A friend and lovely mother of dear children asked for acts of service for her birthday. It seems that in the news those who have dedicated their lives to what they see as the best service to our country are being fired in retaliation for the integrity of their service. How can we serve? Before I left Ashland I had a conversation with a good friend about values. What are our values? They may help more to shape the future than our goals. He said service and so did I. We may mean completely different things.
I live in a very peaceful neighborhood with solid old apartment buildings and pretty old villas with gardens. It is a bit of a boring neighborhood for my son but it feels like refuge for me, for this year off. One morning this week I went grocery shopping with all of the very old people in my neighborhood. Those who slowly go from small butcher to small bakery to little grocery store for about an hour on a Wednesday morning. Many had canes and they walk extremely slowly. In the tiny Casino supermarket an older woman bought a bag of groceries and a tiny bag of cat litter and made arrangements with the shopkeeper to have someone come later and pick them up and carry them home for her. She can still walk but she can’t carry kitty litter. So much patience and gentleness.
I was by far the youngest person shopping that morning. I want to know what it feels like to be the butcher who greets all the white-haired half-deaf people by name. Seven of us waited in line. Bonjour, Monsieur ___, Madame ____. Everyone who entered greeted all of us and we all greeted them in the tiny space. How many grams for just the two of us? How do you cook that? A very slow and probably routine unreeling and unrolling of a work day. Little sums tinkling into the cash register like a slow rain. What is it like to be there, to be so patient, to constantly tender light conversation and welcome to each who walks in the door?
That butcher will never drive a Tesla and probably rarely has exciting days at work. It’s finally my turn and I buy a big steak for my son. I like paying the high prices. Meat should cost a lot. The butcher slices it smoothly and agrees with me that my child will very much enjoy this steak. There are two different butchers, depending on the day, a man or a woman. There is service in this shop, in telling the old man to eat the meatballs first because they won’t keep as long as the kidneys. A web of kindnesses that grows thicker and thicker, waxes and wanes. I like to have my students read an old French story where a young couple tries to buy their grandmother a refrigerator so she doesn’t have to go to the shops every day. She absolutely refuses because walking down all the stairs, going to the market and talking to everyone is keeping her healthy and happy.
Where is the commitment to simply consistently be, to pleasantly serve, to continue to offer whatever can be sold that particular day? I wonder if I am capable of this kind of commitment. Maybe with parenting. At night what does the butcher dream of? I can see the pleasure he takes in tearing off just the right length of crisp white waxed paper. He reaches back without looking, snaps his wrist and swoops the paper right onto the scale, placing the meat in his other hand on to weigh. I can see his quick enjoyment of knowing the cuts, the little slits dashed into the veal cutlet, the smooth long movement of slicing the flank steak, the savvy eyeballing of weights and servings. She wanted 200 grams. He was only 15 grams off. I think 15 grams is the weight of a heavy letter. He likes his job, his counter, his knives.