by Jeff Oaks
One mug is my everyday working mug. It’s large, wide, and very round, the kind of vessel one might drink almost anything out of. It’s perfectly white, as plain and practical a drinking utensil as I could buy that day, long ago, when I was visiting the village of Hampstead Heath after touring Keats’ house. I was fired up to re-commit to my writing, moved as much by the fact that England had made Keats’ house into a museum as by his small handwriting, his Shakespeare, his death mask. And I was moved by the enormously old plum tree which he would’ve known, now grown so old it had to be supported by wooden planks to keep from falling over. I was in my thirties, and I had finally found a way to make a life for myself and could get serious about my writing. To honor that feeling, I went into the local hardware shop and bought this mug and a tablespoon. They were cheap. The ground of everything good is simple: get to work, it says. Nothing more fancy than that.
The second mug is more beautiful and more expensive. It’s heavy stoneware and made by hand by the wife of a poet I am Facebook friends with. One day he posted a picture of his wife’s work, and I ordered a mug immediately. I’ve since become one of her regular customers, buying mugs and bowls as gifts for friends and acquaintances. She mixes her own glazes and the results are startling greens and golds and blues that other people usually say something about. I have learned over the years that I need a flash of color some mornings, a little weight with my tea, an extra layer of consciousness maybe. Some mornings I need to believe there’s something startling in me, something that might surprise everybody else, that life isn’t only work, that I can afford occasionally to buy myself nice things, to support other artists, to show off. This mug has been especially nice to bring to those inevitable meetings where everyone else arrives late and with disposable cups. It reminds me that my real self is something other than responding to complaints.
The lime-green mug I took from my mother’s kitchen after she died. It was the mug I drank from whenever I came to visit. We’d sit down at her small kitchen table each morning, after she’d set out the cat’s breakfast. At some moment the three of us would just sleepily stare out the glass door that led to the back balcony of the condo complex where she lived. Sometimes a squirrel would run by and the cat would chatter with excitement. We’d all light up. She and her cat lived there with the disciplined pride of an queen in exile and her last loyal servant. Everything in that one bedroom space was either useful or thrown away. All her paintings were of flowers, animals, or open windows, things see liked looking at or through. At that small table, we laughed and argued and over the years surprised each other. The green mug was the first and last thing I’d drink out of each visit. Mug in hand, I learned how to ask her the right kind of questions that lead to the stories about her childhood, stories I listened to then and thought I’d never forget. I use that mug when I need to ask better questions of my life, when I want to remember how to listen.
The fourth mug is the same model as the lime-green one, but because it’s white, it seems older. It’s the mug my mother drank coffee or tea out of every morning. She stored it and green mug on the shelf above the smaller cups she kept for company, so that the white mug and the green mug kept each other company all those years, a married pair. When I use this last mug, listen, things are bad. There may have been tears, as she said the night she called me with her Stage 4 diagnosis. I took it too when I was wrapping things up to take. In its white plainness, because I only turn to it at moments of crisis, it seems made out of her bones, even though we burned those to grit and scattered them into the Atlantic. While I drink the black tea we both prefer out of it, I summon her spirit. Take it one step at a time, she says. Do the hardest thing first, she says. Nothing’s worth having to lie about it, she says as she will always say in my head. I remember her tears when she told me about seeing as a girl the first pictures of Auschwitz. I remember her adult energy standing up for Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X at our otherwise Republican family dinners. She was tough; she refused to lie. If I’m drinking out of her cup, I’m gathering up that strength, finding fire. Something’s going to change. If you’re visiting, you might take down the green mug and wait. There might be hot tears. Remember: you’ve made it this far.