As part of the notoriously laborious process of moving to New York, one day I was required to visit the post office to try to track down a very important piece of mail. I had overnighted it from Portland, Oregon, to my new address in Brooklyn, but it was MIA. My new roommate on the New York end hadn’t seen it anywhere, and offered to go to the Flatbush post office — but if at all possible, asked if I could check on the Portland side before she did that (later I would find out why; I used to think my local Portland post offices were a pain in the ass, until I experienced the Flatbush post office–a situation so bad people write their senators about it. Including, eventually, me. I imagine that amidst the slurry of other more pressing political matters local and national, Chuck Schumer might not have gotten around to looking into my request.)
As it so happens, the envelope in question contained my rental application and lease for my new New York landlord, and therefore, every single possible documentation of the applicants’ Important Personal and Financial Information (New York landlords stop just short of requiring you to sign away the life of your firstborn). Now, all my personal financial shit was apparently just floating out there in the world, somewhere between the post office in Portland, Oregon, and a mailbox in Brooklyn, New York.
I was tense, maybe even verging on frantic.
I pulled into the parking lot—or tried to, but I was blocked by a car idling. A mother and daughter were piling out and fussing with bags and coats and other items, all of which delayed the process of them getting out of the car.
Be patient, I thought to myself. Breathe for a second.
The mother and daughter finally shut the car door and made their way towards the post office entryway. Just as I was about to put my foot on the gas and pull in, I saw a wallet and another personal item lying on the pavement.
I honked, they didn’t hear, and I honked again, and waved. The mother looked back, confused, before tentatively coming back towards the lot to see what I was pointing at.
She scooped her things up and smiled a huge, beautiful, gracious smile, and called out, “Thank you so much! Thank you!!”
If not for that little bit of space I yielded between initially pulling in to the parking lot and feeling frustration, that whole situation could have gone differently. I could have honked and gotten visibly irritated at the mother and daughter, or angrily pulled in right after their car pulled away. I might not have noticed the wallet—I might have even driven over it in my haste to get a parking space. Not only would the interaction have been unkind, but that mother could have lost some very Important Personal and Financial Information if someone else had noticed that wallet instead.
All of those alternate scenarios involve the Other being separate and unimportant; the Other is a problem, an object in our way, an obstacle. But when we check our reactions, we are nudged back to recognizing our sense of connection, how much we, too, might be suddenly dependent on a total stranger. This is one of the things I love about New York, where you are constantly called to remember the humanity and the immediacy of other people’s existence. We are reminded how we can each influence each other in such profound but seemingly tiny ways.
Back at the post office in Portland, in my isolation chamber also known as a car, I pulled in to my long-sought for parking space, feeling a smidge better about life and humanity in general. I went inside, and claimed my spot in the long-ish line (a post office line I would come to appreciate as small town and friendly in comparison to what awaited me at the Flatbush post office in my new neighborhood, every time a package or piece of mail went missing–which was frequent.)
When I got to the Portland post office counter, I explained my situation: “I sent something overnight on Wednesday and it didn’t get there on Thursday. Is there any way to track it?”
“Do you have the receipt or the tracking number?”
“No.” I had completely forgotten everything about everything and thrown all my receipts away on Wednesday afternoon. “I lost it,” I lied, trying to recover some sense of being a grown adult.
“There’s no way to find it if we don’t have that tracking number.”
My chest started getting tight. “Well, what happens to overnight mail if it doesn’t get where it was sent to?”
The post office lady, seeming to relish the opportunity to bring terror on a fellow citizen, proceeded to list off Every Single Possible Worst Case Scenario: “There are just so many hands it passes through. It could have been stolen. It could have fallen off a cart and gotten kicked in a gutter without anyone even noticing. It could have gone to the wrong address….”
She gave me the number for Consumer Affairs, an office which was right down the hall but which was only available for telephone service, not walk-ins. I could see through the frosted glass window on the door that there was someone in there, but I wasn’t allowed to approach the door and knock. It would have been more natural for me to take this all as an opportunity to make a stink and get indignant about this as an example of all the bureaucratic bullshit the post office does that doesn’t make any sense.
But instead, I breathed. I noticed the very slightest relaxation of my shoulders and neck. Thanks to meditation and yoga practice, this tiny rerouting of a stress response meant I didn’t get tense at a moment when I normally would.
I sat down and called Consumer Affairs (the office I was standing right in front of and not allowed to speak to in person). After several rings–I could see the shadow behind the frosted glass sitting there immobile as the phone rang nearby–I explained my situation to the next clerk. Very quickly, we determined the cause of the mix up: I had bought a first class envelope, not a prepaid overnight envelope.
“Overnight is like twenty dollars,” she explained. I had paid about $1.50.
Feeling just barely like an adult now, and one who knows nothing about anything, I nonetheless breathed a sigh of relief. I still didn’t have the assurance that my mail was where it needed to be (I would have had to pay twenty dollars for that assurance). But at least I knew it was all just a goof (my goof). Now I knew that most likely that my envelope was just on its way, and would arrive in about three days.
Again, at any one of those points in my little post office adventure, I could have gotten fussy, desperate, impatient, and mean. I could have defaulted to the entitled, crabby, and supremely self-interested manner of conducting ourselves that we learn, by default, in a highly individualist, gratification-oriented society.
And believe me, it is not in my nature to be patient and wise in these situations. I have burst into tears at the car mechanic and boiled over in frustration as telephone clerks at the bank transfer me from one office to another like a raging hot potato. In fact, regardless of how many service jobs I’ve done and the presumed empathy I should have developed, dealing with crappy customer service, or ineffective channels of communication in the face of bureaucratic nonsense, is an area of Adult Life that a part of me will always object to and struggle with.
My only way around this stuff is meditation practice. I didn’t start to sit with the intention to be more kind—I started practice to get a handle on depression/anxiety/insomnia issues, all of which sitting practice has helped with.
But after you fill up your own tank for a while I guess you start to have some to spill over with. Your practice becomes the benefit of those around you (at least in the sense that there is now an absence of ickiness being inflicted on them that they don’t even know about), and you get the added bonus of others reflecting that benefit back to you. Meditation doesn’t make life all flowers and unicorns; it takes away your latent expectation that life should be all flowers and unicorns.
You can not always get your way, experience things that are bullshit and don’t make sense, and still feel basically okay. Even good. Like an adult!
Practicing patience, nonattachment, and the ethic of kindness that arises out of that means that instead of feeling like an entitled individualist constantly at war with circumstance, you feel peacefully—or at least slightly less aggressively—yoked to the world around you. Each of those moments where we find space instead of falling into a negative reactive pattern is a tiny yield in the cosmic bank account. All of those old patterns of reaction, and defense, and armament, can change—if you leave room for space.