#116 Coffee with John

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” ― Rob Siltanen ( FYI: Steve Jobs didn’t write this as many think)

What is normal?

What is a “normal” life/job/livelihood/relationship?

We are all in a race to reach this so-called normal in all different aspects of our lives.

From childhood, we have been guided and instructed to follow the path of the student, professional, parent, wife, husband, 9 to 5 Joe, or whatever box fits.

But what is normal? Do we need to fit a societal mold to be considered good-standing citizens of the world?

The paradox is that what we consider “normal,” might not be for many; it all depends on where we are standing in relation to the quest. For many, college is the norm but for many financial or societal obstacles make it an untenable path.

Or even if we consider someone following/being normal, many areas of their lives or personalities might clash or defy the very same box we placed them in.

Normal becomes hard to describe and pinpoint when we get into nuances, but we can all agree that we can identify the outliners carving and hedging their unique road.

My companion for my Coffee with John #116 exemplifies the latter. I am in no position to tell her story. She is a web developer, yoga instructor, graphic designer, retreat facilitator, avid camper, future presidential candidate in the making, outdoors enthusiast living out in the woods for weeks, and much more. I admire her resilience, tenacity, and path as she makes her mark in this life.

The roads we take – normal or off the beaten path – all take us to where we find ourselves today. While we can’t retrace our steps, the beauty is that there is always a new road awaiting, beckoning us to take that first step into the unknown to create our adventure.

Deviate from the “normal” once in a while and surprise yourself.

I leave you with Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken with this as I wrap my Coffee with John this December.

Happy holidays and best to you in 2023. Hope our paths cross as we take the road less taken.

The Road Not Taken

By Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference

#115 Coffee with John

A simple act: losing yourself in the word of loved ones as an expression of appreciation, love, devotion, or curiosity. It can take the form of joining a friend, a lover, a partner, or a family member on a rainy, miserable day on their favorite activity but not so much yours. It can also entail reading a book important to them or taking a leap of faith and trying out food they love and that you have never heard of in your life.

The possibilities are endless and we all might partake in this simple act of love without realizing it. One way or another, we do it all the time but how many times do we do it deliberately and with intention?

I came away with that takeaway as I was wrapping Coffee with John #115. What came to mind specifically was taking the time to get to know, one-on-on, the people in the lives of our loved ones: their friends, lovers, and close associates. Stepping out of our relationship with that person to have a conversation with let’s say their boyfriend, wife, or best friend who is a stranger to us or we have only interacted with them in a group setting.

I understand that this might not always lend itself as relationship dynamics don’t always allow for those interactions. Taking that step could get us into murky territory and uncomfortable boundaries. Our wives/girlfriends/husbands might despise our friends or family members. Their friends or family members might not like us. Our beloved and beautiful partners might have a say in our desire to know their supermodel, attractive best friend. And we all have that one crazy friend we don’t even know how we are friends with in the first place. Do we really want that person talking to anyone in our circle? I am being hyperbolic but you get me, right?

Having said that, I want to advocate that if we can navigate those dynamics with clear intentions, we should take the time to sit down for a coffee with the people in close orbit with those we treasure. Take the time to know the friends of your spouse, parents, children, and close friends.

The experience might introduce you to a new person to appreciate and open up a new window into your loved ones. Or not. Still, take the step and dive into the world important to our loved ones. We might all be better for it.

#114 Coffee with John

Like a lot of things in life, I didn’t know it at the moment.

I had no plan to shed tears as I told my companion for Coffee with John #114 how I had met my wife. It was not in the works to show her the picture I carry inside the journal I take with me to my Coffee with John meeting of my wife wearing roller skates and a pink tutu. I had no intentions of showing and telling her what I was planning to do after we met with my wife’s wedding band and an 1800s Colombian coin that belonged to my father resting on my back packet that day.

I had no intention of sharing any of that but I could have told my coffee mate dark secrets I don’t even have in my vault of not-so-secrets.

I had only met her once in a group setting before our coffee meet-up. I can only guess what it was about her that opened me up to share the vulnerability and river of emotions I carried with me under my sleeve that morning.

Within two days on the eve of my wife’s death anniversary, perhaps my emotions were bursting to flow, waiting for the right conduit to set me free. I like to think that it was a combination of this and her magical prowess ensuing sereneness and calmness.

The hour went quickly and we only scratched the surface. Maybe we will continue the conversation another time or maybe that was the time we had for us to share inmate stories about family and moments in our lives that have shaped us.

