Three Kinds of Thirst

The simple sweetness and smoothness of vanilla milkshakes taught me the deeper meaning of spiritual thirst.


When I was a kid my family spent a number of summers on an island off the coast of Maine. At the time there were only a couple of stores on this island, the most interesting of which was an old-fashioned malt shop: the kind with red-leather swivel stools, a long Formica counter, a spring-set screen door, and a wooden floor that creaked in a friendly, familiar way when you walked in.

My parents had an account at this store, and just about every afternoon I’d come in and charge a vanilla milkshake--or, in the high-sounding language the owner of the shop used for it, a frappe. In the early seventies people didn’t tend to emphasize the importance of drinking water regularly the way they do now. I steered clear of it just about entirely, and to me a thousand-calorie mix of whole milk, ice cream, and vanilla syrup was as good a way of reviving myself on a hot day as any.

Everything about these frappes--from the tapered, trophy-like glass they came in, to the silver canister that held the inevitable extra blob or two of ice cream, to the fact that, magically, no money was necessary to buy them--seemed custom designed to elevate them above the ordinary run of food-and-drink items in my life. Even their color--white, with a few hints of black vanilla flecks if you looked close--had something more-than-simply-earthly about it.


But the most important thing about these frappes was the way they tasted. Sucking one of them down, I would get, for a moment, what I can only describe as a feeling of being rescued--of being lifted above the world. White, cold, and good in a way that was way more than simply good, they gave me my first experience of the fact that some beverages are so elementally satisfying they aren’t JUST drinks at all. They’re something more.

From the Bible to the Vedas of ancient India to Islamic mystical poetry, thirst shows up everywhere in the world’s religious and devotional literature. Some of this material focuses on thirst for water--or what I like to think of as Thirst Number One. Elsewhere, it is alcohol (more often than not, wine) that is celebrated, by poets suffering from what you might call Thirst Number Two. In his famous poem “The Tavern,” the Sufi mystical poet Rumi (translated here by Coleman Barks) imagines the entire world of physical existence as a bar crowded with reeling, boisterous revelers too drunk to leave.

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Ptolemy Tompkins
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