catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 12 :: 2012.06.08 — 2012.06.21


Kicking coffee with Maxine Hong Kingston

I began drinking coffee when I started teaching, swirling the bitter black liquid with French Vanilla creamer and lots of sugar. As a student teacher, I drank two or three cups in the morning, and another cup in the afternoon to keep up with six classes of eighth grade grammar.

After student teaching, when I moved to Bolivia to teach full-time, coffee was the only daily rhythm that followed me there. No matter what happened, I could count on coffee in the morning, even when I couldn’t count on a shower. Usually I spent my coffee time in prayer for my students, along with pleas to help me not mess up in class. Later in the morning, I had another cup with my colleagues in the break room as a communal gathering.

Coffee followed me back to the United States, through three cities and several career and graduate school changes. I dropped down to one, maybe two cups a day. It was a psychological ritual: coffee was my constancy.

Coffee was also my dependency. If I didn’t drink a cup in the morning, a searing headache overtook me by lunch. Most people say that one cup of coffee won’t kill you and might even be good for you. But I didn’t like my dependency on coffee.

In graduate school, I began practicing yoga and meditation. As I tried to fit in my coffee, yoga, and meditation each morning, I usually had time for just one ritual: the coffee. I grew frustrated. I wanted a morning yoga and meditation practice, but needed the caffeine.

Grad school gave me the opportunity to interview Maxine Hong Kingston, an author who works with veterans, meditation and writing. In part of our interview that wasn’t published, we discussed coffee. After explaining that her morning routine used to begin with writing, Kingston said that she realized she prioritized her day by doing the most important thing first. Eventually, she switched to meditation as her first activity of the day. “It’s just a matter of changing priorities and writing is not the most important thing in my life,” she said. “It’s the people you love; it’s being a living creature on this earth.”

Knowing that she had once been where I was comforted me a bit. I confessed, “I usually have my coffee first thing in the morning and I’m starting to feel a struggle now between the coffee and the yoga mat.”

“Oh!” Kingston said, “Oh yes, I know exactly where you’re at. I gave up coffee.”

“I know that I’m not going to buy any more coffee,” I said. “When I run out, I run out, and I’ll be on the yoga mat first thing. I can’t quite give it up.”

“Here’s what I felt,” she said. “I’m meditating, and I’m getting to be in this really good, peaceful state. But then I’m meditating and I’m…” Kingston made jittery motions with her hands. “I think, ‘Now wait a minute, where’s that coming from? It’s the coffee.’ So while I am meditating, drinking coffee really undoes all of what you’re trying to meditate for. So I quit. I don’t drink caffeinated coffee anymore.”

After this conversation, I fully intended not to buy anymore coffee. But I did. Which means I have written proof that I lied to Maxine Hong Kingston, one of the sweetest women on the planet. Now coffee was making me into a liar.

A year later, I tried giving up coffee for Lent, choosing instead to fill that time with meditation. But at the end of Lent, everyone else got to eat chocolate or meat again, and I didn’t get my coffee back. My Lenten fast had been a self-improvement thing, not a spiritual discipline thing.

Soon after Lent, I was back on my black elixir.

So for the next Lent I tried again. And failed. (The definition of insanity? I’m now done with self-improvement projects for Lent, by the way.)

Kingston had hit on something with the idea that coffee undid what meditation was trying to do. Caffeine is also linked to anxiety, meditation with relieving anxiety. Several years after meeting Kingston, I began a quest to conquer a massive writing block, which had a lot to do with anxiety.

Two therapists and a nutritionist told me that if I stopped drinking my morning cup, I would experience a difference in my anxiety. The holistic nutritionist offered this nugget:

Life is full of change — if we drink the same drink every morning, we become immune to change. Invite change into your morning ritual to reflect the change you invite into your life. So drink green tea one morning, yerba maté another morning and herbal tea another morning.

With her words, all the pieces of my coffee ritual and spiritual disciplines fell into place. I didn’t need to give up the ritual of drinking a warm morning beverage, but instead invite it to become part of my spiritual discipline, perhaps a meditation in action. Life is full of change, and I usually resist it. My dependency needs to be on God through the changes, not the caffeine, and varying my drink can be a spiritual practice of inviting change, recognizing that God is the unchanging constant.

The day after my conversation with the nutritionist I began decreasing the amount of caffeine in my coffee. Now I’m drinking black Earl Grey, and tomorrow it might be green tea. This weekend it might be coffee. And on Monday, maybe some mango herbal tea while I write.

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