Perfect 10

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I grew up playing restaurant with my sisters behind our detached garage in Eugene, Oregon. We had a pretty legit set up; stovetop of camping wares, a play fridge that was fully stocked, even a drive up window on a brick retaining wall. We had note pads in our pockets, pencils behind our ears and aprons around our waist. We kind of loved that none of our silverware matched. Strawberries we snuck from mom’s patch found their way into salad bowls and every plate had garnish, even if it was a simple leaf from the apple tree. (We were yard to table back then.) We called ourselves L and L’s Luncheonette. With three sisters and three names beginning with an “L” you can imagine how tense pre-shift meetings were, one “L” always feeling left out. Our regulars were loyal, two in particular acted like they owned the place, because they did. Mom on occasion would let us use real sugar in our shakers and Dad never complained when his oatmeal looked a lot like sand with bark dust in it. We served a fragrant tea made from the mint leaves we found growing in the ivy and a red kettle with a hint of patina kept our coffee flowing. These messy, sticky, mint stained days are some of my most fragrant childhood memories. How could I have known that while bumping elbows and egos in a play kitchen with my sisters I was actually cutting my business teeth; I guess sometimes we don’t know when we are being taught.

June 5th marks the tenth year that Silk Espresso has been open for business. In that first drive thru behind that restaurant on Powell my wares were far from legit, the fridge was bare and I hated that none of my silverware matched. My regulars were few but loyal. I remember getting really excited when I would average more than two sales per hour. Some days the profits were only enough for a single sleeve of cups or one gallon of milk. Slowly two sales turned to twenty and then one location to four.

That’s when things really got messy.

There was the time the pipes froze and it started raining inside. The many windows that had to be replaced after bricks and rocks and thieves came through them. The time I had to go to court to protect a Silkling from the customer who had stopped taking his meds. The time I stood in front of all those suits sharing secrets to my success while fighting back tears because the real secret was my account was overdrawn. The time the water in the floor sink kept rising instead of draining. The time someone set a fire in the toilet. Leases that were too long and rests that were too short. Every time I trusted the wrong person twice. The first time I realized people I loved could steal from me.

For every mess there have been equal moments of awe.

My first dollar bill. The time Dax Shepard came through the door. My first hundred dollar day. The time Silk Espresso was mentioned in Roadside MBA. My first hundred dollar hour. The day I traded my seat on the board of directors for a seat at the supper table with my staff. The day Stumptown called. The last check I wrote on my business loan. The day I went from four back to one. Those times my articles appeared in magazines. The day I bought my Linea with cash. Every single day with my Silklings.

Standing behind this bar for ten years has inserted me into my community in a very raw way. I see them daily. Risk failing them daily. I’ve held the honor of celebrating life’s awes with them – births, homes, fresh jobs, good news, first loves. I’ve also worn the badge of getting down into the mess with them when life is barren – losses, failures, debts, scars, pieces, death. I’ve even failed, disappointed and lost a few of them. With each chime of these doors squalls of their secrets, joys, doubts, belly laughs and tears get all tangled up with mine.

Over the years Silk Espresso has risen from scarcity to plenty, from nothing to a brand I can never be left out of. I lean on a family of vendors who fill my heart and my cupboards with the sweetest things. I have neighbors that shoulder my messes and celebrate my awes. Garnish is applied liberally. My silverware finally all match. The key to this beautifully fragrant mess is in my pocket.

And I rub elbows daily with the six of the best decisions I have ever made.

It’s a perfect 10.

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Black Friday

 

 April 8th, 2005 – Three days after returning from my honeymoon, I was fired from a job I loved. I was a Marketing Manager for a local company, a job I knew my eight years of experience had earned me. It was my 28th day with them when: “We don’t think it’s working out.” No warning, no explanation; just pack your things and go; we don’t think you fit here. Every ounce of my flesh screamed foul play that I had been set up; fallen victim to a witch hunt.

The morning started off bright and cheery: I was having a good hair day, had time to pause over coffee and even scribed in my journal, something there was not typically time for before rushing out the door. And why wouldn’t I be cheery? How could I have known what was waiting in that poorly carpeted office that day? How could I have been prepared for words cased in bullets? Could I have kept my mouth from drying up or my voice from quaking? Could I have eased the crushing weight of an entire career fitting into a single white cardboard box?

Layoffs weren’t new to me. I had circled the drain with internet companies, been spit out of the corporate world and hopped on and off the marketing superhighway more times than would fit on a resume. This time though, the words pierced through and through: “You don’t fit here.” My grief was salty, hot and paralyzing. I relived every moment, analyzed every angle, polished off multiple bottles of Pepto. I shuffled through each day a recluse in pajamas, unable to believe that tomorrow existed or what it felt like to shower.

Between the tears, I was dutifully brushing up my resume. My husband challenged me to think back to a time when I was truly happy and what made that time special. My thoughts drifted back to college when I juggled an espresso job, college classes and a role on the women’s basketball team. I was quick to assess that while there are wonderful opportunities for women in professional basketball, my genetic disposition to shortness and a raging case of arthritis would prevent an extended career. It was the role of coffee in those college years that kept rising to my mind. Coffee was the one thing that had always been there. Through every life event, at every turn, in each new town, city or continent I always had a cup in hand and a favorite place to sit at the local cafe. Here at this crossroad, 31-years-old with no job and no prospects, newly married and dumbfounded by a slate that had been wiped too clean. I had no idea where to begin. I didn’t know a thing about running or starting a business. I was a marketing professional who couldn’t seem to make believers out of her employers. Some marketing sage, right? On days when I could muster myself out of bed, I began to take drives around town, squinting painfully at the daylight, latte in hand, yellow lab drooling out my car window. Still draped in pajamas and depression, we were searching for a sign – anything that would make sense of this travesty. I guess we were trying to find our way out of the spin and praying for a horizon, all while licking our wounds and surrounding ourselves with our favorite things. (Actually, I was the only one wound-licking, the dog thought this new lifestyle that caused me to be around all the time and in a lazy, snuggly mood was just swell.)

