Not Just Today – Reaching out, and reaching back on Memorial Day, and every day

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I went to the grocery store yesterday and came back with more than groceries. I came back with the reminder that Memorial Day is not just a day, it’s every day for those who have lost a loved one to war, and that reaching out to connect with the stories of others every day is just as important to remember.

We make all kinds of assumptions about people as we breeze through our day to day routines. Especially at the grocery store. That mom with 4 kids is a “yeller”. That guy with the baggy pants is a “slacker”. That man with the tattoos is a “jerk”. That woman with the pristine suit is a “snob”. The reality is that we know nothing about anyone until we know their story. And we won’t know anyone’s story unless we reach out.

I say “reach out” instead of “ask” because it is a much more intricate dance than simply walking up to someone and saying, “So, what’s your story?” I mean, you could do that, but the reception and answer you get will not be the same as that which you’ll receive through simple conversation and an attitude of openness and curiosity. Learning to dance, to reach out, takes patience and courage. Patience is needed because it’s not a dance with actual steps, it’s tuning into the music (people) and going with the flow (conversation). Courage is needed because you’re taking a risk, and your invitation to dance will sometimes be rejected, and they may not reach back.

Often this dance starts with an assumption. We see someone across the room and make a quick assessment. Are they my “type”? Will I feel “comfortable”? Do I want to spend the “eternity” of a 3 minute song hand-in-hand with this person? In other words, it’s all about us, not really about them at all. Personally, on this day, I was seeking a checker above the age of 21 so that I wouldn’t have to wait for a supervisor to check out my wine. Assumption #1 – age. She was a young woman of Island decent. We live in a region with a large Marshallese population, so… Assumption #2 – ethnicity. She was sweet, her speech a little halted with an accent, and I initially thought I’d keep to myself because chatting might be difficult for me to understand her. Assumption #3 – value. I was happy that I set all of my “type”, “comfort”, and “eternity” questions aside and reached out. I was even more grateful when she accepted my invitation and reached back.

Being Memorial Day weekend, I asked the natural question of if they’d been busy. She said they had been earlier, but that things had slowed down. I continued and asked if she would be doing anything for the holiday, or if she was working. I made eye contact, I used her name, and commented that it was interesting and beautiful. She lit up and her story began. She was from Hawaii. Her family encouraged her to go away to college, but this was very far away. I related that I had family that lived there for a time, that it had been expensive to visit, and long amounts of time passed between seeing them. She continued that the next day, Memorial Day, would be hard for her mother who’d lost two brothers and her father in the Pearl Harbor bombings. She told me, “It is not just this day, it’s every day that she thinks about them. Tomorrow will just be harder because she will go and look at their names in the water. She always cries so much on that day.” Every assumption I came to the check out line with washed away. We were just two women who knew what is was to be far from family, who loved our mothers and hated to see them hurt, and, although I’d not lost anyone to war, we both have family that served our country, and family that misses them. “It’s hard to be away from loved ones. Both miles and years.” I said. “Yes.” She said. Then we just smiled at each other. Our transaction – our 3 minute song – was over and our dance was done. “Thank you and have a good day.” She smiled brightly and waved. “Thank you, and don’t work too hard.” I said. I felt warm, and whispered another little “thank you” under my breath for the courage to reach out, and her willingness to reach back. There is nothing like a good dance.

Days like today, Memorial Day, remind us to pause, reflect, and when reaching out is made a little easier because the likelihood of others reaching back in the spirit of the day is greater, and our discomfort is lessened. But just as my lovely Hawiian checker friend said, “It is not just this day, it’s every day that she thinks about them.” And it’s every day that we should reach out.

“The secret of happiness is freedom, the secret of freedom is courage.” – Thucydides


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