A Tale of Two Shoppers

Yesterday, for the first time in months, I was in a retail clothing store and that was only because I had to return items purchased online. The store was following all the protocols—limiting capacity, masks required, hand sanitizer everywhere. I noticed a woman loaded down with clothes approach the dressing rooms. One of the sales associates gently reminded her that she needed to wait to be assigned a dressing room. They were keeping every other cubicle vacant and wiping down surfaces after each customer. The woman replied, with a condescending sneer on her face, “Yes, I know. I don’t agree with it, but I know.”

I wanted to haul off and smack her. I thought to myself, “How dare you?” Here we are privileged enough to be out shopping on a Friday afternoon in a store that’s doing everything possible to keep us safe, and you cop an attitude because you have to wait five minutes for a sanitized dressing room. I admit, these days I find it increasingly difficult to keep my anger on a short leash. This never-ending parade of daily atrocities is just pushing me to my limit. When I got up to the counter, I muttered something about having to deal with rude customers, and the woman at the register looked up and said, “Every. Single. Day.”

But there was another customer in the store yesterday afternoon. She was a petite elderly lady, with beautiful white hair and wearing neatly pressed capris and a stylish sailor top. While I waited for a dressing room, she was engaging the associate managing that area in a lengthy conversation about the recent death of her husband, The associate listened with patience and compassion. I suspect this was the first time this woman purchased clothes her husband would never see her wear. The clerk gave me an apologetic look over the woman’s head, and I indicated I was in no hurry. Later the employee at the register explained to the woman how she could pay her bill online or bring a payment into the store. Apparently, her husband had always paid the bills, and she was worried about doing that by herself.

I crave these moments of kindness and decency. So many are trying so hard to do what’s right under circumstances that none of us have ever had to deal with before. There are going to be mistakes and there are going to be challenges and frustrations and can’t we just suck it up a little? Can’t we take a breath and pause before we lash out with a snarky comment or post a rant on social media?

I have never felt such anxiety, and anger about a future I cannot control except through my vote, which I hope and pray will be fairly counted. But sometimes what worries me most is how this me-first mentality manifests itself. It has become a badge of honor with some, including those who hold positions of leadership at all levels. Would we have survived World War II and 9/11 with this kind of behavior and reaction to decisions, that for right or wrong, are being made to protect us?  Have we lost all sense of what it means to sacrifice for the good of all, even pushing back against something as minor as wearing a mask or waiting a few minutes for a dressing room?

I’m grateful for the employees in that store and the thousands of others putting themselves out there and taking risks, so that we can live in some semblance of normalcy. And I’m grateful for the opportunity to hear that elderly shopper tell her story, reminding me of what really matters.

Two Refrigerators

We’re expecting a new refrigerator to be delivered this week. The one we have has worked faithfully for twenty-three years, but we thought we’d be pro-active and not wait until it died. It’s a nineties side-by-side with limited space, so years ago, we bought a small used Kenmore for the garage to hold beer and sodas and extra food for picnics and holidays. I use it constantly, especially for garden harvests in the summer and as a staging area for big grocery runs, which I do more frequently in these days of eating primarily at home. The garage frig occasionally drips a little condensation on the top shelf, but otherwise appears healthy and this past week, went off to a new owner. The kitchen frig will be moved to the garage when the new one arrives, and we’re crossing our fingers that it will adjust to its loss of status without complaint.

Many of us have two refrigerators as well as a separate freezer because there is such an abundance of food in our lives. We don’t give grocery shopping or online food ordering a second thought. If we run out of something, we go out and get more. If we purchase bulk packages of chicken breasts at the wholesale club, we’ve got room to store them. We are surrounded by local farms producing wonderful  fruits and vegetables. But on Sunday I was again reminded that’s not the case for an ever-growing number of people in this country. During the Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope’s sermon in the Washington National Cathedral’s livestreamed service, she mentioned a recent article in the New York Times Magazine that chronicles hunger in America. In this land of super-size me, of endless buffets, of an entire television network dedicated to food, more people than ever are going hungry.

It’s a sobering article especially the pictures of children grabbing for hot dogs and the little girl clutching a loaf of bread as though it were a beloved stuffed animal. Much of the food being consumed is processed and  nutritionally lacking—heavy on the carbs and salt and light on the fresh produce. The photo-journalist traveled across the country to tell her story, but we don’t have to go that far. The pandemic has pulled back the curtain on a reality that has been all too easy to ignore for those of us blessed with full pantries and full bellies.

I frequently pass the new emergency food hub on the east end of town and the parking lot is filled with cars waiting in line. Hunger is right here, right now. And I know some may say that those receiving food are too lazy to find jobs or they spend their money on the wrong things or they just want to work the system. Yes, there’s always going to be some of that. But until we’ve walked in the shoes of a laid-off single parent or an elderly grandmother caring for grandchildren on her social security income, let’s not rush to judgement. Hunger is never a choice.

As I wait for my fancy new refrigerator that I can fill with my latest haul from Wegman’s, I think about how some people in this article don’t even have one place to keep their food, let alone two. I cannot begin to fathom what it means to be hungry or to not know when you’ll be able to feed your family again. The Crop Walks, food banks, and many local and national organizations are fighting this battle, but it’s a long way from being won.