One day in early May 2005 my wagging sidekick and I happened upon a little drive thru espresso shack across town that was locked up tight at 9 in the morning. I knew enough about coffee to know that 9 a.m. should produce a line of cars five deep if the coffee’s any good. I parked in the nearby lot and headed inside to inquire about the boarded up shack. It didn’t look like much. In fact, it looked like a homeless person had broken in the back and was taking shelter at night. The waitress at the restaurant confirmed that her landlord indeed owned the dilapidated little building and shared his phone number.

I learned the landlord’s mother was the former proprietor. She had recently lost her battle with cancer and in the wake of her passing no one knew what to make of her little business, they boarded it up and shut off the power. There I was with time on my hands, wedding money in my account and a deep desire to get out of my own head. And there was the building, needing life breathed into it, desperate for a makeover, waiting patiently for its next owner to come along. Four weeks, three workers, two painters and one signed contract later, Silk Espresso opened for business at the back of a hidden parking lot in Gresham, Oregon The night before opening day, my husband turned to me after all the labor and sweat saying, “I sure hope you can make a good cup of coffee.” I can do this, I assured him. I have to.

I installed a vintage Milton gas station signal with an air hose attached to its bell at the shop. There were so few visitors in those early days that when a tire would cross the black hose and ring the patina on that big old bell, I’d have to peel myself off the ceiling. I repurposed the leather Franklin planner I had once used in my professional life to keep my appointments as a place to jot down the daily sales. The numbers on those pages looked less like sales reports and more like my checking account balance from college, with so few digits to the left of the decimal point. I used the contents of my tip jar each day to buy the most urgent items, like one bottle of vanilla syrup or a single sleeve of paper cups. I cleaned obsessively, rearranged what wasn’t nailed down constantly. I read piles and piles of books, often in one sitting. It was hard work, beautifully hard work.

I began to love my 4 a.m. mornings. I loved the fast, quiet commute in the dark with not a car in sight. I loved the smell of the first grind at first light. I loved leaning out my shop window with a full porcelain mug in my hand and a gorgeous sun on the rise. At that hour of the morning the world appears untouched and pure, washed clean by the cool night air. With each morning spent at my new little hide-a-way the horizon I had prayed for seemed to level off a bit.

In January 2008, four years after I served my first cup of coffee at the back of that little parking lot, I opened a 1,200 square foot Silk Café in Gresham. When I first learned that this particular location was for sale, I argued that taking a risk wouldn’t be financially responsible at the time. I had almost completely dismissed the idea.

An evening drive took me past the corner of Hogan and Stark, where my view from the street was of a rowdy crowd loitering, nearly preventing access to the café. Sandwiched between a liquor store and a laundry mat in a strip mall, the corner had a long history in the community. Rumors of money missing, fist fights, frequent graffiti and alleged drug use swirled around town. My heart sank under the disconnect between this corner and my brand. “I’m too small,” I said out loud to the car stereo. “This isn’t for me.” I had nearly convinced myself what a strong, safe decision postponing this growth would be, when my foot slipped and hit the brake unexpectedly, lurching me forward and causing the car behind me to swerve. I realized then the conversation was not over.

I contacted the seller reluctantly and began my investigative search for anything that might be a “deal-breaker.” When the loan amount came in less than our suggested offer price, I thought, “Ah-ha! See, it’s not meant to be.” But, then an old friend called out of the blue to reconnect. “I’m in Oregon” the globetrotter announced, “I’d love to catch up.” This is the same friend, Bernie, who convinced me to move to Arizona to work for his dot-com ten years prior. Since Arizona, we had shared a mutual respect for each other, though visits were few and far between. After the nickel tour of Gresham and casual breakfast at a local diner Bernie and I hugged and promised to keep in better touch. I figured it would be another ten years before our paths would cross in person again.

That evening, an email arrived in my inbox. Bernie asked me if he could donate $5,000 to the next step in my business, whatever that may be. He wanted to know if that made any sense to me. I called his cell phone immediately (crying like a sleep starved baby) and told him how I was exactly $5,000 short in a new business venture that I was tiptoeing around. Bernie’s offer anchored that I was meant to buy this café.

In 1999, when I moved my life to Arizona it was solely because this charismatic man got me excited about his internet adventure. The ride was short lived, and as easy as it would have been to harbor bitterness or cut Bernie out of my life, I didn’t. With time I was able to see him, the passionate man behind the big ideas. He was the one who drew something out of me I didn’t know was there. His belief in me held far more value than a guaranteed paycheck or title on a business card. The connection with him was the gift; choosing the person over the provision. How could I have known a decade prior in the desert that he would become my angel donor? Bernie once told me that he was my safety net. Permission to risk is something every ear aches to hear. Go ahead, reach. Conjure up something larger than life in your mind’s eye. It’s ok. Someone has your back. Someone believes in you.

