Monday, May 3, 2010

Mortification in 12 Items or Less

I enjoy grocery shopping.  I usually run into someone I know and have a chance to catch up with them.  The grocery store is a great place to practice mindfulness and patience.  I'm rarely in a hurry when I'm at the store.  It's a good opportunity to tune into the fact that everyone shopping is trying to feed a household, trying to make sense of the huge selection of foods, trying to balance quality and taste and budget.

Yesterday afternoon, I went down to the store to pick up a couple of items we needed for dinner.  As I made my way through the busy parking lot and entered the store, I patted myself on the back for remembering the tote bag.  I grabbed a basket and walked the aisles, patiently waiting for people, picking out the few things I was searching for--milk, bread, jelly--adding a couple things I knew we might need that weren't on the list--some granola bars, a pound of hamburger.  I rechecked the list and headed for the check-out lines.

The store was busy, and all the lines were full.  I counted the items in my basket--eight--and headed for the express line.  The express line is served by two check-out stations, each with a sign hanging overhead that reads "Express line--12 items or less."  I stopped behind a woman waiting her turn.  To my left was a girl of about 12, pushing a cart that was sort of in the nearby line, but kind of angled into the express line.  I looked at her.  She smiled and said, "I'm with my mom," and nodded at the woman ahead of me.

That is when I heard someone's voice blurting out, "That's 12 items or less?"  My voice.  The woman ahead of me turned and looked at the cart, looked at her daughter, and looked at me and said, "No, you're right, we're in the wrong line."  It seemed to me she spoke those words less than enthusiastically, with a smile that seemed a bit on the icy side as she maneuvered her daughter and the cart to the back of the nearby line.

As the cashier rang up my items, I had time to feel into what had just happened.  All kinds of thoughts flew through my head.  Despite all my midwestern nice-guy upbringing, I had corrected this mother in public, in front of her child.  Sure, I was right.  But I was in no hurry.  I could have waited a couple minutes while her groceries were checked out.  But I was right, damn it!  I hadn't been nasty about it.  But how would I have felt if someone had scolded me, even nicely, in front of my children?  I let go of the train of thought as best I could and felt into the emotions running underneath, a rich stew of embarrassment and defensiveness, and even some compassion.  Ah, mindfulness practice!  So easy to do when things are simple and going well, so hard when I manage to insert my foot deeply into my mouth.

At that moment, in this busy store, somehow, the express line emptied.  I was the only person at the express counter.  The efficient young cashier at the next express register called out to the person at the end of the next line, "Ma'am, I can help you over here."  The person at the end of the next line happened to be the woman with more than 12 items.

"Oh!" she replied loudly--very loudly--"but I have 16 items!"

"That's okay," said the cashier.  "I'll check you out."

The daughter was grinning at her mom as she wheeled the cart up to the next register.  I quickly picked up my tote bag and gallon of milk, sidled by, and headed out the door.  The bag seemed a little bit heavier, what with the extra helping of mortification the universe had tossed in at the last minute.

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