By Stella Orange
The grocery store was packed on a Sunday afternoon, resulting in a sort of grocery cart Grand Prix. Racers drove their metal carts down the aisles, vying for pole position. The intersections at the ends of the aisles were especially treacherous: not only did you have to keep your eye on the cart riding your bumper; you also had to time your entry into the turn just right to avoid collision with other carts.
And there I was, in the bean aisle, standing still.
I was contemplating my spouse’s request for what seemed like far too many cans of beans. Eight twenty-eight ounce cans of black beans. Four twenty-eight ounce cans of red beans. Two twenty-eight ounce cans of white beans. I was also considering white beans in chili. Who puts white beans in chili?
As I pondered these essential questions, I noticed a man with his cart, standing still beside me.
And then I could have sworn I felt my phone vibrate in my jacket pocket. I touched my pocket to confirm, but it was empty because I had intentionally left my phone at home.
So there I was, in a universe of grocery cart racing, standing still and responding to a device that wasn’t there.
A bit of a phantom limb phenomenon, you could say. But in this case, the missing limb wasn’t an arm or a leg. It was a phone.
Sidebar: I’ve got pretty good phone hygiene. I often leave my phone at home. I rarely check email or social media on it. I don’t have a habit of pulling it out when I’m waiting in a line. My notifications are off. My ringer is usually off.
But still: instinctively, I was feeling for it.
Craving a witness, I told the man standing still beside me the truth about what was going on inside me. “I just thought my phone was vibrating in my pocket, only to realize I didn’t even bring it,” I said.
And then something delightful happened.
He delivered this sermon:
That means you are addicted.
You are anticipating.
You are thinking ahead to what will happen next.
And when you anticipate, what that means is that you are not here.
You are in the what-will-happen
You are not here in the what-is.
It takes you away from what is going on around you.
So you can’t be present.
Because you are with whatever you think might happen.
Me, I don’t even bring my phone here.
Because I am not available right now.
I am only available to what I am doing here.
This is all my attention is for.
Being here, and thinking on what is in front of me here.
What I need here.
The decisions that I make here.
And the task in front of me here.
Getting food for the week.
And so it was that I found myself at church in the bean aisle.
I’m pretty sure this guy was a spirit creature. Like maybe an angel, or something. Because you don’t just crack off a message like that without being connected to something besides your shopping list.
I received his lesson like I was taking communion. It made sense: we are either anticipating, or we are present to what’s unfolding around us. We can’t be both at the same time.
I found validation in his message, too. Not only was it okay to leave my phone at home, but it was also necessary. We need time to ourselves, where we can attend to whatever is in front of us. Or to just be with our own experience, and present to our own thoughts.
“Thanks for that,” I said, and grabbed his hand. I kind of surprised myself as I did. Why am I grabbing a stranger’s hand? Isn’t that a little weird?
Likely, yes. But my desire to touch someone whose words had touched me was about grounding my gratitude in the physical. I hear you. What you’ve just said means something to me. Thank you.
He received my hand and we looked each other in the eyes. And then I pushed my cart down the aisle, towards the spices and baking supplies.
A teacher and advertising writer based in Buffalo, New York, Stella Orange spent a decade having adventures across Japan, the Pacific Northwest, and Montana, and another decade building a popular writing business. She is the creator of Writing Your Way Home, a workshop where people write their stories. Find out more about her work at www.stellaorange.com.