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In the Story of Your Life, Almost Nothing Matters More Than the Cast

Updated: Feb 23

I swung open the weathered door of my beloved neighborhood coffee shop. Instantly, I knew that everything had changed. The energy in the room felt cold and desolate–almost biting. As though the walls themselves were grieving. 

Nearly every morning for the better part of the year prior, I traipsed across my street with my long-haired dachshund, Lucy, to fetch a foamy latte and a buttery breakfast sandwich. During the summer months, I passed a row of lush trees, a wooden fence, and a sprawling sunflower garden. As the temperature cooled, I shivered under my sweater while admiring the changing leaves and pumpkins scattered across chilly porches.

The most enlivening part was always catching a glimpse of my neighbors in their “in-between”–some rushing to their cars for frenzied commutes to their offices and some zipping up backpacks and steering their kids onto a crowded school bus. 

After about a five-minute trek, I’d come upon a modest 1000-square-foot charcoal-colored, mid-century house that had been converted into a charming, delicious-smelling hub of friendship and espresso.

On the dreamiest of mornings, Billie Holiday classics cooed softly through a speaker near a small table that held a variety of milk and sweeteners. Most days, two or three staff members were on rotation, cheerfully buzzing about the kitchen in their mismatched aprons–warming croissants, refiling the espresso machine, and chuckling at each other’s amateur latte art. My favorite of them were two sisters who’d grown up in Colorado and openly pined for the spirit of the mountains. But, regardless of who stood behind the register, I was met with gladness. 

When I announced my pregnancy, the squeals erupted and the congratulations poured out, and it served to mark so many seemingly inconsequential moments that I’d later come to treasure. There were brief chats about baby names and sonograms while they warmed my bread. Giggles and questions about my latest hormonally-drenched cravings. The unexpected beauties and trials of college life and post-college life and almost-married life and pending parenthood life. When I announced I was carrying a girl, every eye lit up with glee.

 “A girl! That’s just the sweetest news!” the older of the two sisters shrilled, before rushing to embrace me.

We exchanged soulful glimpses of our lives during those mornings–swapping our favorite books, podcasts, and Spotify playlists. I followed their wedding, Halloween, and Christmas plans and they followed my career travels and waxing belly. It had become a treasured neighborhood cocoon–unremarkable in appearance, but luxurious in kinship. It fed me so much more than a coffee and a breakfast sandwich. If the coffee shop were a sitcom, it probably would’ve been a fusion of Cheers and Friends, with a splash or so of New Girl; not exactly the swankiest setting or a high-rolling budget but certainly a charming cast with an undeniable synergy.

“Pretty soon, we’ll see you pushing a stroller through that door,” Anna, a petite, magenta-haired barista who always kneeled to give Lucy a scrap of bacon from the kitchen, said to me one day, winking.

But, sadly, within a week of that conversation, something erupted between two of the staff members and the business owner. The employees believed they were underpaid and unappreciated, and had been sliced by his razor-edged criticisms one too many times. Within weeks, two of the full-time staff members were gone—their smiling faces vanishing like vapors from behind the counter. As though to spark a revolt, a few others began entertaining the idea of hunting for employment elsewhere. Each time I stepped behind the business’s doors, I could feel that more life had faded from its body. Its breath was slowing, its pulse continuously dropping, and its vitality evaporating. 

One by one, the original staff slowly vanished from sight. 

Over the holidays, my husband and I traveled for two weeks to visit family in various cities. On the morning of my return, mere days after the dawn of a new year, an entirely new staff had been hired. Two unfamiliar bodies huddled around the coffee machine–both reeking of annoyance and overwhelm. I moved cautiously toward the counter, searching for a recognizable smile. Instead, I was met with an anxious scowl.

I scanned the vicinity, noticing that none of the furniture or decor had changed. The same potted plant lay centered on the end table by the door. The foggy gold-trimmed mirror still hung above the broken fireplace. The same dainty, mismatched collection of plates and tea cups was still strewn across coffee and end tables. Brioche and donuts were arranged in the display cases, just as they had always been, with fresh icing and sprinkles intact. 

Yet, I felt I was standing in a place I'd never been before. As though I were trying to greet an old friend who could only see me as a stranger—staring at me blankly, void of the memories of every heartfelt moment we’d shared. I quickly placed my order and swiped my card, but this time, there was no eye contact or warm conversation to be had.

The only way to describe it is that it felt spooky as hell.

I returned a few more times over a month or so, hoping the new staff members would find their groove and that I could rekindle the same cozy feeling I'd relished for so long. It never happened, though. Subsequently, I fell into a new routine and moved on, but I'll never forget the powerful lesson I took away from the experience:

Whatever you want to make of the story that is your life, few things matter more than the cast. 

Struck with this insight, I began to call upon my favorite dining spots, hang-outs, and shopping destinations in various cities I often visited—from bookstores to boutiques, spas to yoga studios, and sandwich shops to speakeasies.

All of the places I loved most varied in style and genre, yet shared a common denominator. I may have been dashed by the space’s decor or swooned over a particular panini or craft cocktail, but the energy of the people, and the synergy of our interactions, remained the most impermeable attractor. It transcended mere customer service; I was either lured in or repelled by the space's collective spirit.

Which is to say, it doesn’t matter so much where you eat and play but who you’re eating and playing with, as well as how you’re eating and playing together. The company you keep, and the interactional flow and meaning-making that is co-created from your time with them, will either send oxygen coursing through your sense of zest or will siphon the power from it. The people we do life with shape who we become. 

In every great story, the synergy of the cast will ultimately be the make or the break.

Which begs the question: What kind of people are you casting in the story of your life? Are there people who’ve made a leading man or a leading lady who might need to be transitioned into a more inconsequential role? Perhaps your life needs a saucy plot twist–the kind that only the introduction of a sizzling new character or a change in community can invite. 

It’s not the set, scenery, or cinematography that makes or breaks the movie, though those elements matter, more or less, depending upon the context. But, mostly, it’s the people. They're the ones who'll speak to your dreams, desires, anxieties, and triggers, and either point you toward or away from possibilities, which will spawn a fresh edit of thoughts and emotions, which will co-direct your decisions, which will ultimately co-produce the way you’re showing up in the world. As you will for them.

Your daily conversations are your co-coauthors. And the beautiful news is that this is an arena of your life that you get to direct and edit with more authority and creative freedom than you might realize. You’re the one calling the main shots.

You get to curate your inner circle, who will collectively fill your ears with stories that either drain you or reawaken you. The ones that will bleed into your concept of the world around you as well as your concept of self. Which means your inner circle plays a consequential role in penning your reality. It isn’t possible to swap stories and plans and share rhythms and routines with someone without being influenced by their essence. Also their worldview. This is true, even when you’re confident that you don’t–and never will–align with it.

I wasn’t captivated by my neighborhood coffee shop because it boasted the most artful baristas in Nashville or roasted the most exotic beans—not by a long shot. The quality of the coffee and confections had been inarguably mediocre. I was in love with it because the energetic exchanges with the staff were so fantastically medicinal to my mood each day.  

Which is to say, if you aren’t already, consider this your invitation to get more brazen about calling your own shots.

©2024, Lacey Johnson, LJ Media, LLC

**No portion of this content is to be used without credit to its owner, and a link back to 


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