Writing: Before Step One

Yesterday, I was standing in line in IKEA. Specifically, I was waiting to check out in the food store which is a store-within-a-store of the main store itself. I’m not sure if all of them are configured this way. This one is.

I had gone first to get gravy. The cream gravy. The same that they serve with the meatballs in the restaurant upstairs. It comes in a packet that you can mix with cream on the stove top at home. It is my favorite gravy and far better and easier than I could muster on my own.

We celebrate the holiday on Christmas Eve with a large dinner and present opening. As my wife’s family heritage is Norwegian, and they constitute the majority in attendance, we prepare a traditional Norwegian meal. The gravy for the meatballs, though Swedish, is very close to that served in Norway. Close enough for our liking.

I often wonder if I’m the only Black man in America making Lefse (traditional Norwegian potato flat bread) for Christmas.

In any case, I’m standing in the long line with my four items… Yep, four. IKEA is one of those places where you go in to get one thing and, well… Two packages of cream gravy, lingonberry sauce (I wasn’t sure if we had some already — better safe, than sorry), and some moose-shaped pasta my daughter likes. After about 20 minutes, I had only made it up to number three in line. The lady in front of me was clearly restless with the lack of speed. At the front of the line is an elderly lady, slowly taking each of her 20 or so items, one by one, from the cart. It really does look like she is caught in some TV sports-like instant replay. The lady in front of me turns around, looks at me, exasperated, and lets out a long sigh. She throws up her hands and says without saying “Can you believe this?!”

I shrug my shoulders and ask her, “What can we do?” I have a lot of patience for things like this. In fact, in many ways, I look forward to them. Stuck in a line with things I have to buy and no control over the time that it is taking. It is these times I’m forced to do nothing but appreciate the moment. To observe the details of a life that goes by too fast. Mostly because, if not for these forced breaks, we run through it without recognizing that it will be over sooner than we ever think.

What I wanted to tell this lady in front of me was that I was quite enjoying the elderly lady at the counter taking as much time as she needed. That, this waiting was the first break I had had in a very busy day. That, most importantly, it is times like these that, as a writer, I took the time to feed my writing the only nourishment it needs — observation. That she and the instant replay lady and the moose pasta, and cream gravy, and lingonberry sauce were going to end up in an essay written by America’s Only Black Christmas Lefse Maker and she should just shut up and enjoy the silence of waiting but that her doing that would make my story far less entertaining…

It reminded me of the grand opening of the first Trader Joe’s here in Minnesota. I’m a big fan and, before that store opened here, would make a point of stopping at their locations in other states when I traveled and stocked up on all of my favorite items that are only available there.

The place was a zoo. Crazy busy. My wife and I got the things we absolutely felt we needed and got into the long line to check out. The line moved very slowly. Unusually so. And when it was our turn we soon realized why…

The young lady checking us out was named Anastasia. If I had to guess, they flew her out from California to help with the grand opening — likely having rescued her from a SoCal commune where she was a member of a cult. She had long brown-blond hair, several ill considered tattoos, and piercings in places that were, um… interesting. Her blue eyes had that wake-n-bake glaze that I have not seen since my college bathroom mirror.

Anastasia was friendly enough. Too much so, in fact. As she slowly removed each item from our cart, she audibly pondered its greater purpose in the grand scheme of existence. She suggested all of the traditional and innovative ways such a pre-packaged and microwaveable food item might serve us. She then attempted to scan each item, several times. And, if she failed after a half-dozen attempts, just shrugged her shoulders and threw it in our bag and moved onto the next. She did this for each item. Every. One.

I seriously think it took almost a half hour to check out. If was comical. To this day, whenever my wife and I get an especially chatty or spacey clerk, we look at each other and say, in unison, “Anastasia!”

And here I was, in IKEA, alone. If I screamed “Anastasia!” there would be no one else there to understand…

Are you getting the point here? This is where writing begins. All of these experiences, stories, circumstances, details, and observations.

Your life is full of them. Write about your morning coffee. Write about your messy desk. There’s a hundred stories in every seemingly boring moment if you simply take the time to notice them. And all of those stories are connected to each other in beautiful ways. Each one by itself is an essay. Yet, find those woven threads and they just might make an interesting book. Even something as mundane as waiting in a checkout line is an opportunity to spin an interesting yarn or insightful tale (perhaps the title of this one might be Stuck! Stories Of Tuning In While Checking Out).

Live life. In there is all the stuff you need before step one.

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