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Susznyski: Pleasant mistakes

I poured chicken broth into my coffee by accident. The clock blinked to 3:30 in the afternoon and I admit I was dumbfounded for a moment too long. I stared at my cup and wondered if the coffee had ever experienced this paring before. When I had put the chicken broth in the fridge a day before, I told myself, “Don’t you dare pick this up instead of the coconut milk.”

The containers are very similar. A rectangular, thin box with a blue stripe. I’m trying to forgive myself but it’s difficult when I predicted the outcome. I was a bit startled, too, like when you bite into something green and expect the flavor to be green (crisp, a fresh bitterness) and then instead experience something that tastes sweet to the fine point of being tart (red). That’s what I felt when I watched the stream of brown, and it should have been white. I laughed out loud in the kitchen and then stared at my masterpiece for a second. Sometimes I make a mess of things and then like to look at it from different angles. 

I also hate wasting even a scrap of food. The coffee still smells unspoiled. The thought does cross my mind that I have only poured a little chicken broth into the coffee, perhaps it would taste just a tad salty. But I wave it away. The image of pouring it down the drain makes me want to curl up in a ball. 

I text my friend Abby, “I think I’m going to write about how I poured chicken broth into my coffee in my column this week.” She responds: “Oh my god, that’s so gross.” Evidently, Abby does not want to hear about chicken broth. She asks, “What about Annie Dillard? I love that quote about waterfalls and the sensation of time passing by.”

She’s talking about this book called “An American Childhood.” The quote goes like this: “What does it feel like to be alive? Living, you stand under a waterfall. You leave the sleeping shore deliberately; you shed your dusty clothes, pick your barefoot way over the high, slippery rocks, hold your breath, choose your footing, and step into the waterfall.”

Abby and I both love this quote, and we enjoy trading quotes because, sometimes, other people say it better. She knows that I really want to say: “I am going to write about how we do things, and time passes by, and we feel guilty, stubborn and alive all at the same time.” 

“Here where the force is the greatest and only the strength of your neck holds the river out of your face. Yes, you can breathe even here. You can learn to live like this. … Knowing you are alive is watching on every side your generation’s short time falling away as fast as rivers drop through air, feeling it hit,” Dillard says.

When I started writing, I felt absurd writing about something so small as a coffee cup alone on the counter, a wisp of smell above it, but then again, my week has not felt so spectacular. I worked a lot and I tried to take smaller bites at dinner. I pet my dogs. I realized dust collects too fast. I lingered in conversations with strangers because I forgot what it feels like. I tried to take breaths long enough to fill my lungs with the coming fall. 

The coffee cup is still on the counter, so I take it with me to my desk. If I can’t drink the coffee, I do not have to waste its smell. 

I keep returning to this interview with a Japanese designer, Oki Sato. I love his work because it’s simple to the point of inspiring calm and playful to the point of inciting a chortle. In an interview with British GQ, Sato says, “An object has to be talkative, it has to tell an interesting story … you should not hold your ideas too long and you should not love your ideas too much.” 

Dillard, too, says so much in her book “The Writing Life”: “Every year the aspiring photographer brought a stack of his best prints to an old, honored photographer, seeking his judgment. … At length he turned to the young man, ‘You submit this same landscape every year, and every year I put it on the bad stack. Why do you like it so much?’ The young photographer said, ‘Because I had to climb a mountain to get it.’”

Sato believes one must choose their first idea. I tried to listen to Sato this week. In my notebook, it reads: “This week’s column will probably be about ideas and chicken broth. Man, that sounds dumb.” 

“I like to repeat things every day. I walk my dog the same route. I drink the same coffee. When you repeat things, you start to notice the slight differences in everyday life. I felt that these become idea sources,” Sato says in his interview.

I am starting to believe him. I am following what he calls “making pleasant mistakes.” In the end, I will have to pour my pleasant mistake down the drain, but it will be OK, because it was not wasted. I have forgiven myself.


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