November and Aisle Two

 Rest from Work by Vincent van Gogh
I met a woman named Sharon last night. I was on a late-night shopping run at a big-box store, and though we were never formally introduced, I learned her name from her cheerfully decorated name tag.

I had split my items into two groups to be paid for with separate credit cards. Doing so spurred a conversation about complicated shopping trips. Sharon shared with me that until a few months ago she had done all the grocery shopping for her elderly mom. After each shopping trip she would bundle up the groceries and haul them over to the nursing home where her mom lived. Sharon laughed as she explained how fastidious she was about making sure her mom's bill was correct: if any of Sharon's groceries had accidentally been rung up with her mom's items, Sharon would subtract the charges--including any sales tax--from her mom's receipt. Her mom was sure to protest: "You do all the running around for me! I can afford to give you that tube of toothpaste." But no, Sharon insisted on accurate accounting.

Rhythmically scanning and bagging my items, Sharon went on to tell me that her mom passed away just two months earlier. I urged her to tell me more about her mom, and both of us teared up as she described her mom with warm and tender words.

"My husband thinks I should be happy for the extra time I have to myself these days, but . . . ." Her voice trailed off.

"You weren't looking for a rest, were you?" I asked.

She looked up quickly, as if surprised someone guessed how she felt. "That's right. I never minded."

Being so late at night, there were hardly any other customers in the store. Since no one was behind me in line, I remained a few minutes after Sharon had finished bagging my items for me. I thanked her for taking such good care of her mom. "Your mom was blessed to have you."

"Well, she was just such a dear, special lady."

After exchanging a few final words with Sharon, I walked slowly into the dark and cold November night. The light flooding down from the store lights above revealed vividly the angled parking stripes on the asphalt. Somehow those stark herringbone lines suddenly reminded me of a skeletal rib cage. November is the time of autumn, of decay, of visiting graves, of celebrating and praying for the dead. In cultures tied to the land, autumn is a time of rest. Everything must come to rest one day. In tending her mother's final days, Sharon herself had no rest; she worked nights scanning groceries so her days could be devoted to her mother's comfort. She never minded the hectic schedule because she was focused on loving her mother.

This experience has prompted me to reflect on how I complain about feeling tired. Surely there are times I legitimately need a rest--God himself took a breather on the seventh day, after all. And while I should never simply ignore the pangs telling me my body needs to relax, I need to give more thought to the beauty I encountered in Aisle Two: the beauty of a woman paying attention to another person with care and generosity. The beauty of finding happiness in choosing to serve rather than to be served, no matter the cost.

November and Aisle Two are calling me to reflect on rest--how resting now affects my eternal rest. Benjamin Franklin quips, "There will be sleeping enough in the grave." But honestly, I'm a little unsettled by Franklin's style, his rabid American industriousness. As I continue to consider generosity and service, rest and death, my heart turns away from Poor Richard's Almanac, toward prayer. I think perhaps St. Ignatius of Loyola's prayer for generosity will be a good companion during these long nights of winter:

Dear Lord, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve:
to give and not to count the cost;
to fight and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labor and not to ask for reward,
except that of knowing that I am doing your will.
Amen.