December 2nd, 2002

caillebotte_man at his window

Thoughts at Night

So I'm sitting here on this cold night, putzing about with Sluggo, and suddenly I want a banana. I go to the kitchen and get one from old pottery bowl in which we keep them. The bowl has been around for as long as I can remember. It is rather heavy, with a shallow bowl about ten inches across sitting atop a curving pedestal a few inches high. It has a cream colored glaze, with some mottled brown patches inside, though not on the outside. There is a maroon line around the rim, another around the base of the pedestal, and a matching circle in the center of the bowl. Inside the bowl are three decorative paintings of leaves and flowers with rich greens and pale pinks. Two more decorate each side of the pedestal. The decoration, and the bowl itself, have the slightly irregular look of a hand-made item.

As I peeled the banana, (perfect, by the way, fully ripe but without any dark or mushy spots), two thoughts came to my mind. First, I was struck by the fact that here I was, well north of the tropics, in the middle of a night on the verge of winter, eating a ripe banana. Before the 19th century, not even the rich had ever had such a luxury. It was one of those moments when the strangeness of the modern world unexpectedly filled me with surprise. Second, I realized that I knew very little about the bowl. I know that it had belonged to my grandmother, and (if I remember rightly) she had gotten it from one of her older cousins sometime in the 1920s. The bowl was already old, then. It has no makers mark of any kind, and was probably made by one of the many small pottery companies that flourished in California in the years around the turn of the century. This was the time of the Arts and Crafts movement, and hand-made items of any sort were popular even with the well-to-do. Most of my grandmother's family lived in Santa Barbara then, so I suspect that the bowl might have been made there.

In any case, as I stood in the kitchen eating my banana and looking at the bowl, I had a vision of some artisan tossing this piece on a foot-powered wheel in a dusty room along a dusty, unpaved street in a world which now exists no more than does that in which pottery was invented. I found myself wondering who applied that glaze, and who made those brushstrokes that formed the leaves and stems and flowers decorating the bowl. Was there a plant used as a model, long since turned to dust? What inspiring flowers filled the eyes of those anonymous artisans, and sent fragrance drifting through the ancient air they breathed?

All the water on earth is recycled again and again. I recall reading something about the extent to which those molecules of water are redistributed throughout the world, so that, in any moisture we take in, there are molecules that once were sweat on Alexander's body, and the urine of buffalo, and had flowed through the veins of a toiling peasant on the shores of the Mekong. It occurred to me that the moisture in the banana I was eating might include molecules that had nourished those plants which inspired the paintings on the bowl in which the banana had lately sat, and molecules which might have been drunk by whoever painted them. And, even further back, the clay of which the bowl was made might have been trodden by tribes who, ages ago, passed through California, and whose descendents are now flung across the far reaches of South America. Perhaps one of those descendents had picked my banana, or loaded it aboard a ship.

These thoughts caused me to experience a strange conjunction of perceptions, a sense of intimacy coupled with an unbreachable anonymity. All the thoughts and feelings of the long-dead creators of that bowl, and of the members of the ancient wandering tribes, and of the workers in distant tropical fields were suddenly focused in that bit of clay and that piece of fruit. I suppose it was simply an awareness of the circle of life on this very small planet, in that very brief moment we see as history, but it was vertiginous none the less. I looked again at the bowl, and marveled at how the moving hand long since stilled had scribed the essence of a plant that, most likely, was itself an accumulated impression of many plants which bloomed and died in seasons now lost to living memory. In the cold December night, that bit of color fired onto that piece of clay glowed with an indescribable warmth.
caillebotte_man at his window

Discomfort Food

Spaghetti for dinner. When I have spaghetti, I always eat to much. Now I'm all logy. Curse you, you alluring pasta! Always, you draw me into untimely naps!