What Is (Noticing Respect)

It’s a chilly day in June, Sunday afternoon, drizzling, and I am going grocery shopping. My sister and I dislike shopping in the rain—something about getting ourselves and our purchases wet, I suppose. 

So, I start out slightly annoyed, but remind myself, as I swing my backpack over my shoulder, walk away from my bright yellow Kia Soul, and pop up my vibrant lime umbrella: This is what is. Or, as my stepdaughter would say: It is what it isno point in wishing for something else or resisting it. Open to it.

The first cart I extract from the queue makes a thunk, thunk, thunking sound as I roll it toward the produce section. Nuts to this! I turn around and take it back to the entrance. As I approach the line of empty carts, a man pulls up behind me and offers, “This one is quieter; take this.”  I say he’s lucky, and the next one I choose will be quieter too. It is, and we laugh.

I park my cart out of the way in the produce section and walk in all directions, list in hand, picking up the things I need and crossing them off one by one. I’ve discovered that if I touch a moist vegetable like a cucumber before I open one of the plastic bags to drop it in, my damp fingers will make it easier to open the bag. I’ve also remembered that I have hand sanitizer in my purse and could use it to moisten my fingers. Pre-COVID, I used to lick them. Yuck! Now I have more respect for germs and other people.

Near the gourmet cheese section, I notice a display of Effie’s Oatcakes, which I haven’t been able to find for months. I’m overjoyed and snatch up two packages. I want to buy more, but they’re expensive, and I don’t want to be a hoarder. Others might like them too.

As I pull out of produce and into the grocery aisles, I notice a family shopping together—a man in a motorized wheelchair, a tall blond boy, and two or three younger girls—no mother in sight. One of the girls is pushing their cart, and the others are all over the place, pointing to things and asking if they can get them. I’m trying to get raspberry jam, and a surge of impatience rises in me. 

The man in the wheelchair says, “Sorry, ma’am. I try to keep them out of others’ way. Thank goodness their older brother is here to help.” 

“No worries,” I smile, feeling my impatience ebb away. One of the little girls moves aside, and I slip the jam into my cart. I meet them again in practically every aisle. They are cheerful, patient, and polite to one another and the shoppers around them.

Halfway through my shop, I still have not found the sun-dried tomatoes I am looking for, so I stop a name-tagged employee and ask if he might know where they would be. He pauses, stares into space, and goes inside himself. Slowly he says as if the words are arising from somewhere deep within, “If you are looking for the ones in the jar, they’d be with the pasta sauce.” And then, from deeper within, “The packaged ones are on an end display near the garlic in produce.”  I am impressed. “Okay, thanks. I’ll look in both places.” Again, I park the cart out of traffic and backtrack. Sure enough, they are exactly where he said they would be, and I score the last package in the store.

When I get to the checkout, every open checker is backed up. So, I choose the shortest line and settle in for the wait, noticing an older woman in front of me. When it’s her turn to unload, I see that every single item in her cart is store-brand: cereal, milk, crackers, bread, the whole lot. I wonder why. Prices are dramatically higher these days; is she trying to economize?

When it’s my turn to check out, I have a little tussle with the bagger. He wants to put my toilet paper and paper towels in the cart first. A seasoned shopper, I know those lighter items belong on top of the full bags once they are wedged tightly into the small cart. (I insist on using the smaller one because I am an older woman and find the large ones unwieldy.) He protests that he needs space to pack, and I temporarily move the paper products to the floor. So, he acquiesces, and I achieve my desired arrangement. Near the end, he holds up a loaf of brioche that slipped out of its wrapper during the checkout. 

“Sorry,” he says, “it slipped right out of the bag. I’ll get you another one. “Oh!” I look around to see a checkout area inundated with people and humming with activity. It’s a busy time for him. “Do you want me to do it?” “No, it’s not a problem. I’ll be right back.”  I park my cart and put my wallet in my backpack while I wait. 

Behind me is a father with his gawky nine-ish-year-old daughter in the checkout line. She wants a helium balloon as a treat, and he keeps showing her one option after another. She whines, “No, not that one! No, not that one!”  Finally, he says, “You’re getting this one!” and hands it to the checker. The girl is still whining.

In a few moments, my bagger returns, triumphantly bearing a fresh loaf. I thank him and turn my heavy cart toward the exit. In front of me is a short, stocky woman pushing a bigger, equally overflowing cart. She’s shuffling slowly toward the sliding doors, and again, a surge of impatience rises in my chest.

I pause and take a breath as I wait for her to get up some steam. People of all sizes and shapes, dressed stylishly and slovenly, pushing carts piled high or carrying single bags, mill around me. Each of us has some large or small impediment, some secret or obvious affliction, blemish, or limitation. Yet, here we are, going about our lives on a rainy Sunday afternoon. This is what is, I remind myself. Open to it.

As I emerge into the rain, the nine-year-old is skipping behind her dad, happily gripping the string on her bright red balloon. It floats above her head amid the raindrops and proclaims, “Best Day Ever!”

~ ~ ~ ~

Afterthought: My perspective is unquestionably western, white, and middle-class. When I finish writing the above, I wonder what is for Ukrainians amid war. What is for Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China, undergoing forced sterilization and labor, or for black parents in American neighborhoods afraid of gang and police violence? What is for survivors of climate disasters that destroy their homes and livelihoods or for children trapped in a schoolroom with an active shooter?  

How does a person engage, cope, deal with, or enter into reality, however benign or horrific? Can it possibly be the same interior process of pausing, breathing, noticing, and opening that I experienced at the grocery store? Can we practice today for the ultimate challenge that may come to each of us one day soon? I leave you and myself with that question.