I have been working at the coffee shop for a little more than three months now, so I'm beginning to get to know some of the regular customers.
Some I know by name, others by sight. There is one woman I know by the drink she always orders: a tall iced white chocolate mocha, with hazlenut, soy milk and light whip cream.
Today, I'd like to talk about one particular customer.
She is a woman I would judge to be in her early 50s, although she could be younger, perhaps much younger. A sunny disposition is worth more than a hundred botox treatments. And, by contrast, a sour countenance adds decades. Slim's Beauty Tip for That Youthful Look: Smile.
When I first began to recognize this unsmiling woman as a regular, she was often accompanied by two little girls, who I am guessing are anywhere from 4 to 6 years old. They are pretty little girls with long blonde hair, precocious and energetic.
I overhead the woman refer to them as "my kids,'' and was a little surprised. I initially thought they were her grandchildren.
The other thing I noticed about this woman, which I have already alluded to, was a consistent melancholy. Most customers are pleasant. You smile at them, they smile in return. One thing I can almost always do is make just about anybody smile. But I have yet to see this woman smile. My "good mornings" were greeted with a sort of a grunt. She seemed very weary to me, dejected, disappointed, defeated.
And her demeanor does not appear to be brightened by the presence of those two pretty little lively girls. They seem more of a burden than a joy, more of a responsibility than a blessing.
I find it a challenge to serve her with any enthusiasm, to be honest, not only because she is grumpy but also because she is the sort of customer that demands her drink to be made a certain impossible way.
Basically she wants a latte with a lot of foam and a lot of milk. Now, I am no student of physics, but when you order a grande' latte, the cup only holds 16 ounces. I have yet to master the art of getting 12 ounces of foam and 12 ounces of milk into a 16-ounce cup. It confounds my Mississippi math. So, if one of my co-workers is with me, I always let her make this woman's drink. In fact, my female co-workers know to do this without even waiting for me to give them the nod.
Now, my female co-workers do not have the ability to defy the laws of physics, either, but oddly enough, she seems satisfied with their efforts. She was never satisfied with mine. Maybe she just doesn't like men. Maybe there's a good reason for that. Like I said, I don't know much about this woman.
I mentioned the woman one day to one of my co-workers. To be honest, what I mentioned was what a pain on the be-hind I found this woman to be.
"Oh,'' my co-worker said dismissively. "She's just like that.''
She told me a few things about the woman that I didn't know. The little girls are, in fact, her granddaughters. She is raising them as her own. Apparently, the children's mother - this woman's daughter - is estranged from the family, for some unpleasant reason. I further gather that the woman is not married, that she is raising these little girls by herself.
I began to wonder about this woman's life, what it must be like. I wondered if she is deeply discouraged with the way things have worked out in her relationships, especially her relationship with her daughter and maybe even with her daughter's father, who isn't around as best I can tell. I wondered if she feels guilt over what has happened to her daughter. I wondered if she resents being left alone to raise two spirited young girls. I wondered if there are more bills than money at the month. I wondered if the challenges of raising two girls in today's world seem overwhelming. I wondered if she often thinks she have the strength to endure it sometimes.
And then, a week or so ago, she came into the coffee shop, ordered her latte and sat down at one of the tables.
And I was surprised by what she did next.
She pulled out a Bible and a book I judged to be some sort of study guide and began to read and take notes.
"She's a Christian,'' I thought and I was surprised.
But, really, I don't know what I was all that surprised about Truth is, there are a lot of beat-up, worn-down, joyless Christians out there. I know this based on one piece of indisputable evidence: I was one of them. And it is my continuing struggle, if I am honest with myself.
Because whatever qualities I find in that woman, when multiplied, I recognize are the characteristics of my own journey over the past couple of years. So as I write about this woman, I realize I am writing about myself, too.
Maybe the mirror God provides us is not the image we see in the glass, but in the faces we see on the other side of the counter.
I wrote a story in the Tribune a few years ago about a man named Mark Mugleston, who was dying of cancer. As the time grew shorter, Mark's enthusaism for life grew deeper. Faced with having lost his health and facing the prospects of leaving behind a wife and five children, I asked him how he could be so full of joy."The last freedom you have is your attitude,'' he explained.
And it is true.
God is showing me that life really is all about the attitude of our hearts. When I focus on myself and my circumstances, disappointment is sure to follow. After all, as Job said, "man is born to trouble as sparks fly upward.''
But when my focus turns to Christ, I see a beauty and a hope that is immune to the vagaries of human existence. And as I think about pleasing Christ, I am less concerned with pleasing myself. The misfortunes that have robbed me of my joy and my hope suddenly seem insignificant, boring even.
It probably would not surprise you to know that I have often prayed that God would change my circumstances. Instead, I find that he is changing me. That's what I love about God: He always seems to have a better idea.
I haven't seen this woman in a while.
But when I do, as my co-worker is making her drink, I intend to tell her this:
"What you are doing with those little girls? It is pleasing to God.''
I think maybe that's just the thing she needs to hear.
When we turn our eyes to God, maybe we begin to see that our burdens are really our blessings and our crosses are our crowns.