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.