With the largest cashier’s check I’ve ever held in hand, I proceeded with the purchase of the café. Within days I was holding the keys. Wonders arrive easily and swiftly when you’re where you are meant to be. With the help of many we set up shop: anointing doors with smiles and warmth, covering graffiti wounds with murals, filling what was empty, letting love in.

After my abrupt exodus from the corporate world I was forced to swallow one incredibly large pill: the possibility that maybe try as I might, I really didn’t fit. Maybe despite all the pin-striped suits, A-line skirts and power heels, it was the other side of my closet that was more powerful; the side with the bleach-stained denim, rolled up sleeves and ponytails. Perhaps I was meant for more in this life than boardrooms and marketing presentations.

Today when people ask me what I do for a living, I say I make coffee and friends. I show up daily. That’s my job now. By coming through these doors every day I believe that love is released here, so I keep showing up. Even when upgrades are late, even when the pages of my story are slow to turn I am here; as long as it takes, until this story no longer needs me.

If you ask, I’ll talk about how far we’ve come as a company and how this is the hardest yet most fulfilling work I’ve ever done. I might share with you how over the years we sacrificed three of our smaller shops including the original drive thru at the back of that little parking lot. My Silklings might tell you that many of us cried that day, including me, when where it all began gave way to what is yet to come, where loss came before the possibility of gain.

Looking back, I’m so thankful that at age five, my grandmother slipped me my first little sip of my future. I’m thankful that in my 30s the picturesque life I envisioned shattered around me. I’m thankful that the desert money dried up and the mean lady in the poorly carpeted office sent me home. I am so thankful for April 8, 2005, even though it is still so hard to say without tears. I am thankful for the scar one very Black Friday brought to my life. I see now that what once was a painful, embarrassing blemish on my life is now a mark of pride, a permanent reminder of a life stained with grace.

I believe if we show up with what we have, small as it may seem, small as we may feel, it will always be enough. If we put relationships first, choosing the person over the payoff, we give our stories permission to unfold. If we root for the highest possible good in each other we make room for unexpected endings. If we take a page from the good book, showing up every day, breaking bread, eating, drinking and reclining together, with open palms and expectant hearts, lives can be forever changed.

Mine is.

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Open Hand

At 4:30 a.m. my severely tone-deaf clock radio reminds me that I am employed. I scamper from my tiered bunk to the cold floor, noting that my bed has eaten my socks once again. Too early for lights, I dress, pack books and fumble for keys in the dark. A cold car and an empty coffee shop are waiting for me to awaken. By 5:30 a.m. shots of espresso are distributed, like Gatorade cups along a marathon, to the steady stream of coffee junkies who pass by; arms stretched out, money waving, each needing their morning fix. The sun is slowly sitting up on the horizon with an animated stretch and I am already spinning in my caffeine-soaked routine.

By 10 a.m. sharp, the hunt for campus parking is on. I ditch the car and am now on foot. Classes follow, pieced so carefully together that each minute is sacred. The peanut butter and banana sandwich in my pocket helps keep the urge to nod off at bay, even during the endless hours of lecture. Three o’clock sneaks up on me and I’m in a race against Coach Hill’s watch. Dressed, taped and stretched for practice by 3:30 p.m. was the law and no one dared break it. Frantically pulling on practice gear and lacing up high tops, I scoot sock-footed through the basement of Gill Coliseum. I arrive in a heap, already sweating, to the training room where my ankles are taped into little white mummies. A final dash up the musty stairwell to the court, I devour a Power Bar, almost without chewing. The last quiet moments of the stretching circle give way to a flurry of whistles as the coaches make their grand entrance. Moments later, the dreaded “four-step” drill commences.

I am a walk-on. Barely over five feet tall with only a small high school team on my resume, I was unable to shake the dream of playing Division 1 basketball. As a walk-on I am present at every team meeting, practice, weights and film session by choice, under my own provision; surviving only on the burning desire to be there. The reversible jersey and playbook were free. The early morning job, weight sessions, school work and team dinners comes at a huge price: my time, and there is so little of it. My life and the pace I keep is one click above crazy.

I stepped onto the Oregon State campus in the fall of 1992, behind the eighth ranked women’s basketball recruiting class in the nation. It was apparent before the programs were printed that I would be hard to find in this haystack of talent. I had dreamed when I was younger that one day I’d become the scrappy point guard who handed the starting five their best look at the Pac-10 rival offenses. Turns out, the only thing I might hope to be handing out this season are little green Gatorade cups. All around me stand these prize thoroughbreds on their red carpet, coaches scrambling at their feet to fill their oat bags to brimming with free textbooks, room and board checks and shoes, lots of shoes. I have to do more before 11 a.m. than any other person on this team does all day just to stay enrolled in school and keep myself afloat. The stallions around me seem to find ways to complain about the golden carrots in their oat bag. I long to have an oat bag; even an empty oat bag would be reward enough in my mind. My heart is heavy with envy and disbelief at how easily opportunity gives way to entitlement.

I am summoned to Coach Hill’s office often. Her four foot eleven inch Asian frame is so out of place against the shelves and shelves of basketball paraphernalia. A native of Japan, Aki Hill came to America three decades prior, though her English suggests her visa stamp is still wet. She learned to coach under the direction of John Wooden, a qualification in the basketball world which is the equivalent of listing God as a reference on your resume.

