Looking for coffee, finding something better

Last Christmas I woke up in the darkness before dawn anticipating the thing I crave every Christmas morning.

Coffee.

That's all I wanted. It's the first thing I want when I wake up on any day, just one hot black cup of the liquid that reinvigorates my hope, my capacity for awe, my faith in everything.

I'd flown to Oregon the night before and promptly gone to sleep. When I woke up at 5 a.m., in a relative's house, still on Chicago time, with no one else yet stirring, I flicked on a small lamp and rummaged around the kitchen.

I found a grinder. A box of filters. Enough tea bags to supply the population of China. And not a speck of coffee.

Grumpily, I snatched the car keys and set off in search of my Christmas cup of hope and awe and faith.

Christmas morning comes with a peculiar hush. The legendarily silent night of Christmas Eve opens into a quiet dawn, a pause in the routine churn, a rare peace in the clatter and crush of the relentlessly electrified world.

I love that Christmas calm, how it soothes the heart, settles the soul. I love it more with coffee.

The streets of Eugene, Ore., were shiny black in the darkness of 5:30, holiday lights winking here and there, the only lights in town, it seemed, besides the traffic signals.

But someone would be serving coffee, I knew, at least by 6, because this was 24/7 modern America, and wherever there's a market, some entrepreneur is at the ready.

My car was the only one on the road. I drove around to coffeehouses and convenience stores, hopped out, peered into shadowy windows.

Over and over, my heart slumped to see the sign that said, "Closed on Christmas."

Starbucks! If anyone would respect America's need for coffee more than it respected tradition, Starbucks would be the one.

Closed.

All I wanted for Christmas was my morning cup of joe. Was that too much to ask? By 6:15, I realized it was.

The morning still felt like the hard rock-bottom of the night — it was that dark, that chilly, that beautiful and hauntingly bleak — when I parked the car, got out and began to walk by the Willamette River.

Against the black sky, the trees fused into unreadable shapes. The only sounds were my breath and the rush of the barely visible water. It occurred to me to be scared, but I kept walking and soon forgot to be. I also forgot about the coffee.

I thought about Christmas when I was little, waking up at dawn, sneaking out to the Christmas tree, feeling blissfully, terrifyingly, daringly, mystifyingly alone in the way unique to a child unaccustomed to being up when her parents were asleep.

I kept walking, fast, until I felt hypnotized by the blank sky and the loud river. Then I saw the fire.

Across the river, through the bare trees, rose a golden glow and a spray of orange, the colors more furious by the minute.

I stopped. Stood still.

The sun arrived.

And with it, my Christmas jolt of awe and hope and faith.

I walked for a while more, as the sky turned blue, the trees turned brown and the sun lit up the river. At 8, I found coffee but didn't need it.

When I got home, I made a note: On this Christmas morning, I went looking for coffee and instead found a sunrise.

Sometimes when you don't get what you want, you wind up with something better.

mschmich@tribune.com

CHICAGO

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