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Lessons learned in the passport office line

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While some people spent the week before March Break getting ready for a trip down south, I spent a good chunk of mine waiting in line at the passport office.

I've got two toddlers and it was a calculated move to apply for their passports around March Break. I smugly thought we'd avoid lineups, breeze through the process and be home in time for lunch.

I was so wrong.

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It took five (yes five) visits to the downtown office before their passports were processed.

So here's where I start to complain about the crummy, overloaded system and the bitter, understaffed employees, right?

Wrong. It actually wasn't so bad. I mean it was, but it wasn't. First of all, the bulk of the problems were my fault. And the waiting and frustration taught me an important lesson, a lesson in mindfulness and compassion that my mother has been trying to teach me for years.

In a previous life, I was extremely organized. I was the type to remember friends' birthdays, send thank-you cards and plan potlucks.

Now I'm a mother of two boys under 4, and I'm always forgetting something. There is just too much to remember. But forgetting a sippy cup is one thing – my cognitive lapses last week were ridiculous. A psychologist might have called them a cry for help.

The details of what was forgotten are banal. I won't bore you with a play-by-play of the forms not signed, birth certificates left at home and pictures not authorized. What became present for me during this maddening week is that I'm sometimes not present at all. Life is a whirlwind and my head is frequently spinning.

My mother is a Buddhist, a devoted practitioner of mindful meditation, so I know all about the value of being present. But knowing and doing for me rarely collide these days.

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On my fourth visit to the passport office, I arrived with my two kids in tow at 4:33 p.m. The doors were being shut for the day. The office was filled with applicants, and my boys and I were the lone stragglers trying to get in.

"Please have some compassion," I begged through the closed glass doors, trying to communicate with a sequence of mimed gestures, "I am an overwhelmed and forgetful mother. This is my pathetic fourth visit. Yes, fourth! Please let us in."

No luck. The clerk at the desk pointed to his watch and mouthed, "Come back tomorrow."

It took every last bit of restraint not to crumble in front of my kids.

By the time I returned the next day, I had rehearsed several times what I wanted to say to that clerk. Thankfully, he wasn't there.

But Gillian, the security guard, was. The lineup was long and some people were rude, but Gillian was undeterred. It was obvious she enjoyed her job. She made rounds like a skilled waitress ensuring everyone's needs were met, calling out numbers, directing traffic, apologizing for unexpected glitches in the computer system. She was much more than a security guard – she was a saint.

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Watching her navigate the crowd with kindness and good humour, I softened. I became less angry.

There are advantages to waiting in line, especially if you are able to just accept where you are right now. It provides the time and space to think and reflect. It would have been easy to be frustrated about being in this smelly, crowded room for the third, fourth, fifth time. But I refused to do it. I just was.

I wasn't preoccupied or concerned about what had happened the day before, nor was I worried about what was to come.

My boys were having a great time. As we waited, they did a circuit of the room, doling out big smiles and hellos like little flight attendants.

When my number was called, I had a good laugh with the clerk who finally rubber-stamped our applications. I asked if she had met many five-peats like me and joked that I should write about the experience.

That felt like a great idea. So rather than putting the house back together or attending to the business I'm launching, which is what I normally do after my boys go to bed, I reflected on my week.

It felt good to do something for me for a change. I'm so busy accommodating the needs of others – my two boys, my husband recently diagnosed with ADHD, my mother who suffers from Parkinson's – my own needs are often neglected.

Nobody would ever guess that I once worked for a fashion magazine. All winter I've adopted a uniform of yoga pants, my signature striped top and rain boots. Like a standard-issue garment, it's something to throw on that doesn't require much thought or effort. But I deserve to give myself thought and effort. I need to work on that more.

Sometimes feeling distressed forces one to think differently and encourages a new way of being. I'm not putting too much meaning into my five-peat with Passport Canada. Yes, it was a bad week, but I've learned from it and I'm ready to move on.

I've even come to forgive the clerk who closed the door on us. He, like everyone else, deserves compassion.

And something else I took away from all this. Gillian, the saint, told me August is the slowest month at the passport office. Not March. Not even March Break.

Good to know.

Toni Brem Mullen lives in Toronto.

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