Having a Hard Time

I thumbtacked this to my bedroom wall yesterday. These are words I need to remember.

The other day I waited at the deli counter. The woman ahead of me asked for something they were out of.

“What do you mean?” she screeched at the deli worker. “It’s in the ad! It’s on sale!”

“I’ll check the cooler again,” replied the deli lady, and she disappeared into the back.

The customer turned and said at me. “Is this when I’m allowed to start swearing?! Do you believe this place?!”

I shrugged meekly and thought about the quote. It sure looked like the customer was giving the deli worker a hard time, but, really, she was having a hard time herself. When deli meat becomes the make-or-break in a day, a person is having a pretty bad day.

My father spent Monday night in the hospital. When I walked in his room the next day, his room-mate said to me, “You must be Sally.”

“Yes,” I said, wondering how he knew.

“I’ve heard your name a few times,” he said. “At 1 AM. At 2 AM…”

When my father calls for me in the middle of the night, he’s not giving me a hard time. He’s having a hard time.

“I’m so sorry,” I said to the roommate.

The nurse came in to go over paperwork with the roommate. Honestly, I wasn’t intentionally listening, but only a curtain separated me from them.

Nurse: Who do you live with?

Roommate: I live alone.

Nurse: Do you have any family that lives near you?

Roommate: My kid lives about three hours away.

Nurse: Is he able to come help you when you go home?

Roommate: I ain’t spoke to him in two years.

Nurse: Is there anyone who can help you when you get home?

Roommate: My neighbor helps me if I ask.

Nurse: How many levels in your house?

Roommate: One. It’s an old huntin’ cabin.

Nurse: Do you have running water?

Roommate: Nope.

Nurse: What?! (long pause) You don’t have water?! What do you do?

Roommate: Buy it in town. My neighbor gets it for me.

Nurse: I’m surprised that you don’t have water. (another pause) No, I’m sorry. I’m not surprised. It’s fine.

I was busy helping my father and didn’t hear some of her questions. The next one I heard was –

Nurse: Do you have television?

Roommate: Nope.

Nurse: What do you do?!

Roommate: Whaddya mean, what do I do?

Nurse: For entertainment. In the evening.

Roommate: I have a big garden. There’s lots to do without a television.

I could hear her frustration and his annoyance.

I wanted to lean past the curtain and whisper to her — He’s not giving you a hard time. He’s having a hard time. He didn’t get much sleep last night and he’s about to go into surgery. He’s anxious and alone. Can you get him through the next few hours and then come back to this?

And I wanted to whisper to him — She’s not giving you a hard time. She’s having a hard time imagining your life which is so different from hers.

Taking a moment in the other person’s shoes can make a difference.

I now have a daily reminder to do that.

 

 

At the Post Office

Painting at the Fenimore Art Museum:  Village Post Office, 1873. Thomas Waterman Wood

Painting at the Fenimore Art Museum: Village Post Office, 1873. Thomas Waterman Wood

I stood in a very long line at the Post Office yesterday.

Post Office line definitions for a small town:

  • No line = go directly to the counter
  • Brief wait = someone already at the counter
  • Line = someone waiting, someone at the counter
  • Long line = 2 someones waiting, someone at the counter
  • Very long line = more than 2 people waiting in addition to the person at the counter.

Yesterday, when I first got there, a young couple was at the counter mailing several packages. They held whispered consultations with each other about every package. I think the cost was more than they expected. When the clerk announced, “That’ll be $79.50,” they looked at each other briefly before she swiped a card and they were done.

I still had two people ahead of me, but three or four people now stood behind me in this very, very long line.

The elderly woman at the front of the line approached the counter. She placed two packages on it.

“This one is FedEx,” the clerk said. “I can’t take it here, but you can mail this other one.”

“What?” the woman asked.

The clerk spoke slowly as she repeated in a louder voice, “This package goes to FEDEX. You have to take it down to THE COMMONS. But I can help you with THIS PACKAGE.”

I couldn’t hear what the elderly woman said, but I watched the postal clerk’s face soften.

“Let’s look at this one,” the clerk said, holding the FedEx mailer. “I don’t handle these but I think we can figure it out.”

She read aloud the instructions on the FedEx slip.

The man behind me groaned and left.

The woman ahead of me looked at me, shrugged, and followed him with her eyes out the door.

“You need to sign HERE,” the clerk was saying, “before you put it in the DROP BOX.”

The elderly woman said something.

“THE COMMONS,” said the clerk. “You know, THE SHOPPING CENTER SOUTH OF TOWN.”

The woman nodded and asked something.

“THERE’S A DROP BOX. YOU JUST HAVE TO PUT YOUR PACKAGE IN,” the clerk explained.

The door opened and closed several times over the course of this, each time bringing a wintry draft. I could feel the people behind me shuffling their feet and shifting packages between arms.

The clerk was remarkable — so pleasant, so patient, so unperturbed by the growing line. She took care of the package that was being mailed postal service and reminded the woman again where she needed to take her FedEx package, before turning her attention to the next person.

In this year of “Leaning In“, I knew that I needed to be more like the postal clerk. Too often I have been like the man who left, feeling the tick-tick-tick of time slipping away.

I don’t have time for this, I tell myself — but, really, what is so pressing?

Life is too short to rush through it.

Yesterday I learned something from an elderly woman who didn’t understand the difference between FedEx and USPS, and a postal clerk who took the time to help her.

I wonder what I can learn today if I slow down.