to symbolize what I’d given up, like frequent hot showers and privacy. (Not to mention, no PBS and no potato chips.)

Giving up the cups didn’t magically transform us overnight: two women who exchanged cups fought constantly the first week. Then one of the women broke the other's cup. She picked up the smashed pieces and burst into tears. The owner of the cup forgave her. Some odd sort of coffee-cup catharsis happened: they were critical still, but they were more patient with each other, and with all of us.

The cup I brought was a chubby mug, with a flat lid that fit snugly atop the rim. When I left Canada, I gave my cup to the man who’d been caring for it, a tough, elderly Quaker named Phil. The next year, I spent time training to be a mediator at the Quaker Peace Center in Philadelphia. Phil showed came and showed me a photo of his family grinning and pointing to "my" cup, which now held a sweet potato plant. We corresponded for several years after that. The last time I heard from him, the cup was broken, but the lid was still being used as a coaster on his desk.

All of us gave our coffee cups permanently to those who’d cared for them, by the way. After living so closely together, few of us saw anything as truly “ours” anymore.


vj_shot-sfVanessa Johnson’s work has taken her to West Virginia, Canada, East Africa and all points in between.  She worships with her family at St. Vincent DePaul  Church, where she serves as a task force member,  liturgy planner, and cup washer.  She believes in the redemptive power of listening to someone’s story over coffee.  She writes about religion, race, money, and everyday holiness at God’s Beautiful Mess and shares quirky stuff @johnsonvaness

You can check out the other de(tales) (so far) here.