“This is not my happy place,” I’ll deadpan across checkout lanes when I see someone I know at the grocery store in the five o’clock rush. “Fine, except that I seem to always be here,” I’ll say wryly, to a neighbor’s rhetorical “How are you?” when we recognize one another over the dairy case on a Sunday afternoon. ”I’ve got to get out of this place,” I’ll groan to a girlfriend as we pass each other coming and going down the cereal aisle, our expressions pantomiming mock desperation because we’re stuck in supermarket hell.
I repeat these running gags out of habit. They save me from having to make conversation in the middle of my errand, without being unfriendly. I suppose I’m going for comic solidarity. To acknowledge that we are all in supermarket hell together.
With a husband and three sons to feed–two of them in their teens–it does feel like I am always there. Depending on my level of organization any given week, I’m in my neighborhood grocery store every day, every other day, or if I’m really on the ball, several times a week. It’s been years since I’ve been able to go five consecutive days without having to run in there for something.
Today I was there at noon to pick up dog food and ingredients for a spontaneous Friday night dinner with friends. I didn’t see anyone I knew, but it was unusually busy for early on a weekday, and few checkout lanes were open. I got what I needed, and got in line.
Ahead of me, a senior citizen was handing over a wad of coupons. It was taking some time for the cashier to process them, and the woman’s husband looked anxiously down the line to see who might be inconvenienced. I smiled reassuringly, and then averted my gaze to the candy bar display, as if I needed the extra time to study it anyway. I unfurled the lone coupon in my hand and held it like a little flag, to show that I was one of them.
There’s a theory called the 10,000 hour rule, which suggests that the 10,000-hour mark is the point at which the regular practice of a discipline crosses over to mastery. At a conservative average of three hours a week for the past fifteen years, plus maybe 500 hours for the ten years before I had a family, I’ve got about 3,000 hours logged in at grocery shopping. That’s a long way from 10K, but in the last year or so, something changed. I stopped trying to escape supermarket hell.
Instead of resenting every second I am doomed to spend grocery shopping, I started using the time as an exercise. When there are traffic jams in the aisles, I work on patience. When the lanes are long, and the cashiers are slammed, I work on acceptance. When customers ahead of me are slow and unorganized, I work on humility. When customers behind me are huffy and cranky, I work on my prayers. Sometimes I’ve stepped up to the check out with a wallet that is close to empty, a mind that is worn with worry, and I’ve had to dig deep to find faith. Other times I have to remind myself to give thanks as the belt rolls by with everything we need and more.
The check out lanes are aptly named. I check out everyone. I wonder who they are, what their stories are. The elderly women who buy groceries for one. The moms who use food stamp cards. The men who buy cellophane-wrapped roses. The ladies who wear designer handbags and walk smartly down the aisles in beautiful shoes. The guys in suits making bombastic small talk in the self-check-out line. The baggers, several of whom have apparent disabilities. The woman who bagged my groceries today was someone I’ve seen walking around my neighborhood, shouting and gesturing wildly at nobody. Someone I’d have hesitated to engage on the street, not knowing what her situation is. It was a delight to chat with her at last. “Enjoy!” she exhorted, as I wheeled away with my cart, heading out into the rain. “Don’t let yourself get wet! Enjoy!”
I can’t think of anywhere else in my life where I get to routinely encounter such a variety of humans. Not on my quiet suburban street. Not in my comfortable circle of friends. Not in my chosen church. At the grocery store, I meet all kinds.
I meet myself there, too. I see a mom trying to steer toddlers around in a giant ride-on cart, and it takes me back to when my big boys were little, and how hard those things were to maneuver. I was constantly having to apologize to people for near-collisions. “I’m so sorry,” I’d say. “This thing is awful, but these kids running around is much worse.” I remember how difficult it was to do so many simple things then. Then I get stuck behind a frail senior, and see that the simplest things may one day become difficult again.
Through the drizzle, I pushed the cart to my car, the bagger’s benediction and commandment fresh in my ears. “Enjoy! Enjoy!”
Then the irony broke over me, and I finally got