Friday, January 15, 2010

Wisdom Behind the Disguise

Masked.Image by Andii. via Flickr

(I haven't edited this--it's raw--in fact, I haven't even read it again since I wrote it, but wanted to post something for y'all to ponder...)

I walked into the cafĂ©—though we American’s have decided to call them “coffee shops”—on a day like any other. Would it be mocha or tea? Mocha or tea? More often than not it was tea; mocha was reserved for energy emergencies. And, although the jack was temporary, it was always quite the ride.

On one side of the shop, sitting cross-legged in the middle of a long couch, sat a long-bearded man. He was reading from a small book, encased in leather, the straps hung from the top and bottom of the book and stopped just short of the stained concrete floor. Sunglasses prevented me from seeing his eyes. His head was capped with a knitted cap, which looked more for herding his locks than for warmth.

He stood out from the rest of the on-the-go crowd, typically clad in the acceptable manor of their workplace—in other words, clothing that sacrificed comfort—and here sat this man, as comfortable as can be in a place where the libations were intended to provide hyper-reality, faux or otherwise.

There was no table in front of him, and no laptop, no iPod, no cell phone, or other distraction, aside from his book and what looked to be a steaming cup of hot water balanced on another book that was closed and resting on the couch. Directly in front of him sat a chair, backwards, to support a hand-written cardboard sign that read, “Love advice”, with a capital “L” and a lower case “a,” and no punctuation whatsoever. A vertical crease lived in the middle of the sign, not quite separating the words for the “a” lived on its border; halfway from one end to the other to help it stand on its own, I presumed. Did it mean I could get advice about love or that he loved giving advice, any advice, or that he just wanted to know whether I loved advice in general? Only one way to find out.

I picked up the sign in my hands, turned it towards him, raised my eyebrows, and in return he closed his book and invited me to be seated by waving an upturned palm toward the now vacant seat. Strange, I thought, his hand looks much younger than his face. Pausing before I sat, I thought, to sit with the back of the chair between us, or to turn it a hundred and eighty degrees? I turned the chair and swore that I saw the edges of his mouth turn up beneath the scraggly whiskers.

With the sign held in both of my hands, I leaned forward to ask, “What does this mean?”

“What do you want it to mean?” he replied, his voice also more youthful than I expected.

Unsure of my answer, or of what sat across from me, I contemplated while he sat their motionless but for the rise and fall of his breath. Might as well start at the beginning, I thought, and then said, “Well, what is love?”

“What do you want it to be?” he asked.

I looked at the sign in my hands, turned it around, reread it to make sure that it still said what I thought it had said, and then wondered if, perhaps, I’d guessed the wrong meaning.

He broke the silence between us. “Is love what you can hold in your hands?”

I felt no love for the sign that was currently in my hands; it was just an object to me. Out of reflex, I handed it to him as if his question was actually a statement that I was holding something that was his. Without a word, he accepted my offering and placed the sign on the couch next to him.

Thinking my wit would lead to humor, I replied, “There’s nothing in my hands,” but got no such reaction from him.

“Does that mean you believe that you are incapable of love?”

“No-no,” I quickly replied, not quite seeing the connection.

“Is love in the clothes that you choose to wear on your body or the way in which you clad your feet?”

My brow furrowed, but felt that it was necessary to answer, “No, I mean, I don’t think so.”

“If you take the time to hold something in your hands, then wouldn’t it be wise to hold the things you love? If you take the time to wear clothes, then wouldn’t it be wise to wear clothes that make your body feel loved? If you take the time to walk the earth, then wouldn’t it be wise to be clad in shoes that compliment your journey whether it’s comfort for distance or sandals that can be removed to feel the grass between your toes?”

“That sounds sensible.” I agreed.

“Is love sensible?” he asked.

“No way, not at all, love is out of control, crazy-do-anything-because-I-can’t-help-but-feel-these-wild-emotions, like the opposite of sensible,” I exclaimed.

“Is it really?” he asked.

And suddenly, I pondered the question and realized that love might not be what I’d always read in books, always seen in movies, and always forced myself to experience in life.

At the sight of my wheels turning, I noticed a smile on his face before he said, “There is no rule that says passion must look passionate.”

Where has that advice been my entire life? I thought, my own smile appearing on my face. Altercations flashed through my mind as I recounted memories of discussions gone awry. I’d never understood why discussion was such a difficult concept to experience.

“Why are you here?” he asked me, and I heard him ask, but my mind was so far away that, out of habit, I asked him to repeat what he’d said. “Why are you here?” he obliged.

“Good question,” I replied, “Mocha or tea, but I’m not sure which.”

“How do you decide?”

“It depends on how much energy I need based on how tired I am,” I admitted.

“Are you telling me that you seek a peak from the beverage?”

“A peak?” I said, thoroughly confused.

“Yes,” came his one-word reply.

“Yeah, I need it to function sometimes,” I said, but as soon as I said it I realized that it sounded ridiculous.

“Is it a crazy, out of control, wild ride?”

“No, not really.”

“And do you love it?” he asked, his point made.

Though we could debate the use of the word love in this question… wait, we are debating the question of the word love! “I get it,” I nodded, “I get it.”

“And, you hold it in your hands,” he added, driving the point home. “Now, go acquire what you came here to seek.”

“Do you want anything?” I asked, assuming it was the least I could do for what he’d given me.

“No, but thank you. I have all that I need, more now after what you’ve already given me.”

His words confused me, and echoed in my head while I waited for my hot tea to steep. I watched the clock tick-tick through the four minutes of steep-time, gazed several times back to the man, who had gone back to reading his book, but had done nothing to re-situate the chair back to the position in which I’d found it. At the end of four minutes, I dropped a dollop of non-fat milk into the cup and returned to the chair.

Without looking up and with one finger in the air, he gestured to request my patience. As he closed his book once more, I asked, “What have I given to you?”

“You’ve given me more,” he stated, as if it was an obvious gift.

“More of what?” I asked, hastily.

He brought his hands together at his chest, as if in prayer, said, “More in my heart,” and then bowed his head. “What you love to hold also loves being held,” he added, and then slid his glasses down the bridge of his nose so that I could look into his eyes and see his youth. “I’ve given you new glasses through which to see the world—to think about the world—and those words for your head are supported by the vision that wisdom is often found behind the disguise.”

He returned his hands to the closed book in his lap and opened it, signaling that the conversation had ended. I respectfully turned the chair around, as I’d found it, bowed my head in his direction, which felt strange but enlightening, and walked toward the door. As I approached the exit, another man was entering. For some reason, I turned to watch him as I leaned into the door, and smiled when I noticed the sign had already been returned to its home on the chair, and the new patron had noticed it.

I’ve never been one to have a home coffee shop, but I did return there frequently to see if he was there. If I’d found him, I’m not sure what I would have said. Maybe I’d recount stories I’d experienced since we spoke, or ask the other questions that had come to my mind since then, or maybe I’d sit across the room and watch as he gave and received gifts with others. However, I never saw him there or elsewhere… or, did I?