One of the things I love most about traveling is going to local coffee shops, restaurants, and bars for people watching. Last week I explored a couple charming Colorado towns and met some lovely humans during my study leave. I quickly became captivated with any venue where I could work by the river, to the degree that I visited the same coffee shop 3 times in 18 hours, and had lunch at the same place on consecutive days. Because study leave doesn’t get much better than supporting local folks while reading and writing at the riverside.
A server told me the river was especially high due to all the melted snow, and business has been slow since ski season’s end. A barista asked about the Chicago Skyline on my debit card because her best friend from college just moved to Chicago. Another asked about The Old Well on my other debit card, and the next time he saw me, he said, “Americano with an extra shot, Carolina?” I don’t know his name, but I know he thinks “North Carolina isn’t a bad state for the South.”
I can’t get enough of the feeling of being lost and known that comes from schlepping alone. I chatted with each barista, bar tender, server, bike rental guy, and Lyft driver, and it was absolute heaven for this introvert intimacy junkie. Part of what I miss about working in a hospital is how immediately intimate relationships are there, and exploring alone while traveling feeds my addiction to other people’s stories in a similar way.
I watched a man fly fish in the river from a creepy close distance, and told him, “I’m not a stalker, and I’m not trying to hit on you or anything. I’m obsessed with the rhythm and haunted by waters.” He smiled and said, “The waters are high and the trout are gorgeous today.” With that, I knew he was a kindred spirit. I have no idea where he’s from, how he earns a living, what breaks his heart, what he likes to drink, or who he loves. But I watched him fly fish long enough to know he’s patient, dedicated, and has a calm spirit.
Each time I sat outside by the river, someone would inquire about the empty chair at my table. “Are you waiting for someone?” some would ask. Others asked, “Are you expecting someone?” One man asked, “May I sit here?” I looked up from my book and said, “Yes you may, so long as you don’t block my view of the river.”
I’ve been thinking about those three questions for days.
“Are you waiting for someone” is my least favorite as a single person, as it sounds a lot like “Have you found a partner yet?” or the other one I hear regularly, “You know, so-and-so was divorced the same year as you and he’s already remarried.” Good for so-and-so. And I wholeheartedly mean it. If you want to have a partner, and you happen to meet that person and choose to do life together, I’m all for it. Heck, as clergy, I often earn my travel fund cash from having the honor of officiating said partnering. If that’s your desire, then I hope you find the best possible balance for your life in a partner. And I hope the timing feels exactly right or surprises you in the best way.
But I also hope you aren’t waiting for someone. Love yourself. Cultivate a life that gives you meaning and keeps you on your toes. Collect people you love and who love you for the hot mess but a good time you are. Get to know yourself and how much you’ve changed since whatever happened in the last chapter of your life. For the love, don’t miss out on goodness and transformation happening now by waiting for someone to sit in that chair.
“Are you expecting someone?” works for me, probably because I love some Advent expectant waiting as a good liturgical nerd. I do expect to continue to sit with people who I enjoy, find interesting, and make me laugh. I expect to continue to be surprised with the characters in each new chapter of my story. I expect someone to sit there and enjoy the food, the drinks, and the river. I expect to give that chair to someone who asks for it when it’s not mine to keep. I expect someone will sit there who has a story they’re willing to share.
The man who sat down is a professor and was taking a break from writing and grading papers. Apparently he frequents that coffee shop, as he noted he’d never seen me before in an aware of his surroundings, not lame pick-up line kind of way. I told him I was on study leave and direct a nonprofit for college students on the East Coast. (Any clergy will tell you, never lead with “I’m a pastor.” Ever.) He thought that sounded like meaningful work and hoped I was enjoying Colorado.
He complimented the ring on my left hand and I said, “Thank you. I love it.” He noted, “I’ve never seen anything like it. Must be a story there.” I replied, “And it’s one of my favorite stories. It was designed by a woman in Turkey, is the color of the Aegean Sea, and is from a boutique called Bloom, because bloom is exactly what my hope has been since getting divorced. So I went to Bloom with the little bit of money I had on the way to a friend’s wedding within a month of getting the judge’s signature in the mail. I needed my own something blue, my own new flair, my own vow to learn from my old life but never again lose myself to psychological abuse, and to celebrate all the borrowed courage and strength of those who kept me filled on the low tide days.”
He said he was so glad he asked. Then told me of a recent heartbreak of his own and some of the ways he worked through it. I asked if he loves himself enough to romantically love someone else again since he said he wants to be married, and he said, “I do now. I didn’t a year ago and had an unhealthy rebound because of it. But I do now.” “Well, there ya go. You learned and you did the work,” I said. He laughed, “Well, it was ugly for a while, but much better now.” To which I replied, “Nothing blooms without fertilizer, and best fertilizer for growth is usually manure.” He laughed and raised his coffee mug, “I’ll drink to that any day.”
He then asked if I would get married again. I told him absolutely, as I meant every word of the vows the first time. He asked, “Are you looking for anyone in particular?” I laughed and said, “Nope, just someone whose baggage coordinates well with mine. I value witty banter, humor, generosity, and integrity, and the rest will be a surprise.” He said, “You’re alright with baggage?” “Lord, yes,” I said. “I can’t stand first time ever in public travelers at airports, and I sure don’t want that in a partner. I respect people who know they have baggage, and have done the necessary work to learn how to navigate it. I want someone who knows to stand right; walk left on a moving sidewalk, and can run to catch a plane because their baggage now has good wheels and doesn’t weigh them down.” He laughed and we both went back to reading our books.
We wished each other well as he left. A few minutes later, a woman pointed at the chair and asked, “Are you expecting anyone?” I told her she was welcome to have a seat.
I expect to continue to accumulate stories from people who sit in the empty chair so long as I intentionally schlep and travel alone. I expect perhaps one day there will be someone who sits there regularly. And I expect he’ll be alright taking a backseat to my love affair with water. Keep the river on your right, friends, and always offer others the empty chair. Expect whatever you dream for your next chapter.