by Paul Wolf

Be prepared for inspiration.

29-year-old Jehrod Williams is a barista at Cups in Fondren and, by May 2018, plans to be a graduate of Tougaloo College (his late grandfather’s wish).

Williams has started a monthly book club that meets at Cups (more on that later). To speak with him is a lesson on how to live a life with joy.

We’re here today because your manager, Cody Cox, calls you “a joy to have in the cafe.” He speaks highly of how you interact with others. Where does that love of people come from?

I believe that we are more alike than we are unalike. Dr. Maya Angelou taught me that. I was in high school when I learned that lesson. It kind of opened my mind to the possibilities of humanity that we don’t have to all look the same or even believe the same. But as long as we have this common respect for each other… and not just tolerance, right, because tolerance only goes so far. But to really see ourselves in each other and recognize that we are each other, even if we are from different parts of Jackson or went to different schools… and you can only find that out through conversations.

That’s why I love being a barista. I call it ‘getting in to the fabric of people’s lives.’ You become a part of their daily ritual. They need caffeine but they also need to see that smile sometimes. That just, ‘How are you?’ It goes a long way. It’s a challenge to me to always be present, but it’s also an even higher calling to connect. Because this [Cups] is the connection spot. I see it all the time, from politicians to students to doctors to… everybody comes to Cups. To be able to be a conduit in that way is always a blessing to me.

Where does that spirit come from?

It comes from growing up in big family. I have five sisters and I’m the eldest. I’ve always kind of been the big brother and the one who was concerned with, ‘How’s your life? What’s going on here? Where do you need me to show up for you?’

It also comes from the lessons I have learned. The Oprah show was a big teacher for me. Every day at 4 pm she was on at my house. Her guests, her style of interviewing and really showing people themselves on the screen, it was just phenomenal. I learned so much. I learned about openness and acceptance from that medium, from her show. It has extended to just a curiosity of people. I’m always wondering about people’s lives and their hopes and their wishes and aspirations. If we can tap into that and understand we rise together, we can really have a sense of community. Everyone is invested in everyone else when you get to learn their stories.

Oh, we see that in what we do. That everyone is connected.

So, what do you do with that connection? How do you further that to really create community and a sense of shared… Everyone always wants to say ‘shared values’ and that’s important, too. But really, just enough to show up for one another and say, ‘When I’m with you, do you see me? Do you hear me? Even on my worst day, do you believe that’s who I am?’ That call to presence or mindfulness allows you to show up in a way that can be therapy for some people. Just knowing you are there is always a great thing.

You talk like someone who has lived twice your lifetime…

I tell you what: I have lived twice that lifetime through reading. It really allows you to take on the lives of so many people, their stories, whether they are fiction or a biography, or even lately, I was reading this young adult novel by Jason Reynolds and I was like, ‘Jeez!’ Reading can really elevate you and allow you to see different viewpoints. It has [given me wisdom].

At 29, you are still supposed to be finding yourself. Are you?

I am, in new ways. I think you can become complacent in who you are and who you think you are. That’s one of my favorite questions to ask myself: ‘Who am I? Who am I really?’ Because that goes beyond. Sometimes we put these labels on ourselves. Those labels hinder us. So I always like to live in the question mark. I think that’s more important than the answers. Then you get to really see yourself in a different way. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Still, have structure, but take the gloves off when it comes to yourself. You’ll find you take the gloves off with others, too.

You mentioned your love of books… and you’ve started a book club, “For the Love of Reading.” What inspired it?

I’m always wanting to know, ‘What are you reading? What’s on your nightstand? What book is stirring you right now?’ That’s one of my questions I always ask. When the idea came up, I said, ‘This is great. I would love to make this happen.’

We’re in our third month now and there are many people here who really love reading. Mississippi has such a rich literary history, so reading, and especially [everyone] reading the same book: you can miss something or your experience hasn’t shown you that way of thinking and then someone else comes in and they present in their own words and it hits you like a lightbulb. It really allows for one to foster a sense of community.

Do you have bad days?

I do have bad days! I’ve been having a multitude of bad days as of late!

I lost my mom when I was 14, from breast cancer. She passed on November 1, 15 years ago. A lot of times I still wish for a conversation with her. Or to see her walk across the room. Mother was… she was me times ten personality wise. She was a stellar woman who had a way of being in the world that was inspiring. She was my Oprah before Oprah became my Oprah.

This past month has been hard. I try not to let myself be defined by that. You can have a hard day but you don’t have to make it into a hard life. You can feel the hurt… feel whatever you are feeling, but you don’t have to define yourself by that. In a way, reading helps me escape and get out of my head. You can ruminate too much and let it get you down. You have to be grateful and find things that inspire you. The more elevated you are, the more that you can [elevate] others as well.

Choose happiness?

Choose joy, even, because happiness is fleeting. You can have the worst of days. But if you have joy and peace, you won’t be rocked by it. I think that is what has kept me and made me want to more so be a person of joy, to know that is really the key to, I think, a full life.