“Wow” said the man, “you are still working at this store. I’m impressed. Most people with higher IQ’s don’t stay here very long.”
“Thanks?” I said, ringing him up.
“So what are you really doing with your life,” said another older gentleman as I bagged his groceries, “because clearly you’re just playing here.” I stared at him, irate.
On my second day on the job, 2 years ago, a woman asked me, “so what do you do?” (A note: I’m in the South. Complete strangers are far more likely to ask you personal questions about your life in the South.)
“I’m finishing up my degree in vocal performance. I’m trained as an opera singer,” I answered.
“Oh my goodness, what is a person like you doing in a place like this?” She asked.
A close friend sent me an email, expressing her dismay at my line of work, and hoping I will find something more “rewarding.” “You must be so bored out of your mind,” she wrote. “You are meant to be more than a grocery store cashier and an occasional yoga teacher.”
I’m an assistant manager at a grocery store. I found this job two years ago out of desperation — school and depression had kept me from finding a job for years, but I was in my mid-twenties and needed something to do for work. Anything.
I wandered into a locally-owned grocery store. I applied, and I was hired. I’ve been there ever sense.
The company I work for is a unique one. Owned by a local family, it sells salvaged products from larger stores like Trader Joe’s, Earth Fare and Whole Foods at a far cheaper price, helping people eat who would otherwise have no healthy options. We also help build the local economy by selling produce from local farmers, and goods from local companies and breweries. We feed the entire county, and our stores have become a hub for a complex community. I’ve made friends — good friends — with customers and employees. They have me over for breakfast, share stories about their depression, breakups, and pets.
Despite my joy at having found a genuinely good place to work, outside critics seem disappointed. People often want me to be in a high-power job that involves more brain, or they feel somehow robbed that I’m not doing vocal concerts and recitals. They look at me like I must be miserable, bored, wasting my life or my talents.
I’m not wasting my life, I want to tell them. I’m working. And I’m working here because this was the only place in our economy that I could find at the time. I’m just grateful that I had the incredible luck that the place I found was enjoyable and a good fit, too. Most people don’t have such luck.
I’ve been fighting for my life, I want to tell them — these elder critics who have the gall to be disappointed in my line of work. I’ve been fighting against depression and low self esteem for years, and claiming this job and becoming manager is a victory, not a failure. This job gives me hope.
But most of all, I get angry and frustrated at the assumption that working in a grocery store is a waste of time.
The most valuable lesson I’ve learned over the past 2 years is this: nothing done mindfully and with full presence is a waste of time.
Whether I like it or not, this is my life. Forty hours of that life are spent cashiering, managing teenagers on their first job, cleaning up messes, talking to customers, and, sometimes, being exhausted, miserable, and bored. Forty hours a week is a good chunk of my life, and what a tragedy — what a horror — to miss it. The great lesson is this: it is not prestige, power, or money that makes something worthwhile, but mindfulness. Every moment is precious.
If I choose to let my mind go elsewhere — if I choose to let my awareness and presence withdraw from my work, even when I am unhappy or exhausted or angry — it is my life that I am missing. I am missing the full experience of being human, the myriad of small wonders that make life beautiful. If I let myself withdraw from the experience, I lose all potential of happiness.
Sometimes, it is time to move on. Sometimes, we are miserable in a way that requires action, or help. Sometimes, we simply grow into new skins, leaving the old ones behind. But even here, mindfulness and presence are indispensable. How will we know what sort of misery we feel, and what response is best, if we aren’t fully present to that misery, as to an old friend? How will we know what steps to take if we only withdraw from the miracle of life?
Someday I will move on from the grocery store. I have dreams on the horizon. But till that day, I will remain present, and grateful. I invite everyone else to explore this gift with me — the gift of finding worth and joy in the present moment, no matter what that moment is.