Find a Way In

I made a chocolate cake last weekend because my husband’s aunt was coming for dinner, and I thought she’d enjoy dessert. The cake wasn’t anything special—just a mix jacked up with a cooked homemade frosting. I froze most of it because we don’t need that much cake and put the remainder in the refrigerator. When I sliced off a piece today and tasted that ridge of cold icing, I was reminded of the Sarah Lee cakes my grandmother used to bring home from the Acme. She and I would peel off the cardboard top from the little foil pan and cut a slug of chocolate cake, (or occasionally orange with buttercream frosting) and eat it while it was still frozen, right out of the grocery bag, giggling at the audacity of 11 AM cake. Eating that cold chocolate cake today took me right back to my grandmother’s kitchen with the Formica-topped table and the little window cut in the wall where we moved food in and out for meals on the porch.

I’m currently reading a book about memoir writing where the author suggests using small experiences and tiny details to “find a way in” to your story, to get to some of the hard places. To let the taste of cake or smell of pipe smoke or a crinkled newspaper clipping open the gates and allow the memories and connections to flow.

Maybe we need to find a way in with each other right now. For the first time in my life, politics are impacting relationships, forcing me to make difficult and in some cases, heart-breaking decisions.  I feel constantly on my guard, afraid I’ll say something that may offend, and yet frustrated because I believe I have a right to speak my truth, especially when lives are at stake. I tiptoe because so many choose to stomp with steel-toed boots. I’m trying my best to go high and still stand up for what I believe is right and kind and decent. It’s not easy, and some days I’m afraid I’m going to lose it.

Driving back from the park today where I walk (I know, there’s irony in that), I noticed a number of homes had political signs supporting the same person. Several homes had signs supporting another candidate but, sadly, those signs were defaced with the names obliterated by spray paint. The owners of those homes where the signs were defaced chose to leave them up, perhaps as a symbol of where we are right now as a country.

Politics has always been a sordid business but never like this. It didn’t tear us apart and incite violence and hatred. When I was growing up, my parents used to get together with the neighbors on Friday nights to drink a few beers and shoot the breeze. They were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, and there was much shouting and laughter, especially when my mother got going. But no one ever left those Friday night get-togethers angry. Both families would have done anything for each other, and that was far more important than anyone’s political stance.

We need to find our way back into reasonable conversations and healthy arguments even if they’re fueled by beer and pizza. We need to be able to put a sign in our yard or a bumper sticker on our car without fear of vandalism. We need to find the tiny details, the shared human experiences, and the memories of who we used to be that will re-connect us and get us past this terrible and ever-widening chasm of anger. Before it’s too late.

Constancy of Crisis

Some days I feel like the pandemic has dropped a screen over my life or perhaps, more accurately, a cage. I go about my business while straining to see through the filmy mesh of worry and fear, trying to finagle my hand through the bars to reach some vestige of my previous life. I cherish what remains the same about summer—the taste of fresh corn on the cob, the pleasant exhaustion from swimming laps in the pool, the August song of insects heralding the start of another school year.

I can count the times my husband and I have eaten at a restaurant on one hand and then it’s only been outside. I enjoy cooking, but there are days when I just Can’t. Come Up. With. Something. For supper. Again. I rarely wear anything other than shorts and tee-shirts. Or put on real make-up. Most of what I buy, other than groceries, I order online, and unlike most years, I haven’t hit the stores for sales on summer clothing and sandals. I miss meeting someone for lunch without careful planning. I miss the exhilaration of being out in the world, of having a reason to dress decently or buy something for a special occasion. Like the upcoming wedding of my best friend’s daughter which we may or may not  attend, depending on what the virus decides to do in October.

I think it’s the relentless constancy of crisis that wears on my soul. When the calendar is blank except for zoom meetings, it’s hard to find something to look forward to. I am blessed and grateful not to be thrust into the fray of horror in our hospitals or managing a business or dealing with the anger of the unmasked. I can hole up in my house, safely removed from the front lines. But knowing the pandemic is always there with no end in sight, at least for now, eats away at my energy and enthusiasm. The checking that we have our masks, the wiping of the grocery cart, and the hesitancy about doing anything with other people makes me feel like I’m walking down a darkened street, always listening for threatening footsteps coming up behind me.

But there are bright spots. We zoom (a lot) with the musical organizations that we love, trying to figure out how to help them survive until this is over. We strategically see a few friends in outside settings. My husband teaches private lessons with a homemade Plexiglas screen separating him from his students, but once school starts, he will go back to virtual lessons. I putter in my garden and kitchen, do little projects and clean-outs around the house, read, swim, and watch good television in the evenings. Next week, I’m doing a virtual live writing class with Anne Lamott, one of my all-time favorite authors. This Sunday, we will go to church, for the first time since March, at the local ballpark. We will sit at socially distanced tables in a now-unused picnic pavilion, but at least we will worship with other people instead of from our living room.

Years ago, I took a seminar on classroom discipline taught by a distinguished retired administrator. I remember him walking in the first day, stepping up to the podium and saying to us in a gracious southern drawl, “When you’re given a bad situation, you have two choices. You can make it better or you can make it worse.” So many times in my life I’ve hearkened back to those words. An over-simplification? Perhaps. But right now, all I can do is choose to make it better for myself and for others, by staying away from the world and much of what I love and by learning to do things in different ways. For however long it takes.