counter culture

Counter people are some of my favorites. As someone who works remotely, I try to be intentional about scheduling connection into my daily routine alongside virtual work obligations. Some of these connections involve transactions across a literal counter, but it’s not the coffee or the wine or the cheese that keep me coming back. It’s Eric. And Susan. And Elspeth. And Patty. And Vickie. And so many more.

For years, I have been tempering a professional life filled with too much screen time by staging many of my days in local businesses that feel like home. Instead of sequestering myself during the work week, I move between local spots where staff and other patrons have become “co-workers” and friends. When back-to-back meetings and improbable deadlines stack my calendar, I prefer sharing space with those busy tackling their own projects, reading books, or enjoying conversations over coffee. In community, it’s easier to remember that the world does not actually turn on the stroke of my keyboard. Among others, I find my way into a rhythm that makes room for more than just work. When the balance is right, it’s the moments between meetings – when we stand and smile and stretch together – that become the making and measure of a life.

At Allgood Coffee, some of the regulars try to get my attention when walking by “my” table. Sometimes, I don’t notice someone approaching until they are right in front of me, their proximity ultimately drawing my eyes off the screen. It’s amazing how much focus both gives and takes. “Look up, Meredith. Look up.” When I was writing my dissertation from the high-top by the door, I stayed put while people streamed in and out throughout the day. Head in my books and eyes on the prize as I eked out one. more. footnote, I became part of a place where strangers turned into friends who celebrated each blessed page with me. My beloved community includes other coffee shop regulars whose handwritten tabs are also taped to the wall over the coffee mugs by the sink. It’s not often that we settle so deeply into places of business. Sometimes these places – and the communities they nurture – become part of how we know ourselves in the world.

Right next door to the coffee shop is my other local haunt. A wine store with some killer food, Maggie B’s is often my follow-up to a great cup of coffee. Those who know me well can often gauge my whereabouts by time of day. Before noon? Allgood. Lunch or thereafter? Maggie B’s. Sitting at my favorite table under the big window in the back room, I work to the tunes of staff playlists that make my heart happy and enjoy solidarity with other ladies who do more than lunch together. Sometimes, I don’t know it’s quitting time until people begin stopping in for a glass of wine to mark the winding down of a day. There’s something magical about the motley crew that assembles at Maggie B’s in the late afternoon. It’s as if those who gather have remembered something too easily forgotten – that we need the kindness of community and the witness of strangers – daily. It is humbling to recognize how much these moments of seeing and being seen – however brief – literally make and make up my days.

With important social distancing practices starting to reverberate across the county earlier this week, I made a few quick stops to check on the places where my work and life are best served. I didn’t just go to stock up on wine and coffee. I went to pay my respects and take my leave from those who also lean across counters, either ordering or dishing up community to those who walk through the door. While I stocked up on things in an effort to ease the burden of economic disruption, some things aren’t for sale. I already miss my people and their places in my world.

I am a creature of habit in more ways than one. As the world grows both larger and smaller each day, I am certainly following the large-scale transitions upending communities and countries across the globe. But sometimes, it’s a smaller measure that brings change to life, and I find that my grief is suspended over countertops no longer serving up family and familiarity. With my remote work proceeding largely uninterrupted, I am finding myself at work without my co-workers; not the people I actually work with – we’re all set with our remote work tools. It’s my other work family that I’m missing – the people I know by the check-ins and random conversations that pull us out of our own worlds into something we create together – not in our doing, but simply in our being. As we continue to live into this period of vital social isolation, I yearn for my people who share in the work of keeping tabs on a community that convenes in places where business-as-usual is no longer on the menu. May we all find ourselves at our regular tables again soon. Until then, may we look for ways to share in the work of bringing a new world into being – one full of counters and cultures where seeing and serving one another becomes the bottom line of our daily promise and practice.

March 20, 2020