I’m in the shed trying to fix a broken coffee bean grinder. In a shed in Amsterdam, three hundred and sixty odd years ago, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza ground glass into lenses. I grind beans into coffee. It isn’t as specialised as working with glass, but the end result is similar. Spinoza’s lenses helped people see. What were they able to see that they couldn’t see before? Perhaps they were writers who couldn’t write, or readers who couldn’t read, or surgeons who couldn’t surge.
Coffee helps me see clearly. I need coffee to focus. I’m the in the shed trying to free up the grinder’s trigger mechanism. It’s stuck in the on position. As soon as I plug it in, the thing starts to grind. If, absent mindedly, I fill the grinder with beans, as I would do before its malfunction, plug it in and switch it on at the wall, the beans are launched into a shiny brown whirling fountain. It’s quite beautiful. But it can take hours to clear up afterwards. The beans go everywhere. The lid of the grinder, when pressed down, should trigger the on switch. But this trigger has become stuck. Hence why I’m in the shed trying to free up the mechanism. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not practical. I can’t even change a fuse on a bicycle.
I can hear the rain on the roof. It sounds like tiny beans. Somewhere a giant has switched on an enormous coffee grinder and forgotten that the trigger mechanism is stuck. I look up at the shed roof as if I should be able to see the beans, the rain, each bean, each raindrop a moment of clarity, but I cannot see. I can hear it fall, but can only imagine each drop falling, hitting the roof, then bouncing. There’s a clarity of percussive sound, almost tuned, like pizzicato. Like the sound of the koto, every note nuanced and rediscovered.
Sometimes I think western music is too interested in form, in the whole rather than the individual parts. Japanese music, and perhaps Chinese music, does the opposite. Each note is a concentration of the player’s decades of learning. And this is an irony, because we think of the west as being more individualistic. The Chinese see the aquarium, not the fish. But maybe this is racist twaddle. Surely I am as free from cultural brainwashing as any Chinaman. I am not a product of my society, and if I am not, why should someone born and raised in China? But then I am a writer, perhaps I am more reflective. Perhaps I look harder than most people. I have been described as ‘too intense’ by less intense people. So I may not be a typical member of western society. I try to weave my way through the dominant social perspective. Maybe Chinese artists and writers are as aware and therefore less susceptible to their culture. Therefore it may be safe to generalise without being thought of as racist. That most Chinese people believe that the needs of society should come before the needs of the individual. I don’t know. Maybe I need to go to China and find out.
This aesthetic, listening to the individual notes, reminds me a little of that recent panacea, ‘mindfulness’. It’s not surprising that it reminds me, really, as mindfulness originates in Buddhism. Zen tea masters ask the participants to focus on the cup, on its glaze or on its appropriateness. You are asked to voice your opinion, but in no more than a few words. When you take a mouthful of tea, wipe the cup, pass it on. Notice the wall hanging, the dessicated flowers drooping in the vase. If music were playing, it would probably be the koto, or a solitary flute. The grandeur of a symphony would be completely incongruous. We in the west want huge statements. We want to dominate the universe, not observe the dewdrop on the leaf. Who has time for that? Get out there and build a city. Create an empire.
Coffee beans rain down on the shed roof. They shatter and spill into gutters which now gush with coffee. It’s a beautiful black rain. Insects, spiders, mice and birds feed on this newly fallen fruit. The caffeine startles them, gives them a new power to reflect. Coffee gives them consciousness. They are suddenly aware, awake, they bristle with indignation. They want greater freedom. They want what they believe is rightfully theirs. The insects want habitats free of threat from birds and farmers. The spiders demand the wind stop battering their webs. Mice want cats to wear bells. Birds want to be more appreciated for their song. But more than any of these demands, what all of them want is simple: more coffee.
And I want more coffee. I need to fix the machine. Rain pours down on the shed.