Coffee and Conversation With Community Members
By Sean Sullivan
Let’s meet up for coffee.
The invitation implies informality. A date, but not a date. One needn’t arise early for a shared breakfast, or commit to an hour for lunch. And there’s certainly no need to dress in more-dignified attire as if for a dinner.
It’s “just” coffee.
Enter “Coffee With a Purpose.” CWAP began as a regular gathering of Natick residents, a short time and venue set aside to talk about local issues, stories and other topics of interest. And of course, to sip. Like so many others, those in-person meetings evolved into live video conferencing early in 2020.
Many devotees of the drink would likely quibble with the notion that coffee in and of itself is without purpose. Coffee, they might counter, is a means to many ends. Others might go further in claiming that consuming a cup of joe is the goal - that the product and process are as one.
Yet the concept of coffee as a centerpiece around which to gather has been around for centuries. Coffee with conversation has likely been a natural pairing since the drink was first discovered.
The first coffee houses are said to have originated in the Middle East, and really began to pick up steam in the Ottoman empire toward the end of the 16th century. There, they were among the scarce venues where people of disparate classes and social strata would mingle. Though dominated by men, this early coffee culture fostered the exchange of ideas and information.
Religious peoples of more-recent centuries promoted the drink as a salve of salvation. Preaching temperance and the faith’s work ethic, Protestants found in coffee an antidote to some of what they believed ailed society. The beverage was also a useful elixir in emerging modern economies. For capitalism, coffee became the flipside of a coin, one that could counterbalance the adverse effects of alcohol on productivity. How many constructive and creative hours are lost to intoxication no one can say, but here was a beverage that seemed to be a boon to the workday.
In “This Is Your Mind on Plants,” author and journalist Michael Pollan writes about coffee’s pivotal place in human history. If a species’ success is judged by how far and wide it gains and maintains a foothold in the world, Pollan argues, then the coffee plant deserves special recognition.
The author writes about the plant as if it were a master strategist in the evolutionary arena, charming homo sapiens and other animals with its stimulative wiles, seducing the animal kingdom into cultivating and conveying coffee across the globe.
The book largely tells of the travails of a tourist (Pollan himself) within the world of wild and homegrown consciousness-altering substances, and java is the first stop. A longtime consumer of coffee himself, this episode documents Pollan’s abrupt abstention from the drink and the results of this experiment. Among the effects, he writes, is feeling like an “unsharpened pencil” throughout the day.
The character of Natick’s Coffee With a Purpose seems to summon the spirit of those Ottoman cafés of old. Many of CWAP’s regular attendees are town meeting members.
Speakers are sometimes invited on the Zoom calls, visitors who have causes they’re seeking to promote, or human-interest stories that CWAP members would like to learn more about. Other guests have included candidates running for local office, visiting via video to set out their policy agendas.
Recent conversation centered around the impending November elections, and the ballot measures that would accompany them.
But as anyone with recent Zoom call experience can attest, keeping such meetings organized and on point doesn’t happen on its own. Generally, CWAP meetings are held Mondays and consist of about ten regular attendees.
“I tend to kind of moderate the sessions,” said Doug Hanna, a Natick resident and longtime CWAP attendee. “Sometimes we get off track a bunch,” he laughed.
Natick resident Martin Kessel organizes and runs the meetings with Hanna, the two scheduling speakers and seeking to keep discussions focused. They assumed those roles when Pat Conaway stepped away from the group. Conaway, a Natick resident still very active in the community, founded CWAP.
Its meetings then were held at Natick’s Common Street Spiritual Center, but have been online since Covid.
“We would like to see each other in person,” said Kessel, but added that there’s no urgency to do away with the Zoom format. Meeting virtually, however, has brought some unexpected benefits. CWAP sessions are now archived online in a dedicated Youtube channel, and can be accessed by anyone. And guest speakers, of course, can now take part in the process from anywhere.
The focus of CWAP’s core group, however, remains advocacy and issues near and dear to home.
“Each of us is involved in some local project,” said Kessel, who also is the chair of the town’s Open Space Committee. “The people tend to be advocates.”