As a child I watched her in action on television and at live games. She stood along the sideline, arms crossed carefully so as not to disturb her perfectly coordinated corsage; the players, the officials, even the cheerleaders towered over her. With a little imagination, I pictured her being raised among a family of lions, quickly becoming the commanding presence of the pride, the natural leader of the pack. In these meetings at her office, sitting across from someone so powerful and yet pocket-sized, I often found it hard to concentrate. Aki’s quiet confidence could be so intimidating. Something about looking directly into her eyes made me vow to abstain from sleep and begin all night push-up vigils. From time to time, her broken English made her seem mortal. Her speech was frequently peppered with a brand new word or phrase. We called these Aki-isms referring to her knack for almost using the right slang, but not quite. There was the one practice when we couldn’t seem to do anything right, (truly, it only happened once) and her shrill voice broke through angrily, “Why joo run like chicken-heads?” It was close enough for us to know she was sick of watching us play like chickens with our heads cut off; but the hilarity of her delivery sentenced us to running lines.

Aki called me in to face her often. You could have scripted these meetings. She’d open with her usual concerns. How I am missing college life by chasing this dream. How I will probably never play a single minute. How she cannot red shirt me with so many strong high school recruits coming in the next season. She actually, on one occasion, begged me to give up, to focus on school and social life, suggested perhaps I go out for the crew team. It translated to: face it you’re not going to be an OSU basketball player. Each time my posture was the same, I’d smile like a little lamb, listen and half-bow while pledging to work harder and promising to get my grades up. But in my heart I stood defiant, Peter Pan-like: arms folded tightly across my chest, shoulders lifted, feet entrenched in the carpet. I certainly am not going anywhere. Sure something must give, but it’s not going to be my dream. Doesn’t she know I’m Irish?

I keep showing up to practice, sometimes unsure if I am welcome there. I keep slinging coffee in the mornings and cranking out English papers in the evenings. Try-outs before my sophomore year come around and I’m enlisted again, a walk-on for the second year in a row. I am back to square one on the basketball court as a few new prize ponies have been brought to the fold. I’m pretty sure I can detect the smell of coffee leaking from my pores during practices. I am as bruised as forgotten produce and quite frequently missing toe nails. My housemates find me sleeping in strange places around our home, like someone with a case of narcolepsy. I believe unswervingly that I want to play basketball more than anyone else in this program, quite possibly more than anyone else who ever lived. My ears itch to be called into drills, to be noticed. I am more than a starving college student; I am hungry to taste my dreams.

Christmas break arrives mercifully. The team packs goose-down coats and jets to Michigan for a tournament. I head home to Eugene, to be with my family and to wash my jersey. One evening my Dad returns from the video store, a stack of plastic video cases under his arm. One of the movies is simply titled, Rudy. According to the tape jacket, this is a true story of a young man from Illinois who willingly fought overwhelming odds to realize his dream of becoming a Notre Dame football player. As the story unfolds on our wood paneled television (the one with the remote the size of the laptop computer) I find myself leaning forward on the edge of our deep blue couch. My hands folded in front of me, my body prone forward, as if I am interceding on Rudy’s behalf, willing his dream to come to fruition. As I drift off to sleep that night, Rudy’s voice hangs in the air above my pillow, “Is there any more I can do?” I listen hard for an answer to that very question, but a response doesn’t come. But as surely as the sun rises, the next day a fight arises in me. I awake to the familiar pang of my dream in my belly. One more time, the bags, the clean practice jersey and the smelly shoes make the trek up Interstate 5, back to Corvallis, back in the saddle. I walk on to Ralph Miller Court only to find my teammates huddled together, stretching in a circle, swapping stories. They have pictures, souvenirs and battle cries. I feel like cling wrap, flimsy and transparent.

The rest of that season brings more of the same. I am still handing out towels at practice and filling teammates’ water bottles, still running ragged trying to keep pace with my life. Somehow lately the snorts of the stallions at the watering trough don’t smart as much. Perhaps I have grown an extra layer of skin. Perhaps my coffee intake has finally escalated to a level where I can no longer feel anything at all. Testing this theory I poke at a fresh bruise; nope, definitely felt that. But something is clearly different. I begin to suspect that by placing my teams’ needs above my own I might play an important role. I find myself smiling at requests that used to seem petty. I no longer harumph and sigh at a request for water or a towel. I am beginning to see myself surrounded by self-serving athletes and championship hungry coaches, these raw humans each hungry in their own way. Perhaps I am not against them. Perhaps I am for them? Could it be that I am a gift, an offering to be poured out into little green Gatorade cups? I am hanging on by my well-chewed fingernails to the hope that what I do in the shadows for this team matters. Mine is a humble attempt to communicate only with my hands. All the while hoping that in the grand scheme of things, nothing gets overlooked. A healthy dose of tolerance comes like a shot in the arm; tolerance for my teammates, for my coaches, for my roommates, and even my pitchy alarm clock and sock-sucking bed.

Parallels to edify my new role begin to pop up everywhere. Stories of David from the Bible seem to be around every corner. Dave was a shepherd; which, for the record, is a position just a sliver above dirt on the Biblical totem pole. Though it is this lowly dirt dweller in whom God placed unmatched favor. Like David, I’m still underestimated often. I’m still considered last in line for an upgrade. But somewhere, breaking through the cobwebs in my feeler, there is a spark, a nudge, a fresh energy. A hunger to do more than just water my teammates; to perhaps even pray for them.

