Personal, Stories Told

This cup is already broken

This was my favorite mug.


A long time ago I worked in a museum’s gift shop. We sold works of local artists and for several weeks featured a talented potter. I was taken with this fellow’s work for its bold color, especially four coffee mugs in this motif. I wanted them all, but could afford only one, and chose this one.

This mug was as much a pleasure to use as it was to behold. Its slender angled lip felt good on my lips. The thumbprint-sized indentation pressed into the top of the handle made it very comfortable to hold.

I’ve had very few possessions that satisfied me as much as this mug. I drank my coffee from it for 21 years, first at college, then in my first apartment, then at home after I was married, and finally at work. But sadly it was damaged when I moved it to my last job. Something must have struck the box it was in. When I filled it with coffee, a puddle quickly formed wherever I set it.

Buddhists have a saying: This cup is already broken. It’s meant to teach us that nothing lasts forever, so enjoy it while you have it. (The book of Ecclesiastes agrees, by the way, if you aren’t too keen on Buddhist teachings.) Enjoying what I have has been a recurring theme on this blog. For example, I’ve written before about how I was so focused on taking care of my first brand new car that it robbed me of some of the pleasure of driving it. I have struggled with this lesson all my life.

I grew up in a working-class family. We weren’t poor, but we earned every thing we owned, and little was handed to me. I saved to buy things I wanted, such as my bicycle and my first old cameras. Every purchase was dear because my money didn’t stretch very far. I was always very upset when something broke or wore out, because I would have to save for a long time to replace it. This shaped my attitude toward my possessions. I have tended to buy used or inexpensive things, because when they broke or wore out I could soothe myself by saying that I hadn’t lost much. When I have received especially nice or new things, I have tended not to want to use them.

After my grandfather died, I got his pocket knife. It was a gentleman’s knife, two small blades in a slender silver body. I left it in a dresser drawer for years, afraid to carry it lest I lose it. But I couldn’t very well enjoy my grandfather’s memory that way, and so one morning I finally slipped it into my pocket. When I got home that night, I found that it had fallen out somewhere along the way, and I never saw it again.

That loss stung. And in its wake I clenched even tighter on my possessions. That brings me to this mug. Because at about this time I realized I drank far more coffee at work than at home. I wanted to take my mug to the office, but I resisted out of worry that it would more readily be lost, damaged, or stolen there.

And then I found it necessary to sell almost everything I owned. It was not easy. But after it was all gone and I carried on with my life, I was surprised by how little of it I missed. Today, I occasionally wish for a couple old cameras I especially enjoyed and a few of my old record albums that have never been released on CD. That’s it. I can’t even remember some of the things I owned. It was, I am stunned to have learned, just stuff.

That my mug escaped being sold was merely an oversight, but one I was glad to have made. As soon as I came across it, I took it right to work where I could enjoy it best. And sure enough, that’s where my mug met its demise. But I got to use it for seven years at work before that happened โ€“ and in that time, I figure I drank at least 3,600 cups of coffee from it. I enjoyed it to the hilt!

And so I’ve been thinking about how to extend this idea. How will I behave differently if I think as though my kids are already grown and gone? As though I’ve already moved on from my current job? As though I’ve already remarried and left my single life behind?

What else can you think of?

Originally published in May of 2010. Back by popular demand. And since I wrote this, I’m almost empty nested, I’ve moved on from two jobs, and I’ve remarried. This reflection from seven years ago absolutely helped me enjoy my fleeting, temporary life more.


18 thoughts on “This cup is already broken

    • Selling/giving away most of my stuff back in 2003-4 taught me well that stuff is just stuff. After 10 years divorced I’ve accumulated stuff again and a part of me wants to shed it.

  1. Andy Umbo says:

    I’ve gone through some real reversals in my life, and it’s made me really think about possessions. Every camera I sell, I think that’s another type of image I’m not going to be able to take, when I should be thinking the reverse, which is one good twin-lens, a tripod, and a light meter, and I can use that the rest of my life, and explore the maximum I can get out of that system. Having been a professional for 40 years tho, it’s hard to change the process of thinking you need one of everything to offer the correct service.

    I never buy books anymore, I get them from the library, if I can. If I can’t, I buy them, read them, and donate them to the library. I do this because at one time, half my storage space was books! I took a job two and a half years ago, and don’t really like the city it’s in, or the job. I refused to move my possessions down here, and left them in storage to decide what to do. Ones possessions, based on volume, are the things that keep you where you shouldn’t be You know, I’m 62 years old, and I’m sleeping on some blankets folded on the floor, because I refuse to buy a hard to get rid of bed, which would keep me in this place longer. You know, it’s not so bad…

    I wish someday, to be where I want to live, and in a job I’d like to do.

    • There’s a lot of wisdom in what you wrote here. Stuff does anchor us, making it hard to move on when it’s time. We get stuck in a place we don’t belong.

      I’m sorry that you’re not doing what you want, and living where you want. I hope you soon make a concrete path toward the life you’d prefer to be living.

  2. My mug story differs from yours in detail, but the ultimate lesson regarding attachment to stuff is the same. (Major detail shift: Though I was still using my broken mug, it was my new bride who tossed it. What a way to start a marriage!)

    • What is it about brides who cull their husband’s possessions? My parents have been married for more than 50 years, and Mom still occasionally goes through Dad’s closet and pitches clothes he still enjoys but that she thinks are too used up to be worn in public. Mom’s standard for that is higher than Dad’s!

  3. As I was getting ready to move to California seven years ago, I listed my expensive furniture on Craigslist for pennies on the dollar. Many items didn’t sell and I ended up giving most of it away. Since then, I avoided accumulating much stuff–other than my cameras. I have too many cameras.

    • That had to smart. I think most people who have an experience like that with stuff come away with a changed attitude toward, and a new relationship with, stuff.

      Margaret and I are starting to talk about how we want to decorate our home. It’s an interesting conversation with me on one level because I want to make a comfortable home for us, but I also am not excited about buying a bunch of stuff to do it.

      • Andy Umbo says:

        Ditto for my Mom’s estate. She used to have an antique store, and after that, she used to “pick” for other stores. When she died, we were appalled at what her antiques went for, the total estate wouldn’t have made a decent vacation for one. The estate sale manager said: “…if you’re not living where people want to buy those things, then you’re at the mercy of whatever market you’re in…”. While I want to really find a city I like and finally establish a household with a few nice things, living “light” has taught me that no one values your stuff except you…

  4. I guess some things have associations that are more precious than the objects themselves. I had a mug with a dove perched on the handle that was given to me by a dear friend, and when it was broken I was pretty sad. Now I have another favourite with a little Robin picture to replace it.

    • Yes. Even the mug about which I wrote has an association to that summer at the museum, which was on the beautiful campus of the University of Notre Dame. It’s my connection to that summer.

  5. I studied ceramic design for four years at university and it makes me so happy that you loved AND used that mug. An object that is designed to be useful needs and wants to be used! Have you found another beautiful piece for the next many thousands of coffees, Jim?

    I loved the post and the comment conversations. I just want to chip in that I have never in my life cleaned out a partner’s wardrobe or thrown away a single item that belonged to them. Where do these women get the time to be fussing over things like that, and how do they still have partners? ๐Ÿ˜Š๐Ÿ˜Š

  6. Reminds me of one of my all time favorite quotes from ancient times…”And this too shall pass.” Great and deep philosophical post!

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