Being present: Grocery store encounter transforms my day

This morning, when I looked up in the produce section and saw a woman across from me, I smiled. She smiled back. I kept running into this nice woman and finally, in front of the canola oil, we started to talk. With only a few sentences exchanged, I felt a deep respect for her bravery, efforts and struggle.

It’s so hard to remember to see what’s in front of you, Joanne Seiff writes

Looking past the chore and smiling at another grocery shopper transformed Joanne Seiff's day, she writes. (Shutterstock)

It happened at a grocery store. This shouldn't be surprising; after all, one of my first exposures to the full breadth of Canadian diversity happened at Superstore not long after I moved to Winnipeg … different foods, smells, preparations, packaging and costs from what I was used to in the U.S. So this morning, when I looked up in the produce section and saw a woman across from me, I smiled. She smiled back. Usually, when this happens, I move on, as does the other person, without a thought. This time, the woman approached me. I think she wondered if she knew me, but within a moment, she realized that I was just being friendly.

I explained then that sometimes, putting a smile on and being kind to others after a trying morning with my kids helps turn the day around. She offered that motherly nod that indicated that she too perhaps had "one of those mornings" and understood. In fact, she told me she hoped I'd "only have a reason to smile!" in the future.

Most people in the store go on their way, trying hard to focus on the task at hand and avoid running into someone else's cart. This is true for me, too, but sometimes, it's just my day to interact with others. Today was one of those. I bumped into several parents from my boys' school. Then I kept running into this nice woman whom I'd first met in the produce section. Finally, in front of the canola oil, we started to talk.

In no time, I'd learned we were both from other countries, and that, through our children, we had an acquaintance in common. Hearing I was from the U.S., she told me that she and her daughter had once been to New York, and that her daughter, now at McGill, had won the honour of making a presentation to the UN in New York City. (No small achievement!) Then we talked about girls' education, particularly in the Sudan (the topic of her daughter's award-winning presentation). She mentioned how war had torn up her country. She told me of her efforts to bring a reasonable water supply to her family's home town in the Sudan … but then she bemoaned the lack of water on Canadian reserves. We covered everything from hair colour to political issues, religion to our children's education and well-being. At the end of the conversation, smiling, we exchanged first names and went on our way.

Make a connection

This encounter transformed my day. I wondered if this family, with children who were clearly high achievers, succeeding academically, had been refugees from that war. She hadn't said so, instead focusing on myriad ideas, successes and issues beyond personal suffering. I stopped dwelling on my preschoolers' fights as we struggled to get them out the door to school. I stopped wrestling with the drudgery of groceries and wondering what I should make for dinner. The long list of household and work-related tasks vanished.

Instead, I'd had a chance to relate to another person and to make a connection. By smiling and recognizing her, I'd been welcomed into another person's active mind and acute intelligence. With only a few sentences exchanged, I felt a deep respect for her bravery, efforts and struggle. She'd made an enormous change in her life and her family's lives by coming to Canada. She spoke good, if accented, English, and communicated complex ideas that I rarely hear in my casual encounters. We'd had the kind of higher-level conversation I'd often longed for as I plowed through changing diapers, making endless toddler meals and doing laundry.

I spent the rest of my day thinking about my luck and good fortune in bumping into this lady, who had explained to me that she lived across the city. She'd only happened to be in this grocery store, at this time, because she'd dropped off her teenage son at school. I too had just dropped off my children — and headed to the neighbourhood store.

Look up

It's so hard to remember to see what's in front of you. To glance up from one's texts or emails, or focus beyond the grocery shopping list or the chore at hand. It's a cliché to suggest one has to "look up" to see a sunrise, or hold a new baby in order to remember the wonder of the world. In fact, some days, we are not likely to catch anything quite that wonderful. Instead, sometimes it's hard to see anything really spectacular at all … because we're drowning in the minutiae of our households, work and lives.

Waiting for some reason to "look up" for whatever amazing thing might happen seems to require an extraordinary act of patience — one I probably don't have. Yet by turning things around and starting with the smile first, the act of acknowledging another and greeting her, I somehow created an intense interaction that gave me something to wonder at — all day long. That woman in the crinkly silk fuchsia hijab at the grocery store? She changed my day, but even further, she helped me remember that there are so many things beyond my household obligations or the next notification "bing" from my iPad.

I felt newly grateful and lucky to be surrounded by such plenty in the grocery store, to have fresh water, good educational opportunities, and a healthy, happy, safe environment for my children. Being present for another — showing up and smiling, even when I didn't feel like it — reminded me how much we already have.

Joanne Seiff is the author of two books. She writes, designs and teaches in Winnipeg.