Archive for March, 2013

Embarrassment of Riches

March 31, 2013

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I’m at the supermarket, loading my groceries onto the tabloids-and-batteries end of the conveyor belt. At the other end, a 40-ish woman is ringing up her order. It’s a small order, which is why I chose this check-out line. I’m not really paying attention to her. I’m reading a headline about Camilla Bowles’ drinking problem (who knew?) and I’m carefully arranging my purchases—the wild-caught salmon beside the milk, the skin cream with the razor blades and antiseptic lotion, the fresh veggies together, the fancy whole bean coffee near the parchment paper—when I realize that something irregular is happening at the register.

The woman is asking to have her total repeated. I’m pretty sure I hear the cashier say, “Seven eighty.” And then I see the woman reaching into one of her bags and handing the cashier two cartons of eggs. Neither the shopper nor the cashier makes a big deal of it. The shopper doesn’t act especially upset, and the cashier doesn’t seem particularly surprised. He just sets the eggs aside and punches in some numbers.

Then he holds up a coupon and announces, “This is expired.”

This time, the woman visibly sighs. “Okay,” she says. “Better put this back, too.” And she hands the cashier a small tub of cream cheese.

By now, it begins to occur to me that I could do something for this woman. I could pay for her eggs and her cream cheese. And maybe I should. But how? Do I give her the money? Do I give it to the cashier? I don’t want to embarrass her, I tell myself. No one has so much as looked in my direction, so I would have to intrude on their transaction. Admit that I’ve been listening. What should I say? And how much does she need? My money is snapped inside my wallet, and my wallet is zipped inside my purse.

While I’m standing there, trying to figure out what to do, the woman takes her remaining groceries and leaves.

I step up to the cashier and he rings me up. My order comes to almost exactly ten times what the woman ahead of me spent. I swipe my credit card, hit “yes,” sign, and leave with my bags. As I drive up Warwick Avenue, I see the woman waiting at the bus stop.

Did I mention that all this takes place on the fifth night of Passover? Four nights earlier, I presided over my family’s seder. We raised the matzo and recited, “This is the bread of affliction, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat.” When I was picking readings from various haggadahs, I’d made sure to include one that interpreted the Festival of Freedom as encompassing freedom from want, and another that reminded us that it’s our duty to help make others free.

As I drive home from the supermarket and put away my purchases, the irony weighs more and more heavily on my mind. I keep replaying the scene in the check-out aisle, trying to picture myself putting my money where my mouth is. But even in my imagination, I fall short. The problem, I tell myself, is that I don’t know the right words to say.

So I ask Facebook.

It turns out a lot of my friends have been in this situation – on both the giving and the receiving end. Some found it embarrassing, and some still feel bad about failing to act, like me. But lots of folks seem to find it pretty easy to help a needy stranger. The key, they all agree, is to keep it light. Talk about “paying it forward,” they advise. They suggest I claim that someone else once did the same thing for me—whether or not this is true. Or I could say nothing at all. Just give the woman a smile, and the cashier the money.

These are all great ideas. But will I use them? I don’t know.

I’m great at being charitable in the abstract. Write a check or fill in a form on a website, and I’m done. And if the woman at the supermarket had turned to me for help, I’m pretty sure I would have been glad to give her what she needed. But step forward, uninvited?

I told myself I was concerned about causing her embarrassment. And I was. But I’m pretty sure that I was also worried about the embarrassment to myself. The embarrassment of admitting to someone who doesn’t have enough that I have more than enough. And the more general embarrassment of crossing the invisible barrier that makes us strangers. Of not minding my own business.

If this situation arises again, at least I’ll have a script. I hope I’ll have the nerve to use it. And if I balk, I hope I’ll remember that as difficult as doing the right thing might seem to me at the time, it’s a lot harder to deal with the regret.

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Next to Godliness

March 8, 2013

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I cleaned my kitchen floor the other day. This may not seem noteworthy to you. But to me, sad to say, it is.

It’s not like we’ve been wallowing in filth. We don’t have kids or pets, and we take shoes off at the door, so we don’t track in a lot of dirt from outside. When we notice a major spill, we’re pretty quick to sweep it up. Sometimes I even take out the broom just for good measure, in case there’s something I’m not seeing.

Even so, the floor was starting to bother even me. But even if it hadn’t, I could tell by looking at the calendar that a cleaning was in the cards. Just not quite yet.

Passover is a little over two weeks away. I don’t prepare for the holiday by scouring my oven or covering my counters with foil, and we don’t have a special set of Passover kitchenware. But I do clear out all the foods we’ll be abstaining from during the holiday. And I give the kitchen its annual deep cleaning. The point of this cleaning isn’t pragmatic. It’s religious. I would clean before Passover whether the kitchen needed it or not. Not that the question has ever come up.

But now, two weeks too early for the ritual cleaning, the floor was starting to bug me. And then, while I was making breakfast, the juicer went crazy and sprayed orange pulp all over. And then, just in case I still hadn’t gotten the message, right when I was about to start my day’s work at my computer, the power went out.

The story I’m now working on is tentatively entitled “Beshert,” which is Yiddish for “destiny” or “intended.” I could have used my laptop until the battery ran down. And then I could have gone to a coffee shop or the library. Or written longhand, of all things. Instead, I decided the power outage was a sign that cleaning my floor now, ahead of my pre-Passover cleaning, was beshert.

I squirted the soap into a sink full of warm water, took the sponge-mop from its hook in the back hall, and began.

While I do my Passover cleaning, I have the holiday on my mind. I review the seder menu, and figure out my cooking schedule. I consider who will be at the table, and parcel out parts. Who will play the evil son? Who will ask the four questions? In a good year, I might get beyond logistics and pay attention to the spiritual intent of what I’m doing. I’m not just cleaning the floor, I’ll remind myself. I’m remembering bondage. I’m celebrating freedom. I’m welcoming spring.

Now I wasn’t cleaning for Passover. I was simply cleaning. But it wasn’t that simple.

I was feeling the slide of the sponge on the linoleum. I was watching the wet progress across the floor. I was hearing the quiet. The no-hum of the refrigerator. The no-rumble of the furnace. The no-option of turning on music. And I was letting my thoughts flow where they would.

I thought about my dear friend Chris, who died three years ago. Hanging above her kitchen sink was a Buddhist teaching about washing dishes. I’m pretty sure it was Thich Nat Hanh, “While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.”

I thought about my good friend Roma, a California artist whose work explores intersections between the sacred and the mundane. Her contemplative images of hands loading a dishwasher and cleaning a toilet hang opposite my desk.

I thought about the saying, “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” and wondered if it is.

I don’t believe in God, per se, but I do believe in godliness. That distinction, pointed out to me by my friend Rabbi Kaunfer, comes from theologian Arthur Green. The idea, as I understand it, is to approach religious practice (in this case Jewish practice) not as worship of an imagined divine being, but as striving to emulate the positive attributes traditionally associated with “God.” Those qualities include things like compassion, patience, kindness and forgiveness. Cleanliness? Not so much.

On the other hand, cleaning—or weeding or kneading, painting walls, splitting wood, or engaging in any number of mundane, necessary tasks—and doing it with the right mindset, can become a meditation. A way to resent one’s inner compass.

And even if the chore doesn’t produce any spiritual breakthroughs, when you’re done, you’ve got a clean floor.

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