Cafe days

I look all around me at the campus cafe. Each in his own world, face engaged in the study of their choosing or some requirement needed to get there. It’s Important work, studying. Studying for a degree, that symbol of hours of persistence, dedication to a task, the ability to see a thing through, to think in many directions on a certain matter. In different cities the University name changes, but not the scene.
I hear the espresso maker hiss, the foam form behind a half counter where skilled staff pump out caffeinated drinks for their customers, along with beautiful sweet 3 layer cake slivers, white chocolate macadamia nut cookies and mildly sweet scones. I sometimes look up to the slightly moving legs of those in line as they shift the weight of their back pack from left to right and back, staring at a far wall or visiting with the employee they know well. The counter sees a steady flow of faces, counted out change and grateful smiles.
This cafe is a place of comfort, a cross between the dining room and kitchen with rectangular tables, wobbly chairs, amazingly soft couches with little end tables beside and little lamps. The hum of steady soft voices conversing peppered with the occasional burst of laughter add to the charm.
This is where I have come since I was fifteen years old. Not a University student or even a high school student. I was a drop out, encouraged by some, ignored by others, simply a friend to most, a friend who made an unpopular decision. Having no external agenda for my cafe time, I almost always had a book to read, a notebook to fill and a pen, money for a latte and a pack of Marlboros. Sometimes a walkman, but often not.
My first love was Steep & Brew on Church. Smokers in the back, near the bathrooms, past the dishwasher, which was still fine and nice, despite it’s surrounding areas. I usually showed up by 1pm. With drink in hand, I’d find an empty table, set my books down, pour two turbinado sugar packets into the center of my latte, watching the crystals fall through the foam, making a perfect little hole. I enjoyed the foam first, slowly, focusing on the sweet milk in the middle before slowly sipping the rest. Once I finished the foam, it was time to study.
I wouldn’t have called it that at the time. I was not in a school, not engaged in work society seemed to consider important. Some might even say I was squandering the hours away. But I wasn’t. I was studying my perceptions of the world, of reality. I was studying my voice as a writer, a human, a friend. I was listening to the quiet of my being. I was also developing two important habits, a love of reading and that of writing practice. At fifteen, even sixteen, seventeen on up to twenty, I didn’t know this consciously. Then at twenty one I found a book called Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. I ate it for every meal, filled an entire notebook during spring break (by this time I was in college, though the experience was short lived), and began inviting all my friends to write with me, to follow this new mentor closely, for she gave me gold and I couldn’t help but share.
After Writing Down the Bones I moved on to her second book about writing, Wild Mind, then onto her first book about becoming a writer, Long Quiet Highway. For years that third book was a comfort. Her experience, though different from mine in the external details, was incredibly familiar in the inner details. Her voice was soothing, real, honest and compassionate without being soft. I read her first novel, Banana Rose as soon as it came out and have read it many times since as well. From her I received guidance, but also permission, even encouragement to bring my notebook and a pen only to the cafe table, to tilt my neck and write for hours, which I did often. It’s not that I ever considered staying home because I didn’t have “important” work to accomplish, but she helped me see that the work I was engaged in was important, as well as helping me develop my art, painting with words.

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3 Responses to Cafe days

  1. Yuling says:

    Now you make me really want to read Natalie Goldberg’s books!

  2. heidi says:

    Excellent! Let me know if you do and if you ever want to write together 🙂

  3. Yuling says:

    Ha, actually I do have a blog…in Chinese. I want to keep in touch with my family and friends through writing because I am not very good at talking, especially on phone…Yet reading Helen’s and your blogs makes me want to write (and think) in English as well, your writings are so vivid and casual while urbane and wise. Different languages have different characteristics. When you write, not only you use the language, the language also alter you. And I find it’s quite fun to alternate my characteristics by shifting between these two. 🙂

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