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first person

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Illustration by Drew Shannon

So there I am, standing at the customer service desk of Thrifty Foods because I screwed up on the delivery time of my online grocery order. What was supposed to preserve energy has actually resulted in an extra 75-minute drive at the end of my already-fatiguing day.

And there is Clayton, the customer service manager.

Clayton spoke to me on the phone earlier, in a calm and composed voice, reassuring me that my groceries had been brought back to the store and I could pick them up at any time or have them redelivered in the morning.

Now, he’s facing a rush-hour lineup of 10 people and I’m the idiot who wasn’t home when her food was timed to be dropped off, thus causing him more trouble. He has to make a PA announcement to whatever department so they can bring my order out.

Clayton is perfectly sedate about all of this. He wears glasses and a short beard, nondescript clothing, a shop apron with his name tag. Also, he wears a ready smile.

He makes a call, fields another call, gently tells the caller that he wants to hear the entire story but will have to attend to it later because he’s got a hundred people needing things from him at the moment. All this in a patient and friendly manner.

I mean, who is this guy?

I look closer at his name tag and see that Clayton’s been employed here since 2003. Almost 20 years. A perfectly genial person working a perfectly useful, practical job at an ordinary grocery store that feeds the people.

I mean, why can’t I be like Clayton?

The name means “clay settlement,” by the way. I looked it up. Earthy. Grounded. Yes, he has this steady, earthy energy. He must be a Taurus or a Capricorn. Nothing fazes him.

He casts a glance over at me to apologize with his eyebrows, since my order is taking some time to get here. I’m thinking, I’m the one who should be apologizing. I look behind me at the 17 people shuffling their weight from one leg to the other, hanging on to this-and-that for processing. Clayton doesn’t seem flustered in the least.

I’ve had a long day. My nervous system is one notch below anxious; in other words, it’s only due to 25 years of breath training and meditation that I’m not lying on the floor in a paroxysm of psychotic rage right now.

I’m still smiling. I’m ignoring the tinnitus in both my ears and the fact that I badly need to use the washroom. I’m breathing evenly, adjusting my posture so that I’m standing tall. I’m softening around the flutters that invade my chest cavity. I’m consciously releasing my shoulder blades from their insidious hooks of tension.

Clayton goes about his business in his easy way, until my groceries arrive. Then he thanks me for waiting. Twenty years he’s been at this. A couple of decades of making everyone’s life better.

I leave the store reflecting on how much trouble I’ve caused myself in the past two decades. I’ve agonized about what jobs I should work, what career path I should choose. I’ve chosen a few and reneged on them, then stuck with others – mostly things that don’t require more than a few hours of attention at a time and allow me to stand, sit, move, walk around, pray, daydream and relieve my bladder as many times as necessary.

I’ve mothered a lot, sometimes wholeheartedly and sometimes in a totally half-baked attempt to appear motherly. I’ve gotten divorced. I’ve broken several hearts. I’ve made numerous messes, some irrevocable. I’ve painted nice designs on a number of rocks and driftwood pieces. I’ve prayed at least twice daily.

That’s about it.

And here’s Clayton. A full-time supervisor who arrives at work on time every day to help feed society’s hungry bellies. What is my problem? Is it something in my astrological chart, or am I just an incompetent loser?

More than a few people have told me, throughout my life, that I should just get with the program. And rightfully so. Maybe. Now I see clearly what the program is. And how I’ve possibly not been contributing to the program.

I juggle my grocery bags as I walk toward my car. My car is a reflection of my personality. It is hand-painted in 11 different colours with racing stripes, flowers, a mandala, a tree-of-life, rain clouds and ocean waves. Above the windshield, it reads: “YOUR MOM” in silver. A dazzling array of bumper stickers graces its rear end. I’ll bet my bottom dollar that Clayton doesn’t have a car like this.

And I’m only just getting started. This summer, I plan to add more mandalas, more flowers, a few butterflies and some fish. And definitely more hearts.

The car is a heuristic device. I’m not Clayton because I can’t be.

The folks who’ve told me to get with the program – they believe that all of us can be Claytons. They think if we just hitch up our pants, stop pressing snooze on our alarm clocks and get out there in the big bad world with a positive attitude, we, too, will be able to be full-time workers with patient, grounded dispositions who always offer happy service to their fellow human beings.

They think it’s a choice to be odd, sensitive, exhausted and afflicted with important queries like, “How many times in my life have I actually brushed my teeth? There is a real, actual number.”

Just as it takes a village to raise a child and a diversity of colours to form a rainbow, it also takes a wide spectrum of personalities to populate a society. Rather than beating myself up for not being like Clayton, I drive home thankful for him and his service to the world and to me today.

I stop berating myself for being the weird wonderful person I am: a mother, tarot card reader and massage practitioner. I think about the way my hands feel when they’re giving an hour of healing touch to some worn-out individual who needs it. I dwell in the anticipation of taking a nap as soon as I get home.

And, with maybe a little more grace, I wave to everyone who smiles and points when they see my fabulous colourful car.

Penelope Hagan lives in Victoria.

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