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Space is the Place
As part of the notoriously laborious process of moving to New York–which I brought upon myself voluntarily, with no job or major life reason other than to “try the New York thing,” as one of my NY veteran friends put it–I had to change my mailing address. This sounds like a fairly commonplace moving chore, but in NY, it becomes a colossal ordeal.
One day I had to visit the post office to try to track down a very important piece of mail that I had overnighted from Portland, Oregon, to my new address in Brooklyn. My new roommate on the New York end hadn’t seen it yet, 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. (I would later find out the reason for her hesitation, as the Flatbush Post Office is so comically awful I can’t believe there hasn’t been a tragi-comic horror film based on the premise of waiting in that Never Ending Line and trying to track down packages that Never Were Delivered. It is a situation so unrelentingly bad that citizens actually write their senators about it– including me, eventually. I ended up receiving a cordial, boilerplate response via email from Chuck Schumer’s office well after I had left NY to return to the West Coast–“the NY boomerang,” as another NY veteran friend put it.)
But back to that envelope. The envelope in question contained my rental application and lease for my new New York landlord, and therefore, every single possible documentation of my Important Personal and Financial Information (New York landlords stop just short of requiring you to sign away the life of your firstborn before they will even process your application). 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 USPS parking lot—or tried to, but I was blocked by an idling car. A mother and daughter were piling out and fussing with an inordinate number of layers of bags and coats and personal items, delaying the process of them getting out of the car as their friend idled and waited. And as I idled, and waited.
Be patient, I thought to myself. Breathe for a second.
The mother and daughter finally shut the car door, but just as I put my foot on the gas to pull in, I saw a wallet and another persona litem lying on the pavement.
I honked, but they didn’t hear as they were making their way towards the post office entryway. I honked again, and waved. The mother looked back, confused, before tentatively coming back towards the lot to see what I was pointing towards.
Finally she saw, ran forward to scoop up her things and shot me a huge, beautiful, gracious smile, and called out, “Thank you so much! Thank you!!”
In my short but meaningful time in New York, these types of interactions became one my favorite things about that big, sensory-overwhelming metropolis (although this incident was in Portland, that little aggravation-turned-humans-helping-one-another felt like a primer for both the logistical complexity of my upcoming new city and the way in which leaning on my surrounding humanity would continually help counterbalance my stress tipping point). In a densely-packed city like New York, you are constantly called to remember the humanity and the immediacy of other people’s existence. On the subway when someone cuts their finger and ten people reach into their bags to fish around for a band-aid; in the extraordinary lines at Trader Joe’s or, of course, the post office, 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 unleash the terror of terrible hypothetical disasters 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 for their plight that 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, non-attachment, 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.