A Coffee Shop Lesson


Today, I’m sitting at my favorite coffee shop on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, blaming an elderly couple for my lack of productivity.  I have a soy latte and the crumbs of a pretzel croissant I devoured with no self-control sitting on a plate next to my laptop.  Jackhammers are making their own ruckus music between piles of dirty snow outside.  Two baristas are going back and forth between conversations with each other and serving the sporadic stream of customers stomping in the door.  When I look out the window I see buildings across the street that are the kind that initially won my heart for this city — weathered brick, chipped mint green paint on fire escapes, intricate detail wrapped like a ribbon half way up the side.  When the splash of a yellow taxi is waiting at the stop light in front of them, the picture is quintessential New York City – and I have to remind myself I’m here and not just looking at a post card.

And that’s what brings me back. I’m sitting here so I can write.  I arrived brimming with ideas and a few starts on my computer ready to be fleshed out.  But I’ve been here for almost two hours and I don’t have more than a few paragraphs to show for it.  It’s the old couple’s fault.  I can’t stop thinking about them.

They walked in holding hands and sat down at a table right in front of me.  She was wearing a Scandinavian sweater and he was wearing thick black snow boots to navigate the remnants of the blizzard that hushed this city last weekend.  They ordered two cups of coffee and one blueberry corn meal muffin to share.  After settling in, she asked him for a napkin and a packet of sugar.  He got up without complaining and retrieved the items for her.  She simply said, “Thank you, honey”.  He gently placed his hand on her back when he said, “You’re welcome”.   They chatted for a few minutes, then leaned in for a quick kiss.  A just-because-I-love-you kiss in the middle of the conversation and in the middle of the coffee shop.  And I thought, I want to be you someday.

I know nothing about them except how they treated each other this morning.  But that was enough to make me hope that this marriage Brett and I have been building for the last nine years is on its way to mid-morning coffee dates and just-because-I-love-you kisses in the middle of our conversation when our hair is white and we move a little slower than we move now.  They were kind towards one another.  I assume they have had their fair share of arguments and heart aches.  They may have lost jobs and maybe even children.  But today they talked quietly over coffee and a shared pastry, they said “Thank you” and “You’re welcome” and smiled.  They were a team.

But they were also still their own.  He left.  She stayed.  I don’t know where he went.  Another couple walked in the door shortly after he walked out.  They were a young couple with a stroller and loud, jubilant voices.  All of the heads in the coffee shop looked up when they walked in, including the old woman’s.  She looked right at the young boy in the stroller and when their eyes met he said something in another language.  The parents laughed loudly and through thick accents they offered a translation, “Oh, he called you Grandma.  He misses his grandma.  She’s in Russia.”

This is when I got a glimpse in to the old woman’s past.  She told the young mom about a friend who writes stories about Russia.  She’s a writer too, she says.  Her grandchildren are in Pennsylvania, and even though it’s not as far as Russia, she doesn’t get to see them as often as she would like.    The young mom must have been reading my mind, because she asked the woman what kind of writing she does instead of any details about her grandchildren.  My eaves dropping heart thanked her.  “Oh, just a book of short stories.  Nothing like Russian history, but I enjoyed it.”

I wonder when she wrote her book.  Did she squeeze it in to nap time when her children were young?  Did she pick up her pen after she retired from another career?  Did she study literature in college and wear the title of Writer proudly?  Did she struggle with how to balance writing, raising her children, and loving her husband well?  Because I do.  I struggle with the balance of it all.

I think about getting up and asking her these questions.  I want to know more about her, her stories, and how she built a marriage that displays such kindness and intimacy.  But as soon as I figure out how to start a conversation with her, she’s packing up to leave.  I don’t want to disturb her, and I also kind of like the mystery in the details of her life, so I don’t stop her.

She may not have had it all at once – I don’t think that’s possible actually.  But from the glimpse of her life I got in the coffee shop this morning, her life contained it all.  She wrote a book.  She raised children.  She loves her grandchildren.  And, perhaps most importantly, she treats the one who has shared it all with kindness.  But she didn’t do all of those things and countless others at the same time.  Or maybe she did – like I said, I didn’t ask.  So I get to fill in the blanks, and in my version of her life she enjoyed each season she was in when she was in it.  I don’t need to try to do it all or have it all right now either.

There was a lot of life behind that just-because-I-love-you kiss in the middle of the coffee shop.  It was a good reminder to enjoy this moment I’m in now.  This one where I’m balancing this newly rekindled love of writing, raising a child, and loving my husband well – plus serving our church, engaging in our community and investing in friendships.  We don’t have to wait until our hair is white to treat each other kindly and steal just-because-I-love-you kisses on a mid-morning coffee date.  Perhaps that is really how you have it all, one kind action and one quick kiss at a time.

Outside, the jackhammers are still shouting, the taxis are careening around, and the people are carefully but quickly navigating brown slush on the sidewalks.  It’s a busy city – one that encourages you to rush through this life in the hopes of having it all.  Inside I have been given a beautiful reminder to slow down and push against the notion of having it all right now.  I would so much rather enjoy each season I’m in with a little bit, so in a few decades I can sit next to the one I love with white hair and look back at a life that had it all.