I begin my mornings like a cat burglar. Before the alarm can even ring in our dark house, I turn it off, creeping down the hallway in long steps and slow shuffles to avoid the creaking hardwoods. I’ve found heel-then-toe is more effective than tip-toe, that the whole area around the dining room table is safe, and that under the window is impossible: avoid it at all costs.
Forget the bathroom, that can wait.
If I can make it fully out of the bedroom, and the house stays still, I head for the kitchen, press the start button on the coffee pot and wait.
If I’m lucky, I will finish half a cup before I hear pajama-covered feet thundering through the hall, and then, “Mom, where are you?”
If there’s a divine intervention, I can finish a full cup. Sometimes, on rare mornings, I can finish a short passage in a book or a few notes on a page. Mostly, though, it is only a swallow of coffee before I am reminded the day is no longer mine, which is both a gift and an annoyance.
I finish very little right now, and, as a result, I find myself hesitating, afraid maybe of starting something I know I won’t finish.
Why bother writing something I won’t get to?
It’s far more satisfying to write a list and cross off the accomplished tasks.
I took Benjamin to Ikea on Friday afternoon, wanting to get two small wood bookcases to organize his room. (I’m telling you, tasks.)
We sat in traffic on the highway, waited in traffic in the parking lot, finally found a space as far from an entrance as is physically possible while still remaining on Ikea property, picked out a cart with a bad wheel, was on the receiving end of irritated sighs from a handful of people trapped behind us and that bad cart, went back to the entrance with the carts, traded in the broken cart for a working one, and made it to the kids section only to discover two truths: the bookcases were sold out, and we were now equidistant from any exit.
We’d come this far, we might as well stretch our legs. Benjamin got out and played in the kids’ tents, and then picked up a few things we/no one needs, including a three-foot tall toothbrush pillow, before we headed for the checkout. He was laughing hysterically as he pretended to brush my teeth through the entire warehouse. He was so happy, I started to loosen up. Who cares if we wasted time or gas? It was fine.
As we rounded the corner on the final leg of the circular warehouse journey, a man my dad’s age caught my eye. I paused long enough to see that he was trying to pull a box from a mammoth stack with just one hand. The other arm hung down by his side, smooth and much smaller than the one doing the tugging.
I scanned the aisles up ahead and saw no yellow shirts, only a sea of people on the move. The green toothbrush was flopped over the handle of the cart, and Benjamin seemed content biting the bristles.
“Excuse me, sir, could I help you with that?”
He nodded, though I could tell having my help was not his first choice.
I yanked at the corner of cardboard peeking out, but there was only a faint movement. I pulled harder and still that long box barely moved.
Hey, do you guys need a hand with that? A man’s voice called from behind my shoulder. I turned to see a husband and wife, standing in the aisle. Both were smiling at us. The man waiting for his box looked relieved.
You know, in my younger days, I might have been offended at this offer, maybe even insisted I had it covered.
Move along, please, I would’ve thought.
But I didn’t have it covered, and the point of any of this was to help the man standing to my left get his furniture with as much dignity as possible, not prove something about mine.
So I stepped aside, and as I did, I felt relieved.
Benjamin and I walked those final yards towards the registers, and I could feel my eyes water up the way they do when I’ve seen something truly beautiful. Some of it had to do with what Blanche DuBois called “the kindness of strangers,” but it was also something else, something that I rarely spend time considering: it mattered that I started.
I might not have finished the task, might not have loaded that box on the cart, but that wasn’t my part to play. Not today, at least.
Maybe that kind Samaritan needed permission to stop, or needed to see the need, maybe he needed an obvious sign, something like a circus-sized toothbrush bobbing from a toddler’s mouth and a frazzled mom wearing her work clothes blocking the aisle.
I don’t know, but the whole way home I felt that same idea bouncing off the walls of my heart: sometimes starting is the point, is the calling, is the first step to miracles and help and kindness in the midst of chaos.
Sometimes we’ll be the one doing the heavy lifting, accomplishing much, and sometimes we will play a much simpler role.
As we waited in the long line for our turn to pay, I kissed my boy on the head, and let him scrub my teeth again. The toddler in front of us in line stopped crying and started laughing. Pretty soon her parents were giggling too, and then the serious couple behind us with all of the new dishes cracked smiles, and what had begun as a trip to Ikea became an infection of grace.
CLAIRE CAREY DEERING believes less is more, in writing and in life.