Our local Publix re-opened today, less than 24 hours after Hurricane Irma turned everyone’s lives upside down. Tired of the canned goods in the hurricane box, I wanted to replenish our depleted supply of fresh food like milk, eggs and produce. With any luck, I’d find a well-deserved steak for Joe. He’s worked tirelessly preparing our home and yard for the storm, then cleaning up the aftermath.
There were only a few grocery carts at the entrance -- never a good sign. But as I rounded the dairy aisle, I was pleasantly surprised to find it fairly well stocked. I didn’t get the exact milk I normally buy, but still….. wow, they had milk! And eggs! Even yogurt! Christmas came early this year.
The store buzzed with energy as stock personnel rushed to cut open boxes and fill the empty spaces on their shelves. Managers rolled out heavy carts, groaning with produce, meat and dairy items. Without warning, I found myself nearly overcome with the sensation of gratitude. I wanted to stop each Publix employee and give him a hug and a thank you. All these people, who may have left behind their own homes with damaged roofs or no power, had shown up for work, just so we could have fresh food tonight. It seemed like an abundance of generosity on their part.
Things took a turn when I rolled my cart into the bread aisle. Anyone who’s lived through a hurricane in Florida knows there is no bread when the store re-opens. It takes about 24 hours for bakeries to re-supply the stores. But evidently, the two middle-aged men in front of me were not familiar with the drill.
“They’re out of bread, TOO?” the first man shouted, throwing up his hands in disbelief.
“This is like a third-world country!” his friend huffed.
I didn’t hear what came next. My mind was filled with images of tiny islands and impoverished countries, wiped out by monster storms like Irma. Many of those folks lost not only their homes but loved ones as well. To equate that level of suffering with a day’s wait for some cinnamon raisin toast was beyond words.
I gripped the handle of my cart and walked the other way. It would do no good to share my thoughts with these characters. I might start a fight that would not end well. That’s the way things go these days. I left them to their bitter complaints about life’s unfairness. Being inside my own head was much more pleasant than trying to reach into theirs.
By the time I checked out, I had successfully resisted the urge to hug any employees, but I still felt a sob threatening to escape my throat at any moment. The checkout lines were long, but the cashiers were moving quickly. My cashier, also a Linda, smiled and greeted me warmly.
“Linda,” I asked, “has anyone thanked you yet today?”
“Um, no….” she replied, slowing only for a second.
“Well, I want to thank you for being here today. Everyone’s working so hard just so that we can buy all the stuff we’re used to having. It’s really amazing.”
My throat tightened. One more word and I'd be blubbering incoherently, so I stopped.
Linda and the bagger exchanged looks. You might say, we had a moment.
“Thank you for noticing,” she choked.
As I took my receipt, I smiled and thanked them both a second time.
“Have a wonderful day,” Linda said. And I think she meant it.
On the drive home, I thought of the Buddhist teaching on dependent arising – a fancy term for the realization that the things we take for granted are not entitlements that magically appear upon demand. One thing depends on another, and so on. That desired loaf of bread, for example. Considering the amount of effort required from wheat field to grocery cart, it’s incredible that the bread ever appears on the shelves, not that there might be a short wait for more.
These days, we seldom take things apart to see what a wonder they truly are. If we did, we’d weep with humility. I don’t know if the grouchy guys in aisle ten ever found their bliss or their bread. I do know the sense of appreciation and awe I experienced while running a simple errand, lifted my spirits for the rest of the day.