Saturday, December 20, 2008

Merry Christmas, Shannon!

As is always true in the final days before Christmas, I had myself convinced that there could be no earthly reason for me to enter a retail store of any kind until at least December 27 and, as always, I wound up at Fleet Farm anyway. The situation was not as extreme as the Christmas Eve where I made an emergency run to Fleet Farm just before the first church service to purchase a wax O-ring so that I could dissemble a clogged toilet on Christmas day (amazingly, I have dissembled a toilet on Christmas day more than once). Today is only the 19th, but with a big snowstorm behind us and another one looming, the place was packed with last-minute shoppers.

Why was I there? I was out of niger seed. My religious identity was in some ways shaped and formed by the worst of two very different traditions: in my Catholic childhood I was schooled in the ways of Guilt, and in my Calvinist adulthood I have been schooled in the ways of Duty. So I was feeling guilty that the goldfinches had nothing to eat (we have very fussy goldfinches who will eat only niger seed, which is pricey stuff) and duty compelled me to purchase more. Which is how I found myself in a long check-out line dominated by shopping carts groaning under the weight of torque wrenches and My Little Ponies, clutching a single five-pound bag of niger seed.

On the plus side, I was in a rather festive spirit, and enjoyed chatting with the other folks in line (“Yes, I always give my wife niger seed for Christmas.”). When it was my turn to check out, I greeted the young woman with a cheery: “Hi Shannon! Merry Christmas to you!”

An aside: there are complex matters of both etiquette and theology involved in the question of whether one greets the check-out person by his or her name, given that they are required to display their name to us while we (the customers) generally do not wear name tags for their benefit. Some believe that greeting them by name pushes boundaries of overfamiliarity, given that there is an inherent inequality between the “named” and the “nameless.” Me, I figure as long as they are forced to display their name in public, we might as well have the courtesy to use it in addressing them. Theologically, I see it as honoring their worth as a fellow human being. As a friend said many years ago, “Every time you forget which waiter is yours, you have broken the commandment ‘thou shalt not kill’ because you have treated him as if he were a thing, not a person.” An extreme position? Perhaps, but there is truth to it.

So back to Fleet Farm, and “Hi Shannon! Merry Christmas!” Shannon looked up, startled, and gazed directly at me. Her face lit up. “Hi!,” she said. “I haven’t seen you in such a long time! How have you been?”

I had no idea in the world who Shannon was. Did she actually know me, or was my tone so friendly and personal that she assumed she was supposed to know me and was therefore faking recognition (and doing a good job of it)? We were in pretty deep now, so I faked recognition in return. “I’m great! How are you holding up with all the craziness here today?” We carried on like that for the next minute or so and wished one another a wonderful Christmas before I slogged out to the snowy parking lot.

I wonder whether when Shannon gets home from work tonight and her loved ones ask her how her day was, she will respond “It was really busy; I am so tired! But this older guy came through my line who knew me and I’m pretty sure I know him, but I can’t remember where from…” Me, I am pretty sure that we never laid eyes on one another before, but I like the fact that we both faked it: there is something fundamentally human and good about seeking a sense of connection between one another, even when we don’t know how that connection exists, or even if it exists. So Shannon, wherever and whoever you are, have yourself a merry little Christmas!

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