And sometimes all we need is that one time to connect and share our hidden sentiments with a stranger, carrying us forward as we release emotions into the world for us to heal. I needed that moment without realizing it.

I drove to a jewelry store a friend had recommended years prior after our conversation where I took the wedding band and ring to make into a necklace, forging two treasures of my life into one.

A whole different story but for years I thought I had lost that coin — a coin I have been carrying since I was seven years old. When I found it again shortly after my wife’s death as I cleaned out her stuff, the idea of the necklace came to me almost immediately. But, for whatever reason, it had taken me four years to take the step into making it a reality. I am glad it did, though.

Sharing parts of my story with my coffee mate moments earlier felt ceremonial and serendipitous. All came together to remember and celebrate the memories of loved ones, as well as the connections of our past and future.

#113 Coffee with John

When was the last time you did something for pure joy?

Most kids do that all the time. They might have some initial trepidation, but they go for the adventure, letting themselves be carried away by the moment without care or worries. They run down the hill with open arms, laughing and being present.

As adults, we tend not to be easily swayed by that hill, holding back and overthinking: it’s too steep, and what if I fall; my shoes will get dirty; I don’t have the proper attire; I will have to come back up; and a thousand other thoughts crossing our minds before we turn our backs away from that magnificent mountain top beckoning us to take the chance.

Am I an adventurous person? Have I always been adventurous?

I don’t know if I have a check box to answer either of those questions.

I have turned my back and stepped away from a promise of an adventure many times. Fear, skepticism, mistrust, and lack of confidence have been the culprits. Yet, I feel I have taken many steps forward in following a path open to exploring and running down valleys of fun wherever they take me.

It doesn’t mean my old friend trepidation stops visiting with vows of seduction, tempting me to take the bait to rest in a cradle of comfort and safety. A case in point: a few days before my Coffee with John #113 that old acquaintance came knocking hard.

No good reason or anything to do with my coffee mate but dread was getting the best of me. I don’t know why.

Perhaps my hesitation came on the heels of pondering the question a few weeks back of why I was continuing this project (a question that each new meeting provides new steadfast grounds to forge forward).

The meeting reminded me to let go of reasons, justifications, fears. Trust and run the mountain top with open arms to all possibilities.

If I had canceled or postponed the meeting, I would have robbed myself of a joyful conversation, a good coffee, and the chance to get to know an intriguing lawyer/business owner with a penchant for history, making a difference and leaving a mark in the landscape of Charlotte.

Spread your arms wide and embrace the adventure of everyday life.

#112 Coffee with John: how are you showing up in our community?

Hands-on New York/Orlando, Bright Blessings, and Crisis Assistance Ministry are some of the organizations I came to know because of my wife.

She was always looking to volunteer and be of service wherever we settled, dragging me and my son along many times against our wishes. She volunteered at schools, preschools, animal shelters, and any organization that tugged at her heart. Children’s causes had a special place for her. Her ultimate dream was to open an orphanage in her native Dominican Republic (DR).

The few times we visited DR she would set aside in our luggage toys or clothes to disperse to family members in need or random children playing along the side of dirt roads next to shanty houses — the image of a young girl smiling in complete amazement when my wife handed her a doll comes to mind as I write this sentence. I still have a bucket half full of Barbie dolls and other toys we never got to take but which I hope to give away one day on a trip back to her land.

My coffee mate for Coffee with John #112 reminded me of that magnanimous spirit that so inspired my wife. A stranger who reached out to me after seeing my CWJ FB Group and Ballantyne Magazine piece, my mate seems to be involved in different organizations, from the arts to health-care services, volunteering and giving her time with utter joy, kindness, and passion.

I don’t know nor can I pretend to know what drives those selfless spirits to give part of themselves to their communities: religion, love, or a sense of duty. Whatever the motivator, if there is even a need for one, prompts the question: how are you showing up in your community?

Personally, I had continued the tradition, setting aside at least one Saturday a month to volunteer at Crisis Ministry, but all that got derailed once the pandemic hit. Now, I have no excuse. I have continued to donate blood but I hope to renew that flame and get back to giving to the community somehow, even on a small scale.

I hope you find your own reasons to give back and get involved in your community. If you do, share your story with me and tell me your experience of perhaps bringing a smile and a sense of wonder to a fellow passenger in this life.

#111 Coffee with John

The first meet-up of 2022, five months after the start of the year! How could that be? Where have the months gone by?

Probably the why is the crucial question here. Why has it taken me this long to continue Coffee with John (CWJ)?

