I visited a coffee shop recently that brought back memories of an essay I wrote while sitting in that same shop a few years ago and included in my book: Common Grounds: Contemplations, Confessions, and (Unexpected) Connections from the Coffee Shop. I thought you might enjoy it.
“Do you want whip cream?” said a young barista with Starbucks-green hair on a day that was nowhere near St. Patrick’s Day. It matched the lettering on the menu. “I figured you wouldn’t since you were already skimping on the sugar.”
“No whip cream for me, thank you.”
That’s her word. She has used it with every customer since I arrived a few minutes ago. She couldn’t be nicer, and more professional.
I find a seat in one of the corners. A fifty-something-year-old man and woman are seated four tables down, talking about eternal life. Over the next twenty minutes, they swap divorce stories, kid stories, and cat stories before running down a list of every location they have lived over the past decade. Dating as a fifty-something is more about trading war stories than it is trading hopes and dreams. If we can accept each other’s war stories and subsequent collateral damage, we might be a match.
I’m close to the age of this couple, and I can’t help but recall a prayer my pastor prayed this past Sunday for people in the congregation who are in the winter of their lives. Men in my family tend to die in their sixties or early seventies. If that holds true for me, I’m past the two-thirds point of my life. I guess that would put me in the middle of fall — the ugly portion of the season, after all of the red, orange, and yellow leaves have shriveled up and fallen, and everything turns brown.
I don’t say that to be negative, but any pretense I had of maintaining an attractive outer shell is long gone. My leaves have been raked up, shoved into a yard-waste bag, and set on the curb for the waste management company to pick up next Monday. Ironically, I started a new diet today, but it has much less to do with an attractive outer shell and much more to do with making my doctor stop pointing to numbers on my chart, telling me they need to be lower. If I can make that happen, maybe I can extend my winter a little longer.
A woman who is probably in her late twenties, named Angela, sits down at a table ten feet in front of me. She has three books in front of her and she is flipping through one of them. Occasionally, she glances up to people-watch. By the way, I know her name is Angela because the barista called her name when her drink was ready. Part of me likes this practice, and part of me believes it is a sham. The part of me that likes it enjoys the personal touch — of hearing my name called, rather than being anonymous. The part of me that believes it is a sham makes me recoil over somebody using my name to make me feel a little connection just to make sure I’ll return next week to buy a four-dollar cup of coffee. By the time I finish this paragraph, Angela is gone.
A couple, with matching gray hair wearing matching gray hoodies, sits quietly in a corner close to the fifty-something-year-old daters. The man is reading a hardcover book. The woman is working on a word search or a crossword puzzle. Neither of them looks up. They are content to be lost in their individual activities without feeling the need to speak. Their silence reminds me of the opening scene from A Window Across the River by Brian Morton.
In the scene, a woman named Nora contemplates whether or not she should call her former boyfriend, Isaac, at 3:00 a.m. — like she always used to when they were together. Five years have passed and she’s not sure if he’s married or not, but she feels like her life is off-track and she just wants to hear his voice again, so she decides to call him. After three rings, he picks up the phone, but she doesn’t say anything. She wonders if hearing his voice is enough.
“Hello?” he says again.
She just keeps breathing.
“How did you know it was me?”
“I recognized your silence. It’s different from anyone else’s.”
I’ve been waiting all my life for silence like that. Actually, I take that back. I experienced it with someone during the early summer of my life. Her silence was comfortable and unhurried, which gave our conversation room to breathe. I have been waiting all my life to hear that type of silence again. Once you experience it, it’s hard to accept anything else, but I haven’t given up hope, which probably confirms that I am still in the fall of my life, as well as any person can possibly know it, because winter doesn’t offer a lot of personal earthly hope.
I suppose some cling to the hope of beefing up their legacy during winter, but legacies are built organically over a lifetime — they are a body of work, not a project. Even if you give a pile of money to your alma mater and they name a new building after you, none of the students in that building will give you a second thought two generations from now.
When I reach my winter, I want to spend time with loved ones, sing the old hymns with other believers in a gravelly voice, offer advice to young people (if they will listen), and read all of the books I never got around to — a lot like the elderly man just a few tables away.
I listened to a podcast recently about work/life balance. One of the hosts talked about how a lack of technology used to form a clear line between himself and his work once he left the office for the day.
Email didn’t exist. Neither did cell phones (and therefore text messaging). So his boss and coworkers didn’t have access to him at home. And even in the office, they only had mail slots that he checked three times a day to pick up memos, announcements and other messages.
Three times a day seems often enough, doesn’t it?
Years ago, I turned off most of the notifications on my phone, including for email. I was afraid — at least at first — that I’d miss an email from a publisher or client and miss out on work.
