“Why didn’t you tell me?” the woman — wild-eyed, disbelieving and somewhat hysterically — called over to where I was standing slightly hidden behind the next set of gas pumps.
Why, indeed? I asked myself before replying truthfully that I’d been afraid she’d resent my interference.
“I was being selfish,” I called back. “I feared you’d say something nasty in return.”
Lessons, when we’re open to them, can come in the strangest places. Even, I learned, at gasoline stations in Hazelwood.
I was making the trek from Sylva to Lake Junaluska one day last week when the light that indicates my car is low on fuel flashed red on the dash. I drove down the exit to Hazelwood and pulled into a gas pump at one of the service stations there.
I noticed the woman pumping gas in front of me almost immediately. She was worthy of notice — thin and harried looking, she was puffing, dragon-like, on a cigarette while fueling up her car.
‘Oh, gosh,’ I thought to myself.
(Actually, I thought ‘Oh, shit,’ but this is a family newspaper, after all. At least some sort of family, if not by any possible stretch of the imagination that traditional nuclear family editors and publishers are referring to when they stifle writers’ creativity and free speech rights with the ‘we’re a family newspaper’ warning. Even so, this publication certainly could be considered a newspaper for some strange dysfunctional family that really should be in therapy working on their weirdo issues … but I digress. And, I need my job, after all. But I do want it noted that I respected newspaper conventionality by writing “gosh” even though I’ve never used such a wimpy word in my life. But I’ve certainly said and thought “shit” on any number of occasions, so dear reader please mentally replace “gosh” with that Great Unmentionable curse word. Or you can mentally do the stupid newspaper bow of conventionality to those fictional sensitive traditional families editors and publishers worry about: ‘shxx.’)
So, I think to myself: ‘Jiminy Cricket, that woman is smoking a cigarette. What should I do? Tell her?’
Then Selfish Me surfaced. I thought, surely Harried Woman realized that she had a cigarette dangling from her lips. Periodically Harried Woman reached up with one hand to whip out said cigarette and wave it about, gesticulating like some mad orchestral conductor, in emphasis to some point or another she was making to an individual seated in the car.
Selfish Me next thought, ‘Holy Cow, Batman. Am I far enough away that if she blows herself up I’ll be safe? Will the ensuing fireball incinerate me in a horrible conflagration? What if I step behind my Mini Cooper — is it big enough to protect me? Why didn’t I buy an SUV, or a Humvee? No, the Cooper is too small. I’ll shelter behind the gasoline pumps.”
Even in the moment I realized that sheltering behind gasoline pumps from a possible fireball was stupid. But Selfish Me felt more protected there than not.
What was interesting, in retrospect, is how quickly I had forgotten the lessons of a parable I’d just read and thought deeply about. It’s Chinese or Japanese in origin, and is very old indeed. It goes something like this: A bunch of vine squashes one day started quarreling and fighting amongst themselves in the field. A priest, hearing them bicker, came out of his hut. He ordered them to quit harassing each other. The priest taught them meditation techniques. After a time, the squash grew calm and quiet. The priest then told them to reach up and feel the top of their heads. The squash did as they were told, and discovered the vine that connected them together. Realizing their interconnectedness, that they were really one, the squash after that got along with each other very well indeed and worked to resolve any differences.
I was contemplating interconnectedness on my way to Lake Junaluska when I stopped to buy gasoline. Somewhere deep inside I believe there was a small kernel of self-satisfaction regarding my obvious spiritual growth and unique ability to grasp ancient parables.
Harried Woman squashed that glow right into the ground.
It turns out that Harried Woman became harried because she had such difficulty getting gasoline. She was irritated by having to go inside the service station to pay first before pumping.
Harried Woman, I believe, learned a lesson that day, too: a bit of mindfulness goes a long way, and walking 30 feet extra doesn’t seem such a big deal when you almost blow yourself up because of mindlessness.
Selfish Me learned something, too: I’ve gotta long way to go.