“Keep smiling, bub.”
The postal worker chuckles as she offers the words, making me beam even more. She has just gone through her required litany — Is there anything fragile, perishable, potentially hazardous? Do I need insurance, receipt confirmation, priority mailing? — a barrage that always amuses me given the rote, rapid-fire delivery and the almost inherent expectation that all of these extras will be refused.
And, of course, I graciously decline. But something about my grin seems to remind her that she is in need of one, given how frazzled she was when I first walked in, carting an assortment of large boxes to the counter, while a small line began to wind its way toward her. She is the only worker manning the front of the post office. But even in her frayed state, she exudes an easy warmth. And somehow, as she prepares the postage for my lone small package, we launch into a conversation about smiles as sanity boosters when work overwhelms, which then turns to a discussion of the vintage kitchen store across the street, and how they might have just the gadget to help relieve some of her stress — something that, from her description, sounds to me like a fancy mortar and pestle for whatever ingredients she’ll be grinding for Easter dinner. I’ve never set foot inside the store but I am familiar with it, and and as she tells me about the owner and his eclectic collection of housewares and appliances, I promise to check it out. We linger briefly, chatting and laughing some more, but when I look back at the line no one seems to mind. They are smiling, too, as if we’ve all been suspended in a cheerful reprieve from our tasks and to-do lists.
As I leave, she wishes me an enjoyable holiday. “Take care, bub,” she says, and I thank her by her name — Rita — wanting her to know how much I’ve appreciated our little exchange. At that, Rita is now the one beaming and I tuck her expression into a pocket of gratitude, carrying it with me while running the rest of my errands.
This week, I’ve been showered with a bounty of such encounters. One night I fairly sailed out of the grocery store, as if I’d just visited nirvana. Yet it was the cashier who shared her stories of dressing in a white dress for Easter photos as a girl and the clerk who walked by and recognized me, asking how I’ve been, and every face that broke open as our eyes met and I flashed a quick and hearty hello that buoyed me so.
Buying stamps one evening, I bantered with the clerk about the inconvenience of square envelopes that require additional postage before asking how to pronounce his name. The question seemed to catch him off guard but as I tested it out, declaring it unusual but beautiful, his features perked up. And the enthusiasm with which we wished each other a good night as I walked away was a small, resounding joy.
They are ordinary moments, brushes with time that most of us drift through, oblivious or pre-occupied. But to me, they are small wonders. That extra minute taken to elevate the casual with earnest curiosity and compassion, to fuel a deeper appreciation into the routine inspires an aliveness that can sometimes shift the energy of my entire day. In a world that feels more wired for detachment despite the proliferation of devices tethering us instantaneously to each other, they are gifts of true connection.
The massage therapist who reminds me several times to please take good care of myself and try to mitigate my stress after working on my unusually tight and knotted muscles and then wishes me a day of peace.
The physician’s assistant so taken with my upcoming journey to Tanzania as I await one of my vaccines that she regales me with stories of her sister’s volunteer work in South Africa, and her subsequent decision to move there.
The doctor who acknowledges that, like me, she works herself into a frenzy of dread that’s often worse than the shot itself and soothes my nerves with her humor.
The co-worker who stops me in the lunchroom to ask how my first three months in my new job have been and then commiserates and laughs with me as some of my impressions match her own when she first started.
The clerk at CVS who says it’s good to see me as he walks by, his face warm and glinting. The bank teller at the drive-through who wonders where I’ve been and asks about my Easter plans as he shares his own indecision about going to his mom’s, who may decide not to cook, or taking his family out to dinner.
I want to take each of their hands, to press them against mine and say, “I see you.”
“I see your goodness and benevolence. I see a heart that shines.”
But this is not our everyday language. So I offer a glimpse of my own life, pull some vibrant thread to wind with theirs. I smile, as if that simple gesture could radiate the gratefulness that strums through every cell. And I say, “Thank you.”
There is beauty in such simple, fleeting fellowship. Though we are strangers, each with our own private sorrows, in those moments, it’s as if we are affirming that we matter, that our stories, even if unknown, do not have to define us.
This is the way we bless each other: a small act of goodwill, a passing tenderness. It is in part why I’ve always loved this poem, “If You Knew,” by Santa Cruz poet Ellen Bass. For sometimes, those moments may also be the final kindness that accompanies us from this world.
If you’re in the Philadelphia area and would like to learn more about blessings as poetry and prayer and give tangible expression to your own hopes and wishes for another, for yourself, or for the world at large, join me April 30 at the Scatter Joy Center for the Arts where I’ll be teaching a workshop on the language of blessing.