Lessons in Grace from the Gas Bar

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I stopped for gas this afternoon, cold and complaining to myself, huddled deep into my coat as I waited for the tank to fill. A flash of neon green caught my eye; one of our town’s more infamous characters was pulling a sled with a hot pink skipping rope handle. The sled carried a couple of black garbage bags, open to receive the day’s bounty of discarded cans and bottles retrieved from sidewalks, dumpsters and trash bins. As I watched, she approached the black plastic garbage can at the pump island where I stood.

My instinctive reaction was distaste. For some reason the sight of her and her sled made me feel something unpleasant for a moment. The idea of going through other peoples’ trash makes me so uncomfortable. It’s dirty, it’s dangerous and it just makes me shudder.  I am (I think) more generous of spirit than that, usually. In that moment though,  I was small. I’m not proud of that.

I watched her, as I pumped my gas. I could only see her bare hands from where she stood on the other side of the pump station. Such a cold day today, -25 and colder, and she dug into that garbage can with bare hands. I watched as she bent over, head going deep into the bin, digging deeply for whatever she could salvage. She retrieved a few water and pop bottles, an empty vodka mickey and a McDonald’s bag worthy of further investigation. While I watched, I started to worry. I met a street fellow in Vancouver a couple of years ago with a raging infection in his hand; he’d cut it on something while rummaging for recyclables this same way. I worried for how cold her hands must be, doing this work in the frigid weather.

As she finished up, she did something I won’t forget. She straightened the garbage bag out, making sure the sides were properly stretched down over the top before she carefully replaced the lid. She pulled out a few paper towels from the dispenser and wiped her hands clean. Most memorable to me? A small square of paper towel tore off and fell beside the garbage can. Her red, cold fingers tried four or five times until she was able to get hold of it to toss it in the bin. She moved on to the next can and started over, tidy in her work.

The cautious, careful way everything was set to rights when she was done affected me very much. The small piece of paper, so difficult to pick up with frozen fingers was not left as litter on the ground. I felt, still feel, shame for my initial reflexive distaste. While I hope I don’t have to do that in my lifetime, there is a quiet honour in what she was doing. From an environmental standpoint, she was doing us all a service. Through the salvage efforts of people like her, many discarded cans and bottles make it to recycling centres instead of the landfill. From a self sufficiency point of view she is doing something honourable too; working to earn some money despite the challenges. That effort makes liars of people who point fingers at “lazy” recipients of social assistance. From where I sit there is nothing lazy about crossing the city day after day on foot, pulling your harvest behind you in the depths of winter to make a few bucks.

I don’t ever want to have to dig through garbage to make money, but I need to feel and show respect for the people who do. All work has honour, all work has value. All people have honour and value. I need to work on empathy. It’s  easy to look away, to feel different, separate, more, better, to look for something that provides safe distance between me and “them”.   She did her work today with dignity and I respect that. I hope I don’t mean that I wouldn’t respect her if she’d left the lid off, left the trash where it fell. I hope I’d respect her no matter what, but the  grace shown in the small act of leaving the space tidy moved me in a powerful way. I hope never to be judged the way she is likely judged, every day of her life.

 

Sorry… I’ve already taken off my bra.

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Is there anything better than that? Taking off your bra? Walking in the door, shedding the boots, the socks, the belt, the earrings and necklace, and ohmigodgetitoffbeforesomebodydies… the bra. I don’t care how much it cost. I don’t care how pretty it is. I don’t care if the girls look like a million bucks when I’m wearing it. For the love of all that is holy get the damned thing off.

I am a lot smarter about buying bras now than I used to be. I check the underwire… I know what’s likely to kill me and what’s not, but it’s not fail safe. Dammit, those cross your heart hope to die pieces of feminengineering are a pain in my….soft bits. That’s right. My soft bits.

Why the HELL do I wear a bra? I don’t even have much to lift!  I realize now, living with teenagers horrified by any suggestion that their old ma is actually a girl, that I wear a bra largely to hide the occasional nipple hard on, to keep the old girls from moving, and to keep everything “dignified”.

Seriously? I suffer this kind of indignity for other people? Not even for me?! Hmmmm.

Maybe a rethink is in order. Would you REALLY be that horrified by the actual suggestion of a nipple under my (not transparent) shirt?

Yeah right. As if I could pull that off without walking around with a concave chest, bent in on myself to disguise the nakedness beneath my clothes.

Alright. I’ll keep it on during the day but lordy lordy, don’t stand between me and hoochy girl freedom the minute I run through that door at day’s end. And don’t even bother asking me to do anything after 6pm most nights… once that straight jacket’s been removed I am in, baby.. in for the night!

So not cool

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I sometimes humour myself (yes, there is a U in humor in Canada) that I am cool… cooler than moms were when I was a teenager, that’s for sure. I dress in clothes my daughters borrow, they almost never shudder with shame when I approach them in public and their friends think I’m “awesome”, at least sometimes.

So today in preparation for our upcoming holiday I went to the drug store and bought myself a couple of new pairs of sunglasses. One pair is pretty, more for around town in a sundress; the other is more serious, for out on a boat in the Pacific, or hiking in the blazing sun. So I put on the “real” pair… both of them burst out laughing…doubled over laughing. Ouch.

I am soooo not cool.

I was a 13 year old dork. A nerd. A dweeb-y loser in the wrong clothes from a weird family and I was a dancer… weirder and weirder. If there’s one sensation I remember clearly it’s trying to keep my head up while walking past the cool girls sitting on the cool bench in the front foyer of my high school. They laughed, snickered, raised their eyebrows, giggled. No matter how hard I’d tried to patch together an outfit that looked sort of like theirs it was never right. I had hand me downs (even as the eldest of 6) and didn’t have a hair cut in a salon until I left home at 17.  My look always looked like what it was; leftover, home made, a bit desperate.

Now as an adult and as a mother, clothes matter to me. Having nice clothes is important, and it was always important to me to make sure my kids had what they needed to blend in. If they want to stand out and wear something different, go for it, but at least for them it’s a choice.

And teenage girls giggling at how I look, even my own teenage girls, well that’s a sharp kind of hurt that I thought I was over. Guess not. And my girls certainly didn’t mean any harm.

So, just to prove to my husband that the glasses aren’t stupid I put them on. And he laughed.

Seriously. Who says they have to come with me to Mexico anyway…it looks like I have 3 plane tickets available…

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The glasses I bought…. turns out they’re for over prescription lenses. I don’t actually wear glasses…