On a rainy Corvallis weekend in January, while my teammates are in California battling powerhouses Stanford and Cal, the nudge leads me through the basement of the coliseum to the outer door of our locker room. My key in the lock pings an echo through the long, dank hallway. Eager to go where the nudge leads I enter the musty sanctum. The smell from the newly installed carpet is fruitless at concealing that wet towels, old shoes and athletic ointment lie nearby. This smell is home to me, it is the scent of many dreams and countless hours of my childhood. In a dimly lit corner, I sit in front of the first in a long line of foot lockers. The name above the mirror belongs to the one girl who knows me best. Her nickname, and we all had one or two of them, was “Mamma-McGrew,” for her nurturing nature, her ability to scold us into shape as only a good southern mamma could, and on account of her knees having gone into retirement long before her eligibility expired. Mamma-McGrew was rarely seen without large ice bags or heating pads strapped to her badly swollen knees. Her breathless drawl of “Help me, Jesus!” and “Lawrd, have mercy!” were as much the soundtrack of our grueling practices as Coach Hill’s sharp whistle. There, in front of her picture and spare ankle braces, I begin to think about how thankful I am for her. I pray for her health, safety and success. I pray that her heart be encouraged, her mind be steadfast and her Ibuprofen bottle overflowing. It feels like bleeding water from a fire hose. It can be so effortless to pray for someone I love.

The nudge is not satisfied. “What’s this?” I feel the urge to move closer to the stools of those teammates who mock me, bully me and flat out terrify me. I quickly sidestep and busy myself praying my way through the roster, hoping to drown out the nudge and its earlier request. I scoot myself on my knees all the way around that locker room, dodging the two stools that seem to taunt me even without a six foot tall woman seated on them. I nearly escape, but no, I know I am to go before the lockers of those who seem intent on keeping me down, those hardest for me to love. I am to place myself before them with open hands and open heart. I step in front of the first adversary, ever so careful not to touch anything or leave any hard evidence that I’ve been so near. The words push and shove at each other unwilling to walk my tongue’s plank. “There are no words,” I sigh at my defeat, “…well, no nice ones at least.” (God knows I make jokes when I’m nervous.) My choppy attempts at prayer melt into a helpless, needy run-on sentence. I am raising a small white flag of weakness, desperately seeking the words I cannot seem to find. Fearing I may never leave this locker room, I hoist my little white flag high above my hanging head, and I wait. This is what I’m learning prayer is all about: admitting, without shame, where you need help when you need it. Prayer is that little set of training wheels for my spiritual bike so I can spend less time stubbing my face on the pavement and more time taking in the ride.

Deep inside of my heart, I spy some sore spots, steaming hot with bitterness. “Psst,” I say to the nudge, “over here!” (that’s so very me to think the universe needs help locating my ugly spots, as if they’d gone unnoticed until I so graciously drew attention to them.) In silence, I stare down at the hissing cysts. Amazed at how it got this deep. Then, the same healing hands from whose side blood and water flowed, reach down and spread a loving salve across the sores of my heart. A sound no louder than a whisper hints at how in my rash pursuit of my dream I somehow missed the call on my life. I am suddenly mindful that those steamy flesh wounds exist only because somewhere, deep in my uglies, I still believed that my dream, my way would fulfill me. When in truth, only one dream, one call on my life will suit me perfectly. Hope be spared, I don’t have to give up my desire to compete at this level; I don’t have to settle for joining the crew team. I do need to open my hands though, and loosen the death grip I have on my desires; to lift my dreams on my outstretched palms and resist the urge to clasp my hands around them every time the ride gets a little bumpy.

My stutter is miraculously healed, the white flag falls to the floor and the words finally come: obedient, humble, penitent words flow for the last two teammates. Feeling like I’ve just played 40 minutes without rest, I rise to leave. Past the hum of the boiler room, I ascend out of the belly of the building and emerge to an empty parking lot. Escorting me to my car, the nudge whispers in my ear, “I love them just as much as I love you. Show them.”

Weeks pass and not much has changed on the surface. I have not dropped a single ounce of sweat on competition’s floor. I’m still hanging out at the bottom of the heap, looking for new and fashionable ways to incorporate ace bandages into my wardrobe. From the outside it is barely detectable that deep within change is ablaze. I begin reaching out to my teammates, all of them, a whole-hearted attempt to see the woman behind each uniform. I have a car and more often than not it is willing to start up and go places enlisting me as a little red taxi for my team. I am slyly planting little seeds of love into each one of my fares as we ferry about our busy lives. I am invited to travel with the squad every now and again. Away from our lives in Corvallis, my team appears before me as real people with cares, dreams, fears and insecurities of their own.

I have been stretched, exposed and forced to see the self-centered, self-serving individual that I can so quickly slip into if left to my own devices. I enter my junior year with a feeling that I am exactly where I need to be, red carpet or not. I am sharing locker room mantras and opening little white per diem envelopes. I sign my name with great precision on game programs for the little seven-year-old girls who shyly hang around the player’s bench. Feeling like the velveteen rabbit, on the brink of becoming a real bunny, I can see the budding tip of my team’s respect breaking through. I barely know it, but I have a small fan club forming in our locker room.

1995: I try out and make the team, again. My position is walk-on, again. The 4:30 a.m. mornings make me think crows are stomping their twiggy feet around my eyes while I sleep. As a junior, I get into a few games. I see a minute or two of playing time here or there. Like kerosene on a Hibachi, the hunger to play intensifies each time. Here I was stripped of any desire for the spotlight and yet the photographer for the local sports column seemed to snap photos of me left and right. I’d awake some mornings to my face on the sports page and I found myself embarrassed. The old Leah would have felt justified and finally vindicated, but not this time. I was in awe, stunned that out of 40 minutes of basketball, of which I played such a small, sometimes only 30-second frame, my moment was the one captured in print. When you realize that you are strategically placed somewhere, to walk a certain path for just that exact moment in time, suddenly it doesn’t matter whether anyone sees you or whether anyone is looking.

Junior year whisks by, each calendar page ripping off the seam faster than the one before. The weeks seem to disappear and yet the days can feel infinitely long. On a day no different than any other, February 12, the cheap plastic phone in my room rings and Aki’s broken English pours through the receiver, “Reah, you come meet today, trhee o’crock? Berry important, okay?” I hang up with a sigh, “Here we go again.” I arrive at her office only to find the stoic face of our Athletic Director, Dutch Baughman, staring back from behind the desk.

“Oh boy,” I shudder to myself. “She’s serious now; she’s got back up. Well, I can’t blame her too much. I am my father’s daughter, proud and persistent. She means well and honestly my grades really could be better if only I could get some sleep. My heels are set, I’m not letting go of this one, not yet. I cannot, my hunger is too deep. Wait a tick. This doesn’t seem to be about me quitting the team. Pardon me? What is that? Why are you asking me to sign this piece of paper? What is this…?”

When my mind finally catches up with their lips, I see that instead of walking papers in my hand, they’ve actually handed me a contract awarding me my very own full-ride athletic scholarship. The girl with hands clenched “ready to try harder” fainted and my disbelieving limbs fell to rest on Aki’s tiny shoulders. This hug sets three years of tears free to fall. In the midst of my heaving, I am thanked for my efforts these past years (You saw that?). I am praised for being the truest team player (I’m valuable?). I am informed that my education will be funded for as long as it takes me to complete my degree, even past my eligibility (Okay, where’s the hidden camera?). Oh, and by the way, NCAA regulations will not let me keep my job, so I have to quit getting up at 4:30 a.m. immediately (Sorry, Paul). My knees go gummy inside. I feel myself shrinking beneath this great goodness until I’m face to my thighs on that black vinyl couch. Sitting there, knee-less, hearing from the mouths of those who once doubted me praises of the role I have played. It was an awakening; like coffee after toothpaste was this tart validation. An unexpected twist, a crazy blessing.

How true is the saying, “A reward gained quickly at the beginning will not be a blessing in the end,”? This scholarship meant so much more to me when it no longer represented something I thought I had earned or deserved. It didn’t come fast and furious on a red carpet my freshman year with flashbulbs and fanfare. It came in time. How much more was this brimming oat bag worth when I finally saw it for what it really was; an appointment to a role I didn’t know I was born to play. My God, like Grinch’s heart on Christmas, grew three sizes that day.

Today whenever I feel my hands closing tightly, grasping for control, and my skin feels too tight for my body, desperate to keep things from getting messy, I remember this chapter of my life. I remember how releasing the choke hold on my dreams left these hands free to serve. I see now that an open hand is where all beautiful stories begin. Years later, the nudge is still here, still whispering, hands open, sweetie, palms up. Dreams need a proper place to land.

Open Hand

June 10, 2014

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I turned 40 today and God love ya so many of you made today special. Today was also pretty messy as our little zip code went national for a pretty alarming reason. There was a shooting at Reynolds High School just up the road from my cafe.

The annual birthday cake from my mother-in-law laid in wait on the café counter this morning but we never got to the candles and wishes. As the events up the road progressed, I sliced and shared the cake and the cupcakes and whatever sweet things were within reach with those gathered in my space. As folks tried to digest the news we went about filling cups and bellies and hearts. The usual banter and joyful chatter were missing but I believe love was on the scene, the love that sneaks in when you fill what is empty. My gifts arrived on tweets and texts and posts; kids were safe, devoted officers in control, staff out, families reunited.

I can’t get my head around these tragedies or the symptoms of the illness they expose or the right or wrong way to go about making ours the last one. But I do know that today in my little corner of the world we stuck to what we know works. We loved on our neighbors. Looked into teary eyes. Filled empty cups. Fed sorrowful bellies. Gave hugs liberally. Listened with our whole hearts.

I’m forty now and I’m in to taking risks, call it a mid-life crisis. I’m willing to risk that by outing my birthday wish sans candles and cake it might not come true. I think on a day like today wishing with all our might is key. Today, MY WISH is that we stick to what we know works.

That we fill what is empty. That we let love in.

Coffee Always Tells a Beautiful Story

Coffee Always Tells a Beautiful Story

When I first started my business in 2005 it was with $500 in one hand and a layoff notice from my fancy Portland marketing job in the other. I gave it the name Silk Espresso to set the expectation for how I believed a good cup of coffee should finish.

My first sip of coffee was with my Gramma Dorothy (yes, I meant to spell Grandma with a double “m” – I’ll tell you that story another time.) I was five. It’s one of my earliest memories, nestled into a corner booth at a local restaurant, her offering a taste. From that day forward, with each new chapter, adventure, vocation or zip code coffee has always been there.

Now that I own my own shop I’m mindful of how important that first sip was in shaping my space. When I think back to that day, sitting across from Gramma, watching her sip her coffee ever so slowly; there was an ease in that moment. This is the ease I am trying to re-create here every day.

Gramma passed last fall. In her memory there is a coffee seedling and a rosetta tattooed on my right arm. The arm that used to carry lattes through my harried life now carries her. It reminds me daily of her heart and how she lived to give to others around her. I made sure the tattoo was on my right arm, the arm I serve with, so I always remember why I’m here. She reminds me daily that from seed, to bean, to cup coffee is about relationship. From cherry picked half a world away to a roasters’ cupping table to a sip offered from a loved one’s hand coffee always tells a beautiful story.

The Living Room Effect

Fresh Cup Magazine

“May all who enter as guests, leave as friends.” 

This quote is etched on a wall that greets my staff as they arrive to work.  My desire from the beginning was to foster a culture between these walls that has the feel of your favorite living room.   As I look back over the last eight years there are many ways the culture here is unique but four of them are key.  Coaching, Communication, Character and Care make up what I call our living room effect. 

Coaching   

At the core of our culture is our development program.  Silk is fortunate to be a wholesale retailer for Stumptown Coffee Roasters.  My employees are asked to complete six courses with a trainer at Stumptown headquarters during their first year with us.  When they successfully complete the program a custom Reg Barber tamper is theirs to keep.  This program exposes my staff to some of the most knowledgeable trainers in this industry.  Most come away from the program with a greater passion for this industry and a better understanding of their place in it.  Like any great coach, our development program motivates our baristas to keep learning even through mistakes and to challenge themselves daily with new skills.

Communication

 Owners, I know I’m not alone here, we often assume that the ship runs better with us at the helm.  I have found out that not only is this false but sometimes by making myself the only portal for communication I am in the way more often than I am helping.  I’m very hands on with my business and I am guilty of spending a lot of time here.  Even though I come through these doors every day the truth of the matter is that I don’t have to.  I’ve learned that by communicating well in two areas I can step away from my cafe and watch it thrive. 

I use an old-school clipboard around here to keep the daily ebb of goods and commerce on track.   It has a flow chart with chores, deliveries, payments and activities for each day.  Everything is color coded, for example if the activity is green, the delivery is COD and the driver will expect cash from the till.  Orange means terms and the payment will be mailed.  Blue means there’s a check cut and waiting.  Chores are divided by shifts.  The goal is to communicate so well that surprises are rare.  Also on this clipboard is an inventory sheet with average pars (minimums) listed for every item we use in a week.  Ordering should never be a mystery.  Even the shopping list for the local grocery store is typed up according to the floor plan of the store, each column lists the items in that aisle in the order the they appear on the shelves starting at the left of the store and working to the right.  My well-worn clipboard ensures that should I fall off the face the earth tomorrow my people are still set up to succeed.   

Thanks to the digital age, communication is made even easier.  In the last two years I have taken our cash register, timesheets, communication log, punch cards, coupons, loyalty program and all of our marketing completely digital.  This has saved me heaps of money.  It has also saved me time (my favorite currency) and has streamlined my branding efforts.  My brand is no longer lost in the noisy traffic of coupon and web-based marketing.  Smart phones and digital marketing means my business is at my fingertips and my brand is never far from the palm of my customers hands.  Some apps that we swear by for iOS devices include Clocca, CloudOn, Square Payment, Square Register, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Paperless Punchcard.    

Streamlined communication means that work becomes less about the work and more about the people.  Minimizing surprises and mystery in the business brings an ease to the workplace and allows the focus to be on serving well.  This is the living room effect.  Communicating well also means that as an owner I can stay connected to my business and fully support my people but my presence is not required.

Character     

Recently I was asked how I always seem to find devoted and vested employees.   I will honestly tell you there is no secret formula.  My hand to God I hire on a gut feeling; a hunch.  I do not have a long list of requirements or interview questions for new hires.  I show up to interviews aware that my only job is to listen.  I’m listening for a certain quality, a sense of character.  My heart is able to spot a humble, kind, coachable soul in the first few minutes and so, as reckless as it may seem, my heart does all the hiring around here. 

I once walked up to a girl studying in my café and asked if I could hire her.  I had been watching her interact here for months.  If ever there was someone born with the DNA for this industry, it was this girl.  By DNA I mean she was a disciplined, nurturing and aware human; the same three qualities found in all my best hires.  My heart told me she belonged here, coffee resume or not.  “This might sound crazy,” I said as I cleared her plate, “but would be interested in a job here?”  She giggled and shared a little about her coffee experience.  Later that week Jenny said yes to the Silk family.  Today, nearly five years later, she is still with us; a leader in all of our eyes.  As her college years draw to a close she is preparing to move on but not before she leaves her mark on the rest of the crew.  She is an encouragement to her team and genuinely cares about their experience here.  She guides gently and gives praise liberally.  She communicates honestly and often.  She lets on when something is not working well and brings ideas on how to make it better.   The best testament to her character though happened last Thanksgiving when one barista volunteered to work simply because Jenny would be home from school and working meant getting to be near her.  This is the living room effect.  Disciplined, nurturing and aware humans are a magnet for great character; the very thing my heart is pining for in a new hire.

Care

Like you, we care about presenting a great product, a brand that is memorable and hospitality of the highest echelon.  Still the living room effect requires that our care extend much further.  We need to care about what brings each customer to our café and genuinely seek to get to know them.  We should care about our suppliers and labor to treat them in the manner we desire to be treated.  We care about fresh flowers on the tables and sugar dispensers that aren’t sticky.  We are mindful that walls need touch up paint and chair rails need dusting and baseboards need scrubbing.  We care about local art on the walls and seasonal merchandise on the shelves and freshly washed windows to let the light in.  We care about not being wasteful and taking good messages and a restroom that is clean and well stocked. 

My staff takes excellent care of each other too.  They are respectful of each other’s time and they honor commitments. They set each other up to succeed and always leave their work space better than they found it.  They spend time at shift change passing information and easing the next person into their shift.  I do not teach them to do these things and it amazes me how often they try to out-do each other with good deeds and little kindnesses.   This level of care comes from the living room effect.   

Recently while thumbing through employee files, I took special note that many of the baristas I have hired have remained close even after moving on.  Two are mothers now and instead of dialing in espresso they meet for play-dates at the park.  Two moved to the city together to start their adventure as roommates.  The science major and the pastry enthusiast found common ground in dinosaurs and though they live in separate states now they still meet for coffee when they can.  Many trust each other with their house keys and pets and babies.  My café, like any good living room, turns strangers into friends.    

These days I see myself as more than a purveyor of coffee but rather a purveyor of space.  Between these walls, coaching, communicating, character and care are more than ideals; they are paramount.  Here our worth is not measured by profits and pennies but rather by the people.  Sending friends who were once strangers out into the world with their pockets full of all they learned here happens to be my new favorite commodity.  And business is very good.         

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dorothy’s Way

Grandma Dorothy had been keeping the life alert folks busy this summer. (Falls, a kitchen fire, hospital scares.) With every call to check in on her came the memories of all the ways she showed up in my life. Every memory I have from my basketball career has her seated right behind the bench cheering; always with a fabulous manicure and that voice, that distinctive voice that could be heard even in the noisiest of gyms. At the thought of losing my cheerleader it was clear I wasn’t ready. No one is ever ready to lose their number one fan.

When we arrived at the hospital on the morning of September 4th Grandma’s chart had only one thing written on it, Under Today’s Goal: we found just one handwritten word….”Comfort”
The Dr’s mouths said things like ‘mere hours’ and ‘unhook everything’ and ‘kidneys failing’. Two hours passed. Then four. She laid motionless. We spoke love and presence and scripture over her though she seemed to slip just beneath it all, unaware.

That is until 5 pm.

With a flutter of her beautiful blue grey eyes she began to stir and started asking for things, no demanding. Eyes wiped; she needed to see. Bed lifted; she wanted to sit up. Teeth. She needed her teeth. Ice chips; so thirsty. Food; she hadn’t eaten for days. As we rushed about looking for nurses and spoons and teeth; Grandma called out names of everyone she saw. Sharp as a tack. She wanted stories told. She asked if her hair and makeup were okay. She asked if this was a reunion we were having. More ice. More applesauce. More stories. She laughed twice; so hard we all stopped breathing briefly too. She stared deep into the eyes of the third and fourth generations. She teased those of us we always tease (mostly Pat, sorry Dad.) She asked if we knew the heaven dream, the one with the beautiful horses but her voice trailed off; she couldn’t remember the rest.

Then came the singing, at the sound of her favorite song, Supper Time, sung by her grandson Jeff, an astonished room watched her close her eyes and sway and sing along with every word. The Dr’s weren’t wrong. The sun was still setting on this woman, our citadel. The word of the day was still Comfort…little did we know it was her comforting us.

Grandma left a few short days later. For thirty years she played this great game of life without Grandpa Mark which I find remarkable considering she never signed on to deal with all of us alone. I hope that hug with Grandpa was better than ever she dreamt of. I hope she’s is hovering over long meals laughing and catching up with her soldier all the while keeping a mindful eye on all of us.

There’s no denying Dorothy Eleanor had a way about her. Dorothy means gift of God and Eleanor means light and she was both a gift and a light to all of us.

She used to mark me with her bright, wet kisses, always in the latest shade.

She once mortified me by dancing to the front of youth group during worship and the twist so hard that her necklace broke and spilled beads all over the floor. She danced right out of her necklace. Everyone belly laughed including Grandma and the Pastor and while I died a little inside from embarrassment Grandma was quietly teaching me not to care so much about what other people think.

She wrote me long letters on yellow Weyerhaeuser paper filled with compliments in her distinctive cursive.

She always had tic tacs and laughs and time for me.

She had a button for every occasion. In college, when my playing time was much less than those high school games, she still wore no less than three buttons with my face on them to every home game. On senior night she gave one of those buttons to my roommate. Much to my delight and surprise, after sixteen years, that same roommate and button found their way back to me like a little magic Grandma hug.

Even her bumper sticker said it all: ‘Pray for what you want. Work for what you need.”

That was Dorothy’s Way.

To shamelessly mark our loved ones with bright red kisses.

To get up in front of strangers and dance until we make a scene.

To belly laugh often. Mostly at ourselves.

To say yes to a sliver of dessert because, as Grandma always said, fat hides wrinkles.

To buy cards for people and then double underline like 18 of the 20 words in the card because we really mean every single one of them.

To bring grit and cheer and sass to every situation.

To show up in the lives of those we love and never grow weary of cheering.

I believe Grandma is still watching over us, her favorite players. I believe she’s still in the front row of our lives, just as I remember her, leaning into the action, cheering loudly.

That was Dorothy’s way. And now it’s ours.

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