I'm revising a conference paper right now. Or that's what I'm supposed to be doing. Instead, I've been sitting in coffee shops, trying like mad to focus on the job at hand and failing miserably. I hadn't quite factored the end-of-semester exhaustion into my cool-conference excitement, so apparently I have to write this paper when I'm not really capable of working for more than an hour at a clip. Yesterday, though, it was hopeless. I found myself in my favorite coffeeshop, eavesdropping on a pair of older men. It was an irresistible temptation. As soon as I sat down, I heard one of the older men say, "Now, in my autumn years, I see the world as full of ice cream. Everyone is a different flavor, and thinking about all those different flavors is what makes life interesting." And suddenly, my conference paper seemed very dull.
As the morning wore on, I heard the man's views on nearly everything, but I couldn't get enough. I opened a Word file and started transcribing their conversation. I started to wonder if I could follow the man home or ask him to meet me for lunch some day and just talk a while. He confessed to his companion that, "I get frustrated because my understanding of things is incomplete, though I claim to be an educated man." His voice was comforting and clear, and when he said that, "the most important thing in life is the pursuit of happiness...it's the pursuit that sustains us" it felt like he was making that promise just to me.
He told the story of his family during the depression, the way his grandfather bought up the mortgages of local farms, tore them up and made grown men cry in gratitude, and then after the depression got rich when those same farmers were able to come back and take out loans to expand their holdings. But, a ten year old when the depression hit, (making him nearly 90) he said that, "My memories of rural poverty are so bleak I'm still afraid to spend money. I guess that means I haven't grown up yet."
At this point in the conversation, I got up to refill my coffee cup while his less quotable companion started to talk. When I came back, they were gone. I was sad to see them go, both because the conversation had been so interesting (despite the fact that I wasn't at all involved) and because that meant I needed to focus on the paper again. Not that I was able. I read a paragraph, read a sentence, wrote a phrase, and then thought about the men and their conversation. I keep coming back, over and over again, to the idea that you might be 90 and still worried that you haven't grown up. Most of my worries right now seem annoying and infecting; they corrupt my focus or make me feel small. I'd give them back. But that worry? That worry seems like a gift.