Last week I wrote about my trip to the grocery store, and the Amish woman in the checkout line who offered us all a little wisdom on how to approach everything that’s happening. But there’s a lot more to that story.
Consider this Part II.
To recap, I thought I’d be smart and get to the Food Lion out on Route 340 right when they opened. The problem was half the town had the same bright idea. You should have seen us all
— rednecks and farmers and factory workers, everybody trying to get what we could without getting too close. What struck me as I weaved in and out of the aisles were the many ways everyone approached the experience.
For the produce guy, that Tuesday morning was just another day. It was business as usual. There’s not a finer human being than the produce guy at our Food Lion.
Always smiling, always talking, always ready to help. “How you doin?” he asked as we crossed paths. I was fine. “Great day, great day,” he said. “Everything’s beautiful.” Business as usual.
There was the woman who came in through the doors as if those were her final steps from a long trip home. Smiling, waving to everyone. Saying, “What y’all doin keepin yourselfs all the way over there?” before cackling at her own joke. Because who says humor has to die during a pandemic?
Workers coming off the graveyard shift at the Hershey plant, just trying to get a few things so they could go home and sleep before doing it all over again. For them, life hasn’t changed much at all. That’s good in some ways, bad in others.
Farmers roaming the aisles for their wives, confused about where the flour and cooking oil were but not confused about some virus, because whether they get sick or not, the cows still need fed and the corn grown.
The business man in his suit and tie walking up front with a loaf of bread and a bag of coffee tucked under one arm, pausing only to nod at a stock boy who said, “Hope you sell some tractors today, Ed,” and to which he replied, “Hope I do too, because things is thin.”
But it was the man in the cereal aisle I remember most.
The one who looked as if he’d arrived at the Food Lion that morning prepared to enter the mouth of hell itself. Mask and gloves, along with a pair of thick overalls designed not only to repel dirt and mud, but any virus this nasty old world could throw at him. He held box of Cheerios in one hand and a box of Fruity Pebbles in the other. Lifted them up like to judge their quality by their weight. As I walked by, he flashed me a look of pure hate and even purer fear. Someone up front laughed. He turned his head that way. Beneath the cover of his mask, I heard:
“This ain’t no goddamned fairytale here.”
I kept going. None of it was particularly shocking. You hear a lot of cussing in the grocery store, mostly from men who are at the same time confronting their own ignorance along with why in the world the jelly isn’t stocked next to the peanut butter. But it did bother me in a way that only now I can describe. It wasn’t what he said, really, but how he said it. Sure, he was angry, but he was scared most of all. And who among us can blame him for that?
I’ve long lived by the notion that life’s big things are better understood when viewed through the little things.
That idea was proven true once more by that trip to the store. Every one of us can be found in one of the people I shared those fifteen minutes with. Some of us are trying to keep our heads up, trying to focus on the beauty and the good that this world still offers in spite of everything. Others are just trying to get by. Some are taking it one shift at a time. And there are a lot of us who are just plain scared.
It’s true that we’re all in the same boat, but it’s also true that we’re all given a different view of the dark waters around us.
We’re all asking the same things right now. What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to think? What’s going to happen? Anyone who claims to have an answer is either fooling themselves or hasn’t thought about it enough. Because there is no answer, or at least no answer that we could ever understand.
It’s easy for people like me to say “We just need to keep our heads up, do what we’re supposed to do, support each other, and we’ll all get back to living soon.”
But for millions of people around the world, that advice simply doesn’t apply. They can’t keep their heads up because their burdens are too great. They did what they were supposed to do but still lost loved ones. They’ll say, How can I support other people when I can’t even support myself now? And how can I get back to living when the life I’ll find once this is over will be so different, so much less, than the life I’ve always known?
Try answering that in a supermarket aisle.
But I have thought about it since then. I’ve thought about it a lot. And if I could meet that man again (adhering to the six-feet rule, of course), I’d tell him he was wrong. Because I think a fairytale is exactly what we’re living, or at least something very close to it.
There are those who think life is best thought of as an equation. It’s something that should be approached logically and methodically, and every truth will reveal itself through careful poking and prodding. What is Real constitutes only those things that can be seen, studied, manipulated, or understood; all else is deemed Unreal.
Then there are those who think that every life is less an equation to solve than a narrative being written. We are all in a great story being told by a power infinitely greater than ourselves. And while we know a little about that story’s beginning and a little more about its end, those chapters in between are being written one day and one sentence at a time. It’s a story that tells the truth about us, and what it means to be human., and that truth isn’t timeless like a formula, but timely in the sense that it “comes true,” little by little with every breath we draw.
That’s what I would tell that man in the cereal aisle. That’s what I’ll tell you. Our days aren’t like a formula that needs solving, they’re a tale that needs living.
So don’t put your book down just yet.
Don’t throw up your hands and say you can’t bear another page.
The story’s not done, and the best part is yet to come.