Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘meaningfulness’

Philosophy and a cast-iron skillet

In Curiosity, Family, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Writing on August 1, 2012 at 6:00 am
20120730-192930.jpg

Breakfast

We have been toting around Carole’s grandmother’s cast-iron skillet, unused, for over thirty years. A few weeks ago, inexplicably, I took it on a camping trip to New Brunswick. I liked cooking on it over the fire. Once home, I cleaned it up and put it on the stove. Then I did a little research.

It is stamped a Wagner Ware skillet. Amazingly, the Wagner company, started in 1865, is still in business. My wife’s people come from Oklahoma. They were homesteaders. We don’t know the history of this skillet, but I picture it strapped to the side of a canvas-covered wagon toiling its way across the sunsetting American plains. And now it rests on my cook-top range. The history of my imagination.

I’ve done a bit of research and the argument for cooking with cast-iron is convincing. The heat radiates evenly, there are no non-stick chemicals that fleck off, the food tastes better, and one gets a wee bit of iron added to one’s diet. You don’t even need soap to clean it. But that’s not what interests me, really.

As readers here, you know of my mission to build meaning into existence, brick by brick, atom by atom. As I’ve confessed, I subscribe to Camus’s observation that life is absurd and meaning is not something inherent in our existence. We are left to create it. Hence the skillet.

When I cook with this skillet I am linked to a fragile thread that stretches over my shoulder and disappears into a murky history. What hands that have worked this utensil? What foods have simmered here? Mystery is satisfying in its emptiness–an emptiness you can heave yourself into.

There is significance in tradition, and meaning might well reside there. Modern existence is so very bereft of tradition. There is no tradition to a silicon chip, to an e-book, to a digital image. Apprenticeship is dead. Are we not daily, purposefully, yet unwittingly, severing ourselves from that which has delivered us to this very place, rendering us orphans in the process? Is that not a method of madness, severing the tenuous link tethering us to the fog from which we arose, where the heart beats?

I grow dramatic. Sorry. We are, after-all, talking about a skillet.

Yet, you must understand me, yes?

I resist the pull forward and peer back at that which is disappearing…that which fades into the void…and attempt to find a handhold.

Coffee or Tea?

In Books, Happiness, Life, Philosophy, Reading, The Examined Life on April 23, 2012 at 6:00 am

I need to shake things up. I am contemplating a switch from morning coffee to tea. Don’t laugh. This might not seem significant, but trust me, it has subtle philosophical implications.

I have a deeply nurtured routine. Until now it was not subject to alteration. Upon getting up I light a fire under the tea-pot to boil water. I take the espresso beans I ground the previous evening and pour them into the french press. When the water boils it goes into the press. I set the timer for four minutes, and so forth. Making coffee to my taste is a skill I have developed and I believe that to have a skill, no matter how small or seemingly irrelevant, is to know what counts as meaning in a certain domain.

William James observed that the individual “who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention…will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him.” It’s in that concentrated attention I find the occasional burst of meaning. Mindfully making coffee is the way I begin that daily practice. The rutted path leads to the comfort of the barn. I shy from the word spiritual. Making coffee is as close as I get.

There is a tradition that tea plants grew from the eye lashes of the Buddha. Siddhartha, in an effort to stay awake while meditating, plucked his eye lashes. As they fell to the ground, plants blossomed and from the leaves of those plants tea was discovered. It is no coincidence that the tea ceremony is at the heart of the zen tradition, where focus is centered upon the paying of attention.

I was raised with the idea that life has intrinsic meaning; however, I abandoned that notion as a young man. I drifted in the direction of Camus, where meaning is a thing to be developed, not discovered–an idea I still embrace. To that end, I experience glimpses of meaningfulness in simple life activities. Last summer I read a book that shed light on my coffee routine specifically.

The book is All Things Shining, Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. (I mentioned this book in a post earlier this year, My Window.) It’s written by two philosophers, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. (The subtitle to their blog is: Luring back the gods.) There is one idea Kelly and Dreyfus explore that pertains to my meanderings here: making coffee. Imagine my surprise to discover this sentence, “…the coffee-drinking routine that recognizes no distinctions of worth is a routine in which the coffee drinker becomes exchangeable: assimilable to all of the millions of others who are sleepwalking through the same generic routine.”

My daily challenge is to resist the condition of becoming exchangeable, to avoid slipping into the sleepwalking state. I do not wish to live generically and have built habits and cultivated stimulus to mitigate this. Making morning coffee is one such example. But now my instincts are to step it up and challenge even that routine.

And that is why switching from coffee to tea is such a big deal.

Thanks for reading.