A few answers: getting COVID at the beginning of January for the second time since the pandemic; a few people bailing out at the last minute; almost losing my toes to frostbite, putting me out of commission for a few months; and, to be honest, a lack of motivation.

The latter is harder to explain. Not that I have no desire to continue and meet my goal of meeting 150 people. Still, the momentum is not the same. As I have probably mentioned before, I am not the same, nor does life find me in the same spot when I started this project.

My grief, pain, and emotional toil are not the same. I am in a good place – emotionally and mentally. Life finds me experiencing love again and all the magic and adventure that comes with the euphoria of a new relationship.

What then continues to be the driving purpose of this project? Do I continue for the sake of continuing? Do I take this initiative in a different direction? Do I call it quits? As my motivation, energy, focus, and attention will divert me in different directions, how long will it take me to eventually meet my goal?

Meeting #111 served as a reinforcement of how much I enjoy connecting with people. The conversation flowed from different topics, from talking about life experiences to sharing family stories, belief systems, and the circumstances/events leading to where life finds us. In the end, I got to know a fellow friend better, gaining a renewed appreciation for a friend and his life experiences.

CWJ sets a stage for an openness that might otherwise not occur, allowing me to hear and become an active participant in sharing stories that hopefully provide value to my coffee mates and myself. This will continue to be my drive: the desire to connect and share a moment with a fellow traveler in this journey we call life.

#110 Coffee with John: Where is the you? (Virtual edition)

Coffee with John #110, the last of 2021!

Only fitting that the conversation included talk of resolutions and new year’s eve traditions, like the ritual of running around the block at the strike of midnight with a suitcase to welcome more travel.

Actually, I don’t think I have ever seen anyone carry out that tradition or the one about wearing specific colored underwear to bring a particular attribute into their lives (e.i, yellow for good luck, red for love, white for inner peace, and I don’t know what else). Now, I don’t know about you but, most likely, I was wearing black as most of my underwear is of that color. Wait! Please excuse this interruption while I look at what wearing black underwear on new year’s eve means.

I am back. It means…

I am digressing. I don’t mean to talk about my underwear or yours. A more interesting topic that came to the forefront during my conversation is the self, the center of almost every New Year resolution.

Even if we disdain the thought of new year rituals, it’s probably one of the few times of the year when we are drawn to actively or indirectly engage in thinking or discussing the goals/activities we want to undertake, placing the self at the center.

The irony is that we live in a self-centered society already where the “I” is ubiquitously displayed on our social media. The paradox is that we lose ourselves. The “I” becomes a persona, playing a part on the Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, TicTak stage. 

Or we get lost in the never-ending to-do. Not far, or an integral part of the must get dones, we get lost in the I am a spouse, parent, worker, artist, caregiver, professional, and whatever other roles we are fulfilling. You strip those personas/roles and we might have an identity crisis.

Who are we without any of those qualifiers? What makes us, us? What are we doing to take care of ourselves? How are we cultivating a deeper knowledge of ourselves outside the parameters of an attached identity? What motivates/inspires us? How do we become present with ourselves without getting lost in distractions that are not expansive, i.e distractions that do little to challenge us, or contribute to our well-being?

I was confronted by a version of those questions at two critical points in my life: first, when I lost my wife and, then a year later, when I became an empty nester. I had always had a separate identity, doing my yoga, running, and following other interests outside of being a husband and father. Still, faced with those new realities, I was forced to redirect my life, making those sets of questions more pronounced and immediate. Not always easy or with clarity, I have welcomed the challenges and the possibilities of getting connected and reacquainted with myself, exploring past and new interests: practicing meditation, reading more, challenging myself to hike on my own, exploring online classes, and learning more about various subjects including photography and sexuality. All those are avenues of exploration that call out to me for a variety of reasons.

I am not going to prescribe or pontificate about any specific activity to pursue. Instead, I encourage all of us to put our phones down to take two to ten minutes a day to explore different paths of self-care and exploration. A good starting point might be answering the question of what is going on with YOU outside any of our prescribed roles. Start with that question to begin formulating and solidifying an identity of what you want for yourself, be it a hobby or an attribute.

A response might be that there is no time. How many times do we say “I don’t have the luxury, energy, time, or bandwidth to meditate, read, or do x.” I don’t negate the reality of time constraints and other hurdles we all have in our lives. But the essential question/challenge is how can we take of others and that of our thousands of responsibilities when we are getting lost in the identities of others and neglecting our physical, mental, emotional needs. Find yourself.

