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Memories of my local coffee shop... A strange place to spark discussion on the subject. But what is sustainability if not sentimentality?
Mid through late teens, that sunny-late-nineties early aughties vibe. The local coffee shop. Fixture of any manic-pixi-dream girl wanna be, fixture of the brooding early-twenty somethings playing chess, grad students studying, the place where open mike night is on a Wednesday and there’s always an acoustic guitar player on a Friday, the place where you get refills 50 cents, and you’re there after school for as long as you can make excuses with your parentals.

Growing up in Northern California, in the ‘bay area bubble’ – the local coffee shop was my church, my place of prayer and where I felt I could be shy and cool at the same time. Where my girlfriends and I bummed cigarettes from that old guy always there with a newspaper in the back garden patio. We’d puff away confident in our worldliness and attempt to look 10 years older. The giggles that emerged were an intentioned accident, the claim in which we possessed the space, we thought, absolute…. Holding my mug of black medium roast I’d stay for hours.

When Starbucks showed up across the street, we’d make a point to never meet there, shunning frappuccinos and iced mochas for that same cup of bitter. I don’t even remember the name of our coffee shop… but it’s importance in my youth, in my sense of community and developing sense of identity lives on in my morning mug. Drip brew, black and muddy with nostalgia as I sit at my desk, tapping away on my computer at work, on zoom calls, offered always with pride, but now offered along with the ubiquitous cup of tea to whomever I am meeting with in my office here in Cornwall. 

Baby boomer child, ‘elder millennial’, cell phone right when you could get one, still the dial up screech of an AOL modem. Just the local coffee shop. Just a mom-and-pop run space, the size of most rest-stop Subways, no bigger. Heavy, ivory mugs, smudged with lip gloss and youth and promise… childhood and adulthood sympatico, neither one nor the other… 

A strange place to begin an understanding of sustainability – but what is sustainability if not a reverence for community and tradition?

I realise now that I am oddly verbose and even passionately political at times when it comes to environmental choices and how these choices affect my community. It could be because I grew up recycling and composting before this was really a ‘thing’, because I look for fruit stands on the side of the road still, because I want to find that strange and quirky gallery that’s been there for ages, because I can’t pass up a food truck that says, ‘the best local (insert food delicacy here)’. It could be because in being eco-conscious was part of the DNA of the Nor-Cal experiential that formed my upbringing. 

Sustainability and eco-consciousness are now marketing terms, or at least, when I’m feeling pessimistic about positive change, that’s what they are and sometimes that’s all they seem to be. Just ways of communicating an idea without backbone, without the practice and the seduction of acculturation and, yes, nostalgia. I realise I must be getting older, looking for that sentimentality and cosy recognition of something ‘more’ in a cup of coffee. The word ‘sentimental’ is an adjective, it is a description and action. Oxford Dictionary tells us, “sentimental” is that… of or prompted by feelings of tendernesssadness, or nostalgia. The example sentence Oxford gives in your quick google search gives you, “she felt a sentimental attachment to the place creep over her". 

What is sustainability if not sentimentality on some very fundamental level? A desire and longing for attachment to something, someplace of some value that has seemed to disappear or is, in effect, disappearing? 

So, here we are in the reality of now, with sentiment and longing pulling us to find something lost or being lost. We recycle, we re-use, we try to support local businesses, we try to be aware of how things are made and how much energy is consumed in production and delivery of our goods. The motivation and action is great, it’s noble in its way… but the momentum of good intentions colliding with the real-time, real-world, real-damage-ramifications of instant delivery, instant production, and constant political and public conflict accentuated through the manifestation of our goods is like a weird hyper-actualised quicksand wherein technology tempers intention, softens and weakens it. 

It’s a strange and very bizarre journey – bohemian values for organic and locally sourced veg, mixed with months in which we only had frozen potato au gratin, and spaghetti made with ketchup. 

I didn’t live poor. I lived interestingly. I didn’t grow up at risk, my parents risked everything. I am a lucky SOB, who had a lot and a little at the same time. I am lucky I am a woman, and I can say that phrase with a twinkle in my eye and no apology and rely on a sexist colloquialism to reframe it as empowering. It makes me want to make everything last. It gives me poor impulse control when there’s a little extra money to tide things over. I feel a catharsis when I spend a week making everything in our freezer and our fridge ‘make do’. I feel supreme guilt when I need Amazon Prime to deliver that something I didn’t even know I wanted in 24 hours, because, why not… why not the very next day? 

When I consider the world around me, and what I can do, and what I wish to do I feel an odd disjuncture of being – a pull to be what is best, only to be bested by the reality of survival and trying simply to ‘just ‘be’. 

The anchor that secures me is a heartfelt reassurance, a belief that the sentimentality that ties me to wanting to do better is grounded in something made of more than memory ….