Life is rather mundane most of the time. We spend the majority of our minutes in activities neither enlightening nor thrilling. It’s a shame, but true. But on occasion, if you open yourself to the wonderment of the mundane, you can transcend the flatness of ordinary to rise in serendipitous delight. Personally, I am fascinated by enlightening encounters with others while completing mundane tasks that no one really wants to do.
I’m talking about the activities that land near zero on the pleasure scale. This doesn’t include the tasks that hit the negative scores and plunge into the anti-pleasure (or pain) section. The Laundromat rates a zero. The dentist may plunge to a minus four or lower. Barton Springs hits is a definite ten. Exploring Central Market may score a five but regular grocery shopping flattens out at zero.
It’s these zero-score activities that provide the most interesting view of humanity. Too far on either end of the scale and everyone is either too wrapped up in pleasure or wincing in pain. But the zero level offers room for interesting occurrences. Such was the case recently when I was engaged in a zero activity that was heading rapidly toward a serious minus.
Right before a holiday I entered the grocery with trepidation. Having hiked in from the back-forty parking lot, I entered the madness of hunting and gathering in a urban setting—otherwise known as H×E×B. From the vegetables on one end to the drugs on the other, the place was mobbed with baskets propelled by anxious pushers.
After only two aisles I considered abandoning my chore. These weren’t shoppers, they were an angry mob. Women were ramming baskets. Children were running for their lives. An elderly woman huddled in the protection of the seafood counter. Snarls, snips and outright verbal abuse abounded. Kids were slapped. Mates stormed off. It was ugly. My fight-or-flight response kicked in. I paused in the wine section for a respite. Apparently the hurried and harried don’t drink the stuff. And who knows, this may be the happy day when they break tradition and offer samples of good wine instead of snack foods.
I realized I was taking on the mood of the mob and needed an attitude adjustment before continuing. I decided to be very Zen-like about the whole experience, leave the hunt to others and just quietly gather.
Approaching the baking-goods aisle, I entered the eye of the storm. Aggressive was the mode of movement. The soup aisle offered the basket-as-bumper-car option. As I passed, a woman with a three-foot-wide backside and the face of a scowling bulldog rammed my basket. I yielded right of way and moved my Zen self aside.
I abandoned my basket to fetch flour unprotected. But as I entered the aisle I was struck, not by a basket, but by the calmness—no, the absolute joy—that permeated the dense crowd. Being in a Zen state, you understand, allowed me to disconnect from my task and observe. The same folks who were growling in the soup aisle were smiling here. What was going on?
My ears tuned out the Muzak and detected the purest sound of extraordinary clarity—a familiar bar of music delivered with such crispness that I entertained the idea of contact from beyond. Would the dead really call me at the grocery? Would the aliens speak to me in front of the lard? Certainly not.
The source was a young stock clerk busily reloading spices and whistling. His back to the crowd, he serenaded no one yet everyone heard. I have never heard whistling so melodious. The fascinating part of this was the effect on everyone within range. People were smiling. One woman hummed along, perhaps not even aware of the reason. Frowns disappeared. Eyes sparkled. The mob became a tribe.
I scouted the adjacent aisles—the mob ruled. I parked myself next to the whistler’s ladder and watched. Everyone who entered his domain was affected. Here in the most mundane of activities, I watched the subliminal impact of one human engaged in a solitary practice. Oblivious of everything outside the spice jars in his grasp, he seemed unaware of his own symphony and had no idea of its effect.
The three-footer darkened the end of the aisle. It felt as though the bulldog had just encountered the little kitties dancing. Who would be crushed first? But the scene was too captivating to flee. The whistler whistled. The shoppers laughed. The bulldog advanced.
Would she hear the sound? Would a bulldog sense the subtleties of melody in the middle of an attack ? I watched as the most amazing metamorphosis occurred. Six feet from the whistler, the bulldog stopped, her head turning from side to side trying to pick up the frequency. Locking in, she began the arduous task of upturning the edges of her snarl. Her eyes opened wide. Her brow lifted. She released her white-knuckle grip on the basket and stood up straighter. By four feet away she was swaying to the melody. Two feet closer and she was laughing and sashaying down the aisle. Passing the whistler, she started humming and greeting other shoppers. By the other end of the aisle I do believe I heard a gospel note break out.
I marveled at the connectivity of strangers engaged in a zero task. I was reminded that, even when we are unaware of it, our actions escape our personal spheres to affect others. But it’s the serendipitous nature of this that delighted me most.
I exited the store with a smile, passing hurried shoppers entering the chaos. Would they hear? I wanted to tell them to find the whistler, but didn’t. That would have robbed them of serendipitous discovery and ruined it.