Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Humanity at the grocery store

I kind of love the grocery store.  The DMV.  The post office a week before Christmas.  I have a weird affinity for places full of unconscious, not-happy people stuck in their own minds.  Because you know what those places are?  A chance to practice mindfulness.  And a chance to find connection. 

It’s easy to be mindful in a yoga class or meditating next to a stream or whatever.  (Well, not easy, but relatively easier).  Being mindful at the grocery store is harder.  But guess what.  I spend a hell of a lot more time at the grocery store than I do sitting next to a stream in the forest in a flowing white dress with daisies braided into my hair. 

So the grocery store it is then. It’s one of my primary meditation places. 

It doesn’t always happen.  Sometimes I’m in my own head, stressed about work, in a hurry, upset about some interpersonal incident, wrapped up in thinking about the past or worrying about the future.  Sometimes my kids are with me, and I would have to be a friggin’ Zen master to be all chill and mindful while they’re touching the filthy floor, bumping into people, or fighting loudly over who touched whom first. 

But most of the time, it happens.  I walk into the store, hang my bags from the handle of the shopping cart, pull out my list (compulsively organized by aisle), take a breath, and slide into the zone. 

In that space, I often smile at strangers.  I offer the opportunity to connect.  Sometimes people misunderstand and think I’m flirting.  I’m not.  I’m just present, and gently inviting presence in anyone else who wants to go there with me.  Many people want to, way more people than you would think.  They just needed the eye contact or the smile to snap out of the lonely auto-pilot world they had been in. 

I wind up having conversations with strangers all the time, and many of the people who work in my grocery store are not strangers anymore. 

This past weekend, I was in the produce section, going down my list.  I had picked up another few bottles of kombucha, a fermented probiotic tea that I have been experimenting with to see if it can help with my sensitive stomach and maybe my mood.  I’m not that much of a hippie, despite all of this mindfulness talk.  I just don’t particularly like yogurt or any of the “normal” probiotic stuff, so I’m seeing whether kombucha is a suitable alternative for me. 

I saw a guy looking at the ingredients on a bottle of green kombucha. 

I finished my spin through the produce section, and he was still there, looking at the same bottle of kombucha.  Now I have tried all of the brands offered at that store, and most of the flavors by each brand.  Some are better than others.  This green stuff is the only one I poured down the drain.  Ick. 

I went over to him, “Have you had that before?”

He looked up, “No.”

“Just a warning,” I said, “that flavor is pretty gross-tasting.  But all of the ones with ginger from that company are good.”

I smiled.

And he gave me the absolute nastiest look, put the bottle in his cart, and walked away.

What the hell, dude?

I don’t know what the hell.  Maybe he thought I was flirting and couldn’t believe someone that much older and less hot than him thought she was in his league.  Maybe he’s really into the taste of blue-green algae and spirulina (blech).  Maybe he thought it was none of my damn business.  Maybe he just saw a fat woman and assumed that I think kombucha is a kind of soda to drink with my bacon cupcakes and deep fried twinkies, or whatever it is he imagines people like me eat.

Whatever his thought process, what a buzzkill.  I wandered over to the deli counter in a funk of social anxiety. 

I talk too much to strangers.  Why don’t I just shut the hell up and shop like everyone else?  No one wants to be friendly at the grocery store, and it’s none of my business what kombucha some random dude is buying.  Why did I open my stupid mouth?

I got to the deli counter, second in line after a different guy.  When the employee asked who was next, the guy in front of me said he was still looking, so I ordered my first item.  After a minute, he had clearly decided what he wanted, but I still had a bunch more stuff to get.

I asked the guy who had been at the counter first if he only had one thing to get.  He said yes, so I told him to go ahead.  I smiled and made eye contact.  He smiled back and thanked me. 

Screw you, green kombucha guy, I thought.  I will not allow you to mess with my grocery store Zen mojo.

As my reward for letting that guy go ahead of me, my favorite deli slicing employee came out from the back.  She saw me, and her face broke out in a smile. She told me how she was having the worst day, and how I always seem to show up when she’s frazzled to make her feel better. 

And then she came out from behind the counter and gave me a hug.

I almost got teary, just a little.  She was a bit emotional too.  I don’t know what all was going on for her, or why she needed that hug.  She was at work, and I was a customer, and it wasn’t appropriate to get into it with other people waiting for ham and turkey and whatnot.  But we crossed a line from transient human contact into something more in that moment, and it felt really good.

The moment passed, and I ordered my next item, feeling a little weird about having her wait on me after the lovely and fundamentally real thing we had just shared.

Another woman next to me, there with her kid, made eye contact with me and smiled.  She said, “I remember you.  I’ve been here when you were here before.  Did your hair used to have reddish-purple stripes instead of blue?”

I told her that it had, silently impressed that she remembered me, since the purple stripes were almost a year ago.

She asked me some questions about how long I keep my deli meat before tossing it, and we chatted for a minute.  It didn’t matter what we talked about.  She wanted in the bubble, the bubble of genuine human contact.  It was my pleasure to oblige.

The world can be a lonely place sometimes. 

But it doesn’t have to be. 


  1. This right here would make an awesome TEDtalk, Ignite presentation, whatever. Wonderful wonderful column.

    Although...heh, I wonder if I think it's wonderful mainly because I do the same. . . No, it's wonderful. It just is. You've taken something that probably rings true for many people and put it into words - that is such a powerful talent.

    When I was a kid I was embarrassed when my mother struck up conversations in the grocery store, but of course found myself doing it myself when I grew up. I'm going over to have dinner with her tonight; I'm going to ask her what were/are her motivations for talking to strangers. We are very very different, but she is a mindfulness guru and I wouldn't be surprised if this strikes a chord with her.

    1. Thanks for your sweet words! I'd love to hear your mom's thoughts after you talk to her!

  2. Her first response? She did it because that's what *her* mother did!

    But we had a great talk, more about mindfulness in the clinical care setting since that was her thesis. She did agree about "the bubble of human contact" - I think it gets back to our most primal need to survive by being part of a pack. The more people we've connected with in a positive way, the better chance we have of someone having our back when we need it.

    It delights me that I discovered your blog thru my pinterest search for a tattoo idea, and ended up staying to read more by this really self-aware woman! Serendipity - gotta love it.

  3. I would've melted if you spoke to me at the grocery store. But I wouldn't have ignored you like if you were nobody. THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN EVER TALKING TO ME???? I could only guess.

  4. I would've melted if you spoke to me at the grocery store. But I wouldn't have ignored you like if you were nobody. THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN EVER TALKING TO ME???? I could only guess.