I ordered a cup of light and was served wisdom for the dark

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 29, 2015

“We all have moments when we bleed and suffer and when our hope is thin . . . .”
—Janna Vaisman

The other day an intriguing comment at a coffee-shop counter shone light in life’s darkness and gave me new insight into why your contributions through this column mean so much to so many.

It pointed to the power of presence amidst stress, joy amidst humble greatness, and kindness amidst the despair of war.

The moment began when one of our Calgary readers joined me upstairs at Cochrane Coffee Traders for a cup and a chat.

Janna Vaisman is a Russian-born accountant who moved to Canada 16 years ago. Well versed in Russian literature, Janna has been bringing a special richness to our table since joining us. This day was no exception.

As she pulled up a chair, I offered to buy her a coffee and asked, “Will it be dark roast or light?”

“Light,” she said. “With a spoonful of sugar.”

It was fairly busy at Coffee Traders that morning, and there were two lines approaching the counter.

When it was my turn, the ever-cheerful server behind the counter asked, “What will it be, Warren?”

“A cup of light, please,” I said.

Overhearing my order, the husky fellow at the front of the line next to me said, “Oh, I need a cup of Light, too!” He went on to explain that life was pretty dark for him then because he had just lost his job in the oil patch, another casualty of our province’s economic crunch.

I took Janna’s cup of light upstairs and, as I sat down at our table, told her about the fellow’s own longing for a “cup of Light.”

She mulled it over for a moment, and then shared with me the reason for her visit. It turned out that she too was deeply burdened with darkness that was threatening to drain her joy, and we talked for over an hour.

I didn’t have much to say, but simply listened to her as attentively as possible.

Upon her return to Calgary, she emailed me to say:

“Thank you for your ‘cup of Light’ today at the coffee shop. We all have moments when we bleed and suffer and when our hope is thin, and that’s where a cup of Light comes in. Suffering is part of life.”

At such times, she said, it’s not a cupful of human intellect that helps, “but rather human beauty and kindness” – often manifested through the help of total strangers. Like the time Jesus was carrying the heavy cross on the way to His crucifixion, she added, and a stranger in the crowd stepped forward to carry it for Him.

“How lucky I am,” she continued. “I was offered ‘cups of Light’ unconditionally by many, many Canadians when I stepped onto Canadian land totally by myself, with two travel bags, a few thousand dollars and an engineering diploma.

“Sharing the cup of Light? Always! Maybe it will be my turn now to share kindness?

“So, thank you, Warren, for your ‘cup of Light’ today at the coffee shop. Replenishment!”

Well, my coffee companions, her note sure was a welcome “cup of Light” to me. Thank you, Janna.

Over the years, these columns have been a “table” where many of you have shared similar stories of cups of Light in your own lives.

For instance, take Cochrane reader Richard Maillet’s account of the time his daughter shook hands with the man who shook hands with the stars (my column for Oct. 30, 2014).

You’ll recall how Elizabeth Barrett Elementary School student Emmeline Maillet-Snell stood in line at the Indigo Signal Hill bookstore to meet retired Canadian astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield and have him sign her guitar. He not only signed it and shook her hand, but actually sang with her and her friend a song he’d sung from the International Space Station: “Is Somebody Singing.”

That was how one famous man shared a cup of Light with a Grade 4 student from Cochrane.

In closing, I must pay tribute to Cochranite Nellie Dinnebier, who passed away Jan. 16 at the age of 91.

Living in London during those dark days of World War II, Nellie was a member of the 10,000-strong Bletchley Park team that cracked Hitler’s dreaded Enigma code (celebrated in this year’s Oscar-nominated film, “The Imitation Game”). In that capacity, Nellie served cups of Light to millions whose lives were saved by her part in bringing the war to a close. (See my column for Nov. 10, 2004.)

But what stood out to her was not her own contribution, but the contributions of a whole nation of people. Remembering the moment her own home was bombed on her 21st birthday, she told me: “It’s the kindness of people, how they looked after one another. That’s the important thing for me.”

So, a coffee-cup toast in memory of Nellie: For the cup of Light, kindness and hope that you served a world confronted by darkness, thank you.


© 2015 Warren Harbeck

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