Right before Christmas, Mom and I were at Barnes and Noble. The store had a self-serve gift wrapping table to lure habitual Amazon customers, like myself. Those of us who braved holiday parking to venture into an actual bookstore were rewarded with free tape and appropriately generic gift paper; take that, $3.99 Amazon gift surcharge!
About 20 minutes into our wrapping, I felt another customer hovering behind us. She seemed slightly annoyed, and rightly so as my mom and I had basically taken over the table with our 10+ purchases. I moved my books to clear space, but she still seemed a little standoffish.
As I am prone to do, I instantly profiled her. This woman had bought an awful lot of coloring books. I guessed that she had caught on to the trend of adult coloring as a way to meditate in a creative way and generally SLOW down.
If you are a middle-aged white women, you’ve been similarly encouraged to buy fancy coloring books and happily wash away your cares with crayons. If you’re a Mom and incorporate this fun activity as a way to spend quality time with your child, you’re golden. Bonus points for educational coloring books. On one hand, the idea of coloring is to leisurely spend our time and slow down, but without multiple checks off the ol’ to-do list, coloring still feels wasteful for people like me who are a little high-strung.
I judged this fellow shopper in a split second and imagined the gaggle of Lululemon-wearing friends of hers opening these coloring book gifts during a ‘girls night ‘ cookie exchange. In a flash, I dismissed her as being too similar to me to be worth getting to know.
As soon as I reduced her as too much like me, I had an awareness that I was also reducing myself. What I was really saying by closing myself off to connecting with this fellow shopper was that I wasn’t worth chatting to. I was not worth getting to know.
I have a recurring story in my head that is viscous. The gist is pretty much, “I am not enough.” This isn’t verbatim, but 100 times a day I whisper a version. “I am not exercising enough. I am not a good enough mom. I am not kind enough to others.” I feel guilty for not responding to emails. I feel guilty for not working full-time. I feel guilty for relying on Trader Joe’s composition dinners, rather than the from-scratch versions I used to enjoy making.
The absolutely nutty part of this is that deep down, I secretly think this guilt prevents me from losing my grip on everything I have. By keeping the guilt and fear of loss, I am trying to control my world. And the tragedy is that by its very nature, this fear and guilt and need to control prevents me from enjoying any of it.
This was all in a mental microsecond: I came to Barnes and Noble for the same reason I came to Virginia – to better understand the world and myself in it. I came to challenge myself, get out of my routines and to connect with a bigger world. If this woman was worth opening my heart to, then maybe I was worth it too.
I took a breadth and cheerfully asked the gift wrapper, “Who are you shopping for?”
“My brother. He has Alzheimer’s.” My mom and this quiet stranger then began chatting while wrapping. Her name was Linda. Her brother was a scientist. In early middle age, Linda’s brother developed early-onset Alzheimer’s. He was exposed to many chemicals in his job as a scientist and now his mind was dormant. Coloring filled his idle time.
My initial dismissal of this woman was made on false assumptions. Reductions. I would have missed all of this, if I had let silence sit.
We all do this. We all make judgments about ourselves and each other. And if we look closely, often our greatest fears about ourselves are reflected in how we engage with others. If we can take a step back we can really see and listen to others. The paradox, of course, is that we’re really coming closer to ourselves. Even at Barnes’ and Noble.