Pleasantness and the Post Office

You’ll call me a liar but the most refreshing part of my week was just spent in the post office. That’s saying something considering I also had the first pedicure this week that I’ve had in three months. Tina soaked and scrubbed my feet then painted my toes an appropriate holiday red, bringing me physical renewal, at least to my lower extremities. But the fifteen minutes standing in the post office today nourished my spirit.

After enjoying a bowl of pho for lunch with a friend on this chilly day, I realized I had enough time to stop and buy stamps for a mass mailing before driving over to sit in my son’s carline. I listened to the man in front of me first complain that he had to pick up his mail at the counter rather than collecting it from a larger parcel box. He abandoned his complaint when the post office worker showed him several checks in the stack, explaining “we don’t want to fold these to fit them in your box and can’t leave them in a parcel box because those are for, well, parcels.”

As the customer walked off, appeased, the two postal workers gave each other a knowing shake of the head before selling me my postcard stamps. I love the current design on these stamps with their various barns painted in slightly muted tones. The worker was friendly in assisting me as was his friend in assisting the woman next to me as she renewed her post office box lease.

I took my stamps and stack of postcards to the small counter in the center of the room and a lull in business began. I listened as the two men clucked and gossiped about a former worker and her many misadventures as well as her careless treatment of the mail. Their tones were casual, normal. There was no shouting about her and no raised voices. Her political beliefs were not disparaged and no comment was made about, “But what else would you expect from a (Republican/Democrat/Woman/Northerner/Redneck/etc).” Neither man wished her ill or for an accident to befall her. There were no threats or unreasonable anger or anxiety. They simply gossiped…normally.

I couldn’t put my finger on why I found this strangely soothing when an older gentleman walked in, cane in hand and donning a driving cap. He slowly made his way to the counter and spoke to the clerk, his accent tipping me off that he was a transplant from somewhere above Virginia but below Vermont. He asked when Christmas stamps would be available and when the worker said he had sold over 400 so far and was awaiting another shipment, the gentleman exclaimed, “Holy schmoly!” I couldn’t help but smile at the purity of this reaction and listened further to their conversation about how lovely the stamps of the Madonna and child are. The man needed only one stamp but life and commerce slowed to allow for this beautifully normal exchange.

A wave of cold air hit me as the gentleman made his way outside and back to his car, leaving me once more as the only customer in the place. I slowed my work to listen to the clerks. One said he had been surprised to learn the work of art on the Christmas stamp was circa 18th century. He was certain that style was more of the 15th century. His coworker showed genuine interest in his observation and listened as his friend pulled up the description of the piece of art from the Postal Service website on his phone.

I was moved by their authenticity and knowledgeable conversation. The piece had been a recreation of a recreation of a piece from the 15th century, which explained its later dating and its creation in Central America rather than Europe. “Ah! That explains my confusion! Funny that it’s a reproduction of a reproduction of a reproduction of a…oh! It says here one was a sculpture recreation and not a painting!”

“How ‘bout that! That explains it then.”

Listening to their exchange slowed my heart rate and lowered my blood pressure. I found myself breathing more deeply and was sad to discover I had stamped my last postcard. I didn’t want my chore to be finished and could have stayed and listened for an hour more. It was all so normal; so simple. I didn’t realize until later how much I had missed such scenes and exchanges.

As a child I watched Sesame Street and saw the promise that neighborhoods and civility existed; places where people chatted about stamps and paper clips, looking up together the background of a piece of art, then after work went to their friend’s apartment or garbage can to feed their cat or pet worm. The balm of community in simple tasks was a guaranteed part of everyday life, something we kids could look forward to as we became adults.

How different my post office visit was from my experience of last Saturday when I foolishly thought my oldest and I could pop into a couple of box and discount stores for some clothes shopping. Apparently Black Friday now begins the weekend before Thanksgiving and the two stores we entered were in total chaos. Customers clamored over each other in the aisles and jockeyed for position in the fastest checkout lines. Every other person I squeezed past indignantly pontificated on the current or former president, the stupidity of some debated policy or another, or bitched about idiotic decisions of our leaders.

Ninety-five percent of what I overheard in either store was mere parroting of some national news personality or another, none of which displayed any depth or nuance of knowledge or wisdom. I made it all of ten minutes in both stores before telling my teenager we’d have to return another day. The shopping, the grabbing, the clamoring, the ignorant but loud and boorish griping was too aggressive for me. My entire nervous system overloaded and I felt forced to flee. Even writing about it now makes my body tense and my brow furrow.

Taking my mind back to the post office experience of an hour ago once again makes my breathing deeper and more relaxed. The post office clerks weren’t hurried or harried. They weren’t angry and certainly weren’t ignorant. There was normalcy in my little window of time stamping postcards. There was civility and simplicity in the depth of the discussion in the room as it naturally shifted from typical, non-malicious workplace gossip to a detailed breakdown of the journey of a piece of art from the 15th century being reproduced over time and space until finding itself on a US Postal Service Christmas stamp.

I didn’t want to leave the safe space of the post office. There was no aggression or bitterness, no desperate grab for false victimhood nor ignorant pontificating on the current state of American anything. It reminded me that there was a time in our common life when we didn’t have to brace ourselves upon entering the public realm, fearful of verbal aggression or physical assault. There was a time when people weren’t constantly angry; when it wasn’t commonly accepted behavior to shout every opinion because we didn’t believe that she who shouts loudest is justified and right.

I wondered the other day why the holiday spirit was evading me this year. Halloween came and went and I failed to decorate my way into the fun and silliness of the holiday. Thanksgiving is fast approaching and I haven’t been dreaming of and planning for turkey and dressing and cranberry sauce. Then in the Post Office, in my moment of reprieve and respite, I realized it’s because the world around me has over complicated the joy and energy out of everything to the point that I can’t stand still, much less bathe in the delight of the season.

I took my time affixing that last stamp to the final postcard, holding onto the conversation I had allowed myself to wallow in and smiled. I dropped my cards into the mail slot and walked out to the car. Sitting in my van, I unapologetically turned on the classic holiday music channel, the one that plays the songs my parents and their parents played every Christmas and have become a part of my own holiday soundtrack. The sounds of the crooners and sleighbells restored some of the promise of my childhood that it truly can be that simple.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Patti Petit says:

    These rare moments of intelligent conversation, civility, and personal exchange remind us that the world is not as dark as we see it portrayed in news and print. There is a future and a hope, We must watch and prays. Happy Thanksgiving. Lets reclaim that special holiday.


  2. Carolyn says:

    Yes. You nailed it exactly.


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