#109 Coffee with John: Question, Lean into Curiosity

Rare are those skillful in asking questions from deep down their heart with genuine curiosity. I am not talking about the questions that you might exchange in your ordinary, day-to-day interactions, say a first date, a working meeting, and an interview. (Although what I am talking about here can happen in any of those scenarios, too).

What I am talking about is the type of situation where you get deep and lost in a conversation where the person is asking you question after question in a manner that is not intrusive but welcoming, not accusatory but explorative, not diminishing but encouraging, not perfunctory but thorough, not as an avoidance ruse but an invitation to conversation. The type of questions that are thoughtful and insightful, beckoning you to answer with all guards down; where you feel heard and seen.

I have only encountered a few of those rare inquisitive wizards in my lifetime. They are curious and can create an almost magical atmosphere where the exchanges are mutual and the conversation is selfless. Such was my coffee-mate for CWJ #109. It’s no wonder why she is pursuing a master’s in therapy. She has a gift!

But we don’t need to be of a special breed or be pursuing a master’s. That quality of becoming a wizard at asking insightful questions is not out of our reach. The magic recipe is leaning into our curiosity, exploring our inquisitiveness about the other person, and putting aside egos, nerves, agendas. The payout is rapport and a stronger bond with people.

Don’t take my word for it. Have you heard of what has become known as the 36 Questions to Fall in Love? If you haven’t, read about the study of principal psychologists Arthur Aron, Ph.D., and Elaine Aron, Ph.D., a study made popular in a New York Times Modern Love essay.

I don’t know if you will find love by embracing and testing out those questions in the field but at least you can’t draw some inspiration to have in your armor for the next time you are ready to engage in a magical conversation.

Taking my cue, it is only fitting that I ask you a question inspired by one of the 36: What are three things you currently feel most grateful for?

Here are my three:

  • My son – Born on my birthday, he is the best gift I have ever received. As soon as I saw him coming out of Lari’s womb, I was in love (no need for any question). Love, magic, adventure, anxiety, worry, and all the wonders fatherhood brings I welcome and continue to enjoy in the endless adventure that is parenthood.
  • The people in my life – I am grateful for the special people in my life. I am grateful for a good network of friends. I am grateful for good colleagues. I am grateful for good neighbors. I am grateful for people that I rarely know but make a visit to the gym, the supermarket or other places I frequent, a joy.
  • My health – , I am grateful for my general good health. I am grateful to have the ability to do what I like – yoga, run, exercise, hike, etc. I am grateful that I don’t suffer from any underlining conditions.

Your turn.

December 7, 2021

#108 Coffee with John: Resilience

Get over it!

So you lost your mother when you were young, get over it. You broke up with your partner a year ago and you are still talking about it, get over it! You are not happy with your job and all you do is complain about it, get over it! You are angry because you didn’t get this or that, get over it! GET. OVER.IT!

Whatever the situation or difficult circumstances, my default attitude/motto was “get over it and move on.”This attitude served me well in dealing with loss and the inevitable moves, heartaches, new beginnings, and gain and losses that challenges all of us at some point in our lives

I mistook this as resilience. This Coffee with John meeting had me reexamine this guiding principle so central to my core. If we look at the definition of the word in an initial Google search, we come up with: “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.”

Strictly speaking, I was not mistaken in conflating “get over it” with resilience. But we need a more expansive definition, one that includes empathy, forgiveness, vulnerability, patience, joy, and compassion. We mistake neutrality, ignoring emotions, pushing people away, and closing our hearts with being tough.

On the contrary, toughness/resilience takes courage to sit with the uncomfortable, let go of anger, feel the emotions, face the hard conversations, ask for assistance, and open our hearts to kindness and love: as much as for yourselves and others experiencing some sort of calamity.

Don’t get me wrong though. What I can’t tolerate still is the victim mentality. I firmly believe losses, traumas, hardships, and challenges do not control us. We can take the reins. Instead of “get over it” let’s turn that into “how can this serve me and help my journey in becoming a better person for ourselves and those around us.” Make a loss a path for healing in a way that is compassionate.

While I can’t speak of how my coffee mate for CWJ#08 handles adversity, what I see as an outsider is an individual that has turned her life at various points, facing insurmountable hardships and challenges with laughter, humor, and fearless tenacity. She has overcome language barriers, bounced back and surpassed personal and family sagas, and started a new life in the United States after enjoying a successful naval career in her native Colombia. She continues forging ahead taking on new challenges and exploring new paths, including acting and modeling, with admirable grit.

We can all take inspiration from those around us on how they have internalized resilience.