Yesterday I didn’t wake up in time to read or write and had to dash off towards Calderstones where I was taking a shift in The Reader Cafe. I enjoyed it, though wasn’t much help – a hindrance really – but the people who work in the Cafe were welcoming and forgiving and so were almost all of the customers. I was there to understand what it’s like to actually work in the Cafe and to feel the constraints and problems from the inside.
And I remembered a little of my old life, which closed up when I was twenty-six and in my second year at University. That was the last time I worked in a Cafe, Bar or Restaurant. But from age twelve (when I washed glasses and occasionally served in my mum’s pub, off Upper Parliament Street, Liverpool 8) to the age of twenty six, waitressing, barmaiding was how I earned my money. There you are, face to face with your regulars and strangers, being human and providing a service. That ten-year apprenticeship served me well. I remembered Rowena, who was the senior waitress in one of the Berni inns I worked in. How ancient she seemed to seventeen year old, that married woman of at least forty. What a stickler she was for doing everything right, and yet, though one part of me was a grumpy teenager irritated at being pulled up and prodded into shape by her, how I enjoyed the buzz of the shifts I worked with her because she was so very good at it. You got great tips when you worked with Rowena. I must have learned something about being lazy and being good at doing things, though I didn’t know I was learning it at the time.
The behaviour model of Shared Reading comes from that profession. As a server in the cafe, as a bar worker, you learn to talk to anyone and to put them at ease, to help set out the parameters of where you are and what the customs of the house might be whether it’s silver service, or a lock-in with country and western. You’re doing a job, but are also being yourself and making a relationship with the person standing or sitting before you. You take responsibility for making that relationship and make the human transaction possible. In one Berni Inn a man very ordered a steak, giving me very precise details of how he wanted it medium rare, and cut into one inch bite-size chunks. I took the order, silently castigating him for being a demanding, lazy, fussy customer. When I brought the steak to him I realised the man only had one arm. The pain of knowing my own silent unkindness to him and the plain painful reality of his request burns still. Was that learning? I don’t know – I’m still a lazy learner, and I still prejudge people, though I know now I really shouldn’t. And if anyone ever asked me now for a steak cut into bite-size chunks…I have learned that particular lesson.
It was a quiet day, Monica told me, and the couple of rushes (dog-walkers 8.30-9.30, lunch time from 12.00 on) were really not rushes she said , just seemed so to me, struggling in what seemed slo-mo to spot where ‘flat white’ lives on the till’s computer screen. Nina helped me with very patiently, and Monica gave quiet hints and suggestions, running the shift with calm and assurance. We had a laugh renaming the sandwich genres (‘Plain’ e.g just ham, and ‘Not So Plain’ e.g. Chicken pesto salad) and talked about the possibility of bookish names for our menu items. Standing from 8.00 til 1.00 wasnt as bad as I thought it might be, and today Dave will tell me how much the till was out and I’ll know what my mistakes cost. I don’t think I thought a thought about other than lattes, cappuccinos, sausage rolls, smoked salmon and poached eggs crossed my mind – life in the hospitality industry says be here now.
Once my shift was over, I went for walk round the park to think over my to do list for the rest of the day. It was only 1.00pm! Still half a day to go! I walked under the beech trees that back onto Menlove Avenue and thought of this great passage from Herman Hesse, which I don’t have time to read with you this morning.
For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.
Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.
A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.
A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live. When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.
A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.
So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.
Hermann Hesse Trees: Reflections and Poems
I guess the connection was thinking of young Jane, learning the art of the being with people in the pubs, bars, Berni Inns, cafes.
I think about all our growth rings. I walk back to the office and my to do list and my next meeting. I think of George Herbert, wishing he was a tree. And perhaps will read that tomorrow.