I stopped into the supermarket this morning to pick up a couple of things, and by “a couple of things” I mean three. Two portions of stew beef and a bag of organic peaches. I had already been to a farm stand and was looking forward to a lunch of tuna salad, fresh lettuce, sliced cukes, and tomato wedges.

It is a Saturday in summertime and the store was as busy as it gets around here. Lots of tanned people in a hurry to get the beer and the burgers and head back outside.

Living in Vacationland is not the same as dropping in for a weekend or a week. I generally avoid grocery shopping on Saturday or Sunday, most especially in the summer, but it sometimes can’t be put off. Standing in line is an inevitable part of human civilization, a skill I long ago realized could not be evaded and would have to be learned.

Most of us try to avoid situations we think will be a waste of time.

For some, the self-checkout aisles provide a way to skip the long wait for a human cashier. Standing next to that section Saturday, in one of the aisles labeled “14 Items or fewer” I found the self-checkout’s loud, overly cheerful auto-voice and constant bing-bong tones annoying. I prefer observing the purchasing decisions of my fellow humans, eavesdropping on their interactions, and browsing the tabloids and magazines as the line slowly moves toward the end of the conveyor belt. I like exchanging pleasantries with the cashier.

Today, as I was coming up to the register, a man stopped at the end of the lane where, for a surprising moment given the action in the self-checkout area, there was no line behind me. “I have 18,” he told the cashier, “Can I come in here?”

The cashier looked at me and then at the man, tongue-tied. It was clearly up to the customer who, after a long pause, shrugged and headed to one of the unrestricted lines.

“Wow,” I said. “Usually people don’t ask.” The cashier nodded and, as we completed our transaction, a new customer entered the lane, her cart carrying at least twice the advised limit.

At home, I ran into a neighbor and invited her in to talk about our indoor gardens as I unpacked my groceries.

Lunch was everything I hoped it would be — the Platonic ideal of a tuna rose with fresh herbs from the windowsill mixed into the fish and salt and pepper ground over the whole plate. I doubt it would have tasted better if I’d gotten through the store faster or if the polite man had followed me through the line instead of the hasty woman.

Henry Thoreau said we cannot “… kill time without injuring eternity.” The minutes we spend trying to beat the clock are time stolen from our own lives. This precious summer morning will never come again and the way we hold it is all that really matters.

The man who asked for permission will always have that moment of kindness and honesty; the woman who pushed her overfilled cart into the lane behind me will forever own her impatience.

In our last moments, when our lives flash before our eyes, what memories will we face? What instant of emotion will we carry into eternity?

Shlomit Auciello is a writer, photographer, and human ecologist who has lived in Midcoast Maine since 1988. Letter From Away has appeared online and in print, on and off since 1992, and is published here on a weekly basis.