February 21, 2008

Learning to wait

It’s the middle of January, the middle of winter in Indianapolis. I’m on my twelfth and last errand of the day. Standing in line at the post office, I watch it spit snow while I wait my turn. I wonder how it is possible that I’ve come to devote at least one full day each week to running errands. There are no children in my household. No soccer games. No band practice. No karate lessons. Maybe there’s something I’m not doing right that leads to this many errands and this much wasted time. What could I accomplish with fifty-two days a year?

I am not alone in my restlessness. A long line forms and we’re all standing around with a glazed-over look, trying to be patient, resigned to the poor-to-mediocre service we get from the United Postal Service. Deep down everyone wants the same thing--to move through this blasted line as quickly as possible. While I wait, I begin to ponder how I could change my life to leave more time for important things. No clear answer s emerge. I eavesdrop on the conversations around me, hearing half of some and all of others.

A young bald man is solving a problem with his client over a cell phone while he waits his turn. I hear only his side of the conversation, but I can tell he’s a good man, polite, soft-spoken, willing to bend. An elderly Indian couple are deciphering the mysteries of a postal form at the center island—purgatory for postal patrons who’ve been sent there because they selected the wrong form on their first trip through the line.

A young Hispanic couple stands at the counter a long time. I imagine the family to be tending to passports, sending money or some other complicated transaction that ties them up longer than the regular crowd. Their three little girls play noisily until the couple decides to rein them in. The youngest starts a game of peek-a-boo with me before she is snatched away.

At the far end of the counter, a middle-aged woman chats up one of the nicer postal clerks. “How did you get your hair like that?”she says with admiration. The clerk's wiry curls resemble a flocked Christmas tree, brown at the roots, blond at the tips. The clerk admits it’s an unintentional effect. “Actually, it was all blond. I’m just letting it grow out.” They spend several minutes sorting through her packages until their perky banter becomes like white noise. Finally, the woman exclaims brightly, “Well, that sounds so easy. Why didn’t I think of that? What a relief! Thank you!”

We observe this exchange in shock. The woman is joining the throng sent to purgatory because they haven't completed the necessary forms! Her cheerfulness is such a contradiction to her present predicament (and ours) that we can hardly avoid the collision inside our brains. Is she insane?

A woman behind me breaks into a broad smile. The man just ahead turns to me and says, “My, but I’ll bet she was easy to surprise as a child.” Our perky subject is oblivious to this swipe at her demented good-humor. She simply heads dutifully toward purgatory to complete the correct form. Talking to herself (ever cheerfully), she wonders about the correct zip code for her package. She notices the Indian couple next to her, fumbling through their forms. “Here, do you need a pen?” They don’t understand. She fusses through her purse until she finds an extra pen to offer them. She repeats her offer slowly. “Need a pen?”

By now, there is just one person between me and the last item on today’s to-do list. I think of the times I’ve gotten this close only to have one of the clerks go on break. I am so close and yet so far away. The potshot ahead is still shaking his head at this insufferable fool when she looks up and greets him enthusiastically.

“Oh, hi!” she says. “How are you? How is your wife?”

“She’s fine,” he says uncertainly.

“Oh, good. I’m so glad! Listen, I want to talk to you when I’m done here. I’m really sick NOW! It’s in my liver AND my pancreas,” she calls back to him over her shoulder, hustling toward the clerk who has beckoned her back to the counter.

A stillness comes over the potshot and I. At that moment, both of us have two peculiar realizations: 1) The woman he mocked knows him. 2) She is mortally ill, but happy to be out doing her errands.

We’re exasperated about waiting. She’s exasperated about cancer. As if to explain himself, he turns to me. “I’ve known her for years, but I just didn’t recognize her.”

“Sometimes, that happens,” I nod, not knowing what to say.

Meanwhile, the perky cancer patient has been invited back to the counter. When she’s finished, Potshot is invited to take her place. Leaning on the counter, half facing the clerk, he cranes his neck backwards toward the perky cancer patient. “I wanted to ask a favor,” she said. “I stopped by the church to see Pastor Paul the other day, but he was out. He’s always so busy! Would you tell him you saw me and ask him to come visit me? You can find my name and number in the church directory. My name is Deborah W--------.” He nods. Yes, he knows her and he will ask.

Perhaps it isn’t such a chore to wait in line. Why is it so hard to remember that even the mundane moments are precious?

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