An older lady came in this morning who talked a lot and I caught myself having to speak over her in order to stick to the original point. She set me on edge at first; I usually get that way if people come in and try to tell me their life story when they just need to buy a book.

She asked me about our credit policy, but seemed extremely protective of her books, and unenthusiastic about leaving them with me. She also asked for help about how she might put together a book list to keep track of what she had. I suggested the model I use and showed her how to it worked. She always seemed to want to carry on every thing she said into a long tangent about other things, and I was losing patience. I don’t know why, it’s not like I had pressing commitments elsewhere.

As talkative as she was, she seemed jittery, on edge, and for a while I thought she was two steps away from dementia of some kind. Tall woman, gray hair, solidly built, but with a soft face and sad eyes. As I think back to her snatches of speech I remember things she said. That she had sons, and had been an interpreter. That at one point people had stolen things from her, I think she mentioned losing books.

She said: ‘It’s an evil world.’
‘It can be,’ I replied.

I try not to indulge over-pessimistic attitudes in myself, or pay attention to it in others, as strong as the evidence for the contrary can be. I think though, had I listened more carefully at the time, I would have detected the deeper melancholy in her voice, and if I had been more aware I would have asked questions, maybe brought out more. How important were the minutes I’d save, against the connection with this human being, this bundle of memories, opinions, personality. I have become too adult lately, too wrapped up. I pay much less attention than I should.

As she paid for the book, she mentioned self-deprecatingly that she talked to much. Damn me, because I took too long to reply. Her eyes dropped. “I guess you agree.” she said, with that nervous smile.

It wasn’t until she spoke as she was leaving the shop, that I realized I should have listened to her. With her hand on the door, she turned to me.
“Do you have a degree in literature?”
“No, I finished at high-school.”
She smiled again. “You must just love reading. To have a bookshop. Or you’re a businessman.”
“It’s not for business”. I replied. “If I liked business, I wouldn’t be in this line of work. Certainly for the love of books, not money. I like what I do. That’s more important to me.”
“Well you have to make sure you make a living.”
“I get by.”
“It’s important to make a living so you can have time for a mind. A mind that wants to do this, or do anything.”
Now I was listening. That feeling one gets, when you realize you’re not alone settled on me. I instantly felt bad for being so dismissive. I recalled the other things she’d said. She’d been there the whole time. What did I expect? We don’t go around showing our true faces for fear of being ridiculed. For as much as we embrace who we are, we still have an overwhelming desire to protect ourselves from others and their blank stares. And yet, against our best efforts, who we are bubbles up and demands connection with others like us. So much in us is like a child, innocent and naïve. The adult in us does its best to keep it that way, if it’s responsible enough.

“Thats why we consumers are important”, she continued. “They need to buy from you, so you can have a mind to do this kind of thing, or anything you can. My sons have it, and I’m very proud of them.” She seemed taller at that moment, prouder.

All I could manage was a ‘good luck with the book list’ before she was gone.

The more I recall of her words, the more I am filled with a lingering feeling I feel is both disturbed and hopeful. Disturbed in her deep and embedded nihilism, like she had tried to keep her head above water, as do the rest of us thinkers, and then had lost the battle. Her eyes must have been etched deep with the things she’d seen, scarring her perspectives of life. And yet hopeful in that she was still relatively intact, enough to donate a little wisdom. The child was still there in her, I think, still looking for that connection.

I think from now on I’ll try to be a little more patient, a little calmer. Don’t want to miss the next one who walks through the door.

4 thoughts on “”

  1. Hello
    You are right of course. Life is about people; nothing more and nothing less. The world of ‘things’ has one heck of a pull on us however, sometimes obvious, sometimes far more subtle, manipulative. It’s those latter instances that put us firmly and soundly asleep. I can remember reading your critiques of the capitalist world, the worlds of finance, of politics, of commerce. Namely the world of ‘things’, a driven world, an inhuman, inhumane world, and above all, a world that would control us. Perhaps that was the source of those ‘pressing commitments’ you didn’t think you had?

    She sounded like a wonderful lady. Shame you missed her. I’m sure you don’t miss us all though. Not you of all people. Then aren’t we all wonderful in one way or another.

    Lots of love and a truly Happy New Year!



  2. Oh yes and by the way…

    ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’: Read it yet? If not it’s well worth the time if you can give it. Your article put me in mind of it.



  3. Great post, Shem.

    I just had CNN on with it’s coverage of the New Hampshire primary. this was a great antidote to that.

    Sorry you were less than your best with the customer. We’ve all been there.


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