But then I recalled how I used to have a dial-up internet connection and couldn’t even check my email all day when I worked in a bank. I just answered my email when I got home at night.
A while back, I utilized iPhone’s “Do Not Disturb” feature for two weeks. I set it up to allow certain people to override the feature, and I have to tell you, it was glorious.
Expectations for speedy responses used to be lower before technology advanced to the point in which it allowed for immediate responses. But I’ve long since come to the conclusion that just because I can respond right away, doesn’t mean I should.
Switching tasks takes a toll. According to this article, you can lose up to 40% of your productivity by doing so. And here’s a claim that says “it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task.”
I’m not sure I believe either number, but I do believe there’s some validity to the claims. Maybe it’s just the introvert in me, but I feel the need to protect my creative space. The good news is, technology allows for that every bit as much as it allows for immediate responses. We just have to control it, rather than it controlling us.
In 2019, I read a book called Chasing Slow: Courage to Journey Off the Beaten Path by Erin Loechner. The book chronicles her busy life, which consisted of an HGTV webshow and a blog with a huge following.
At one point in the book, Loechner recalls being handed a business card by a producer at an event. She knew the opportunity could lead to something more but on the cab ride after the event, she turned the business card over and over in her well-manicured fingers as they passed a cemetery with white tombstones that were lined up like tight rows of dominoes.
“I know, simply, in that instant, that I do not want this for myself. I do not want to be stacked — even in death — up against another with so very little room to breathe. I do not want to compete. I want white space. I want room for grace.”
Then I saw this quote (which I believe comes from Rhea Ellen) from a friend on Facebook: “Destroy the idea that you have to be constantly working or grinding in order to be successful. Embrace the concept that rest, recovery, and reflection are essential parts of the progress towards a successful and ultimately happy life.”
White space. Room for grace. Rest. Recovery. Reflection. None of this happens without intentionality — without the willingness to say no.
I’ve stopped apologizing for saying no. I just politely decline. That’s not to say people always understand or don’t press further. But I suspect they’ll just view whatever I say as an excuse anyway, so I’m not in a hurry to offer more.
The thing is, living out someone else’s plan is a bad idea. It may not line up with God's plan. It’s not fulfilling. It doesn’t take your physical and emotional wellness into consideration. And it leaves you with little margin for recovery and reflection.
To borrow from Loechner’s book title, have the courage to journey off the beaten path.
Someone I follow on social media posed this question recently: If you could advise your 18-year-old self, what would you say?
My answer would be two words.
Don’t wait for the perfect job opportunity or situation. Go after it now and make it happen.
Don’t wait for permission from others. Give yourself permission.
Don’t wait for others to invite you. Invite others instead.
Don’t wait for others to stay in touch. Pick up the phone and initiate contact.
Don’t wait for people who do not want to be in your life. Move on and find the ones who do.
Don’t wait to pursue your interests — even if you have to do it alone. You might just find a new community there.
Don’t wait to forgive people. Forgive freely.
Don’t wait to tell others you love or admire them. Tell them now. And tell them frequently.
Don’t wait to compliment a stranger. If you do, you will have missed an opportunity to make a difference.
Don’t wait to tell someone that his or her work made a difference in your life. It might be the thing the keeps him or her going.
Don’t wait. You are not promised tomorrow. And even if you were, waiting to live would still be a mistake.
At the same time, I would also tell my 18-year-old self waiting isn't always wrong. Sometimes, it’s the best thing to do. But you’ll know the difference when you come to the fork in the road. Just make sure you don’t go down Wait Street and park there when you know deep down that you should go down Action Street and merge into traffic instead.
During the holidays, I saw a tweet from someone that said: “My neighbor has a holiday guest who has opened and closed his car door at least 400 times since last night. I can't help but wonder just what is going on in that car?”
While I was reading that, I heard the hydraulic brakes of a garbage truck in front of my house, heat coming through the vents, and my wall clock ticking. So much of what we hear is distracting and pulls us away from thinking on a deeper level.
That’s the price for living in the city. We live right on top of one another and can hear so much of what our neighbors do and say. All the more reason to be more intentional about finding quiet spaces.
I used to write frequently in a coffee shop by my house. It’s spacious and comfortable. But the culture of the place has changed in recent years. The baristas are younger and they crank modern music — most of which gives me a headache. Also, the place has become a hub for business meetings in which people have to speak rather loudly to hear each other over the music.
I have a library nearby where I plan to begin writing in the future. They allow you to bring in your own coffee and presumably, the place is much quieter.
As someone who visits this website, you probably require quiet spaces just as much as I do. I’m curious about how you go about securing them. Do you pull away from humanity? Or do you simply wear noise-canceling headphones and just power through the noise?