Posted by: MC | February 22, 2009

Coffee Klatch as Foretold by Mayme

A hill in Searcy County, AR

Over the past month, I have listened to people in pre-arranged interviews and impromptu conversations. Both ways of meeting and talking have revealed American insights and wisdom richer than I could have imagined. Of the second kind – the impromptu chats – a good number have taken place in coffee shops. 

[True confession: I’ve officially given up giving up coffee until I’m off the road and back home again. Anyway, could it really qualify as a full blown American road trip without coffee? (…This question, a pedantic but historically rooted excuse that might inspire smoky images of cowhands around the morning fire readying again to hit the trail). But, back to coffee talk.] 

On January 29 in a coffee shop in Portland, OR Nick, a working class black man told me to make sure to get the voices of the working people. He said “Exchange is like this. It’s Ex + Change and it equals exchanging points of view. It’s communicating and doing. And it can’t be a one way thing.” Then he asked me to tell him what I think of change. I did. 

On February 10 in a coffee shop in San Diego, CA a bicultural 25-year-old senior at SDSU named Todd took a break from pouring over his finance text to say, “I don’t really know why I changed.” He went on, “I mean, all through foster care and even adoption the adults all said that I would never be anything but a loser. But here’s the thing; I’m not living that prediction. I have changed and I’m committed to building a real life for myself.” 

The next day in a coffee shop in Tucson, AZ a 65 year old woman named Cheri agreed to an interview. Cheri wants a government for the people – not for business or for bigger government. She wants freedom. She is a retired law enforcement officer who’s lived in Tucson 55 years. She raised her children to be bilingual and herself learned Spanish because “It’s only right to have both languages if you want to do any job well in this city.” Cheri is a practicing Muslim having been raised in the mosque by her Iranian father and Euro-American mother. She says, “I’m Islamic. That means I’m devoted to God. It also means I want all people to be well and at peace.” 

February 19 I was leaving a coffee shop on the banks of the Guadalupe River. I had to make it to Ft. Worth in the next 5 hours. Then I overheard David and Tommy talking about their Sunday school class. They were willing to stop their conversation for a minute to talk about change. David and Tommy, both devout Christians, spoke with pride of their church community in Kerrville, TX. They spoke of the 200-300 youth in their youth ministry and the evidence in a recent personality inventory that these kids are ready to be active in making their community a more peaceful and kind place. Both men emphasized the importance of family and the necessity of shifting values from greed and materialism to concern for one another and for the environment. Tommy, the older of the two, said it was time for Americans to get over being hung up on our differences and to start working together on the urgent matters facing our country. “We’ve been majoring in the minors and not in the majors,” Tommy said. “Wow – that’s really well said,” said David. 

Yesterday, February 21, I drove north from Dallas into Sherman, TX. In my little car I was very aware of the strong west wind, a familiar harbinger of a downshift in winter temperature for Grayson County. I made my way through an entirely unfamiliar scramble of new commercial outlets to a newish building back from the highway where my beloved teacher is now receiving special nursing care. 

I lived in Sherman, TX for 13 years. Got a BA in the college here, met my husband when he came as a new faculty member, pursued advanced degrees, and birthed my daughter. Mayme Porter, the angel fairy godmother mentor sage of a woman I came to visit today was a constant source of wisdom and comfort across those years. In fact, she has been a guiding light in my life since I was 19. 

Late one spring afternoon in Sherman when I was toward the end of 20 or beginning of 21 we sat in Mayme’s shaded backyard. We talked about family and happiness. We talked about health and education. Somewhere in there, Mayme said to me, “Mary, you ought to consider going into some kind of work where you can interview people – listen to their stories and give them back to the world.” 

I thought she meant journalism. I ended up choosing to be a psychology professor. 

Then last month, I started talking to people in coffee shops. I met Nick and Todd and Cheri. I met David and Tommy. I joined in the Ex:Change. 

Today, for about half an hour, dear Mayme brightened up from the fog of Alzheimer’s that too often lays siege to her daytime thoughts. She said she wanted to comment on this thing, change. “Change,” she said, “is taking everything we have and listening to it so we can know where to go next.” 

She’s right. Mayme was right all along. 

And these days I’m listening and listening.


  1. I am really jealous of my sister, a psychologist, because my fantasy of her job is that she listens to people’s darkest secrets and highest hopes all day long. Of course there’s more to it than that, and it’s hard for her to maintain a boundary and keep it separate. I think this project is wonderful. Asking people to put their dreams into words is asking a lot, but it also helps them get a step farther down a path. These are people’s prayers you’re hearing.

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