(In September of 2011, I had a call from someone named Kathleen Cail. She told me about her efforts to bring the Positive Exposures exhibit to the Cincinnati Museum Center and she wanted to plan a community conversation around it. I had no idea that by accepting her invitation to meet, chat, and plan together, I’d be collaborating with such an amazing citizen and mother. Over a few cups of coffee, I’ve learned the depth of Kathleen’s commitment to inclusion and building a more positive Cincinnati for her daughter, Grace, and the rest of us. Thanks, Kathleen, for bringing more beauty to our city and for these thoughtful reflections on the potential for even more beauty in our everyday experiences.)
The grocery store is always so busy during the holidays. There’s a frenetic feel to this time of year, and people become anonymous as they search the aisles for those items they buy once a year – the dates, molasses, ginger, candied fruit. I’m anonymous too. I haven’t lived in this area for over 20 years so I move unrecognized through the aisles. I’m also in a hurry. I’ve left my mother in the car and it’s cold outside. As I wait in line at the check-out, I am thinking of my mother – she get’s confused so I am wondering if she has forgotten why she is sitting in an unfamiliar car in the Market Basket parking lot. She might not even remember that I am the one she spent the afternoon with and that I’ve run into the store to pick up an ingredient I need for dinner. Perhaps she feels anonymous.
She’s young, and very cute, the way single, 20-something young women are. She is only carrying a basket, so she didn’t need much on this trip. She looks like she might be an independent woman, who has an apartment and is starting out in her career, post-college. There is something about her that seems lonely, or insecure, or just unhappy. She looks like she could use some joy. Along comes Joe. He might be her age or perhaps a year or two older. He’s tall, has dark wavy hair, bright eyes and a warm smile. He looks like he is caring and fun to be with. I hear him introduce himself to her. “What’s your name? I’m Joe.” She tells him her name is Anne. A few minutes later, Joe invites Anne to come into the line that I am in –it’s shorter. Anne stands behind me. Another woman asks Joe how he knows her name and comments on how he knows everyone. Joe happily exclaims, “We just met. I introduced myself to her.” Joe then walks up to Anne and extends his hand. It’s seconds, but it seems like an hour to me, as I watch this potential relationship, or a one-time friendly moment, unfold. I’m an older, wiser woman than Anne, and I see so much opportunity in this moment. Anne doesn’t though. Anne doesn’t extend her hand and looks away. Joe has recognized her, yet she is making Joe anonymous, with this one decision. Joe quickly fills the emptiness of the moment with, “Oh, I know some people don’t like shaking hands. That’s OK Anne. It’s nice to meet you.”
What Anne doesn’t know is that she missed an opportunity to brighten her day, at the very least and at the most, the chance to start a friendship with a lovely young man, who she will likely see most days she comes to the grocery store. It is an opportunity to connect, be less anonymous, and grow from the experience of Joe.
Joe is a bagger at the grocery store. He is friendly and helpful. He isn’t inhibited. He is honest, open and direct. He follows a different set of social rules. His rules are based on the desire to connect with people and build relationships. Joe is free from the social rules that preclude you from finding common ground in someone you’ve just met. Joe has a developmental condition.
In this moment, I want to turn to Anne, in the safety of my anonymity, and say, “this could be my daughter you are ignoring,” or “would you refuse a handshake if this were some successful investment banker or doctor? “ I don’t though. I remember that everyone operates in his/her box of life experiences. Maybe someday, Anne will have a friend who works with people living with a physical or developmental difference, and be invited to an event, where she will get to know Joe. Maybe Anne will get married and have a child with a developmental disability and her box of experiences will expand and blossom and she will be open to appreciating, respecting, and recognizing someone like Joe. Maybe someday Anne will accept that chance meeting and receive the remarkable gift of connection and relationship that Joe was willing to give.