The checkout clerk scowled, slid my bread, apples, and tampons across the scanner. Blip. Blip. A monotone reminder of how much money she probably wasn’t getting paid. She had dark circles under eyes and did not look up when I stepped forward. There was no cheery, “How are you today? Did you find everything all right?”
I’m not sure how old she was, but she looked like she was in her late forties. Unkempt, penny-red hair, skin pale from working long hours inside, a pair of glasses probably purchased from the eye care center just a few feet from where we stood. Her movements were slow, like she was moving through water.
The rest of the line inched forward, impatient people sighing, arms full of multi-colored boxes, carts burgeoning with junk food, crying toddlers, and various other discounted staples of modern life.
Here we all stood—in all of our motley middle class glory.
Such a thing never ceases to fascinate me. What brought that tired mother to this store at this hour on this day of this year? What prompted that retired man in the Bermuda shorts and socks with sandals to decide he needed that two liter of Sprite so badly that he had to rush out at 2:00 in the afternoon on a Wednesday? Why did that lady in the aqua blue scrubs need that case of beer, rotisserie chicken, and potato chips at the same moment I needed tampons?
I had switched lanes three times before finally settling on this one—the shortest, though, ultimately, not the fastest moving.
I could hear my own thoughts begin to grow louder.
Nice customer service. Don’t we look at customers anymore? C’mon, lady, this ain’t brain surgery, just swipe my stuff across the scanner and let’s go!
I took a deep breath and realized something I already knew.
Right there, in the middle of Wal-mart, I was reminded of the meaning of life.
Is it to live and die and become fertilizer for the next generation of plants, animals, and various other critters? I believe there is much more to it than that.
On May 16, 1974, I was born and given the name Sarah Elizabeth White. Common, pretty enough, the sound and cadence my sign—the utterance of which will turn my head in a crowd or make my heart swell with pride when receiving special recognition. My parents came together eight months before, and that mysterious alchemy, divine miracle, set in motion what I have come to recognize as my “life.”
Now, I, like other living beings, must shoulder the burden of existence. There is no way to un-exist—not in my belief system. When I die, I believe there will be an afterlife where the soul never dies.
And it all started with two horny people in their late twenties. My parents—probably sometime in the humid heat of September—shared a moment of passion, unplanned, spontaneous. In all likelihood, the idea of a child resulting from it had not been entirely thought out.
And so, here I am.
It wasn’t my choice. If I’d had the choice, what would I have said? No, Mom and Dad, I don’t want to have to deal with everything that Existence entails. It wasn’t their choice either, at least not according to the Judeo-Christian world. According to the Bible, I am here for a reason, as part of a larger plan—a soul recognized by its Creator before it was even created.
So, why was it so important that I be here, in this time, in this place, in this “now”? To cure cancer? I don’t like science. To become President? It’s not ruled out but seems unlikely.
Honestly, most days, I sit in the dim light of my apartment and grade for hours. I don’t really have that much interaction with people beyond what I get with my students and colleagues.
And, yet, here I am. Surely, the world would have and could have kept turning without me. There are billions of people here. Was it really so necessary that a soul recognized as Sarah White should exist at the turning of the millennium?
I have to admit that on the darkest nights, I feel as though I have wasted a good portion of my life. At 35, I do not have any children yet to carry on my name and family histories, nor a long lasting marriage that has weathered storms and established economic and emotional stability. I don’t have many roots.
I have not written a novel, nor lived up to the “promise” I seemed to exhibit early on in my academic career. I have a few publications and accolades, but nothing of special note per se. Certainly, no more than anyone else.
Most of my friends and family live several states away, and while they have all of my heart, they have little of my time.
At night, when I am taking a break from working, I sit down with my cats and watch movies or exercise or both—some solitary activity that winds down the remains of the day until I go to bed, wake up, and begin again.
On those dark nights, I must confess I do not always see what is so essential about my existence at this moment in time.
But, at Wal-mart, on that day, I was reminded.
In middle of that angry mob hovering around that checkout lane, the weary clerk taking so long to ring up only three items, I suddenly made myself meaningful.
“Crazy day today, huh?” I said to the clerk with a smile.
As if she had just been startled from a nap, she turned and looked me in the eyes. She smiled, laughed a little.
“Yeah,” she said quietly.
She put my stuff in the bag and handed me my receipt.
“Try to have a good afternoon,” I said with an empathetic smile.
“Oh, I will,” she replied.
“You take care,” I said.
I was born for that moment at that time on that day of that year.
And, I was born for many more moments just like it. I was born to connect with others. I was born to view other people as other selves with good days, bad days, and in-between days.
I don’t know what all had happened to that woman. Maybe she had just found out her father had cancer. Maybe she hadn’t slept well because she was worried about how to make ends meet. Maybe she had just buried her brother she lost to suicide.
I don’t know. But, I know that I have been her. I don’t know who all witnessed me treating that worn out check clerk with compassion. I don’t know who else might’ve been affected by seeing a friendly smile that day.
But, I don’t have to.
That day, I did what I was born to do, and when I went to bed that night, my time didn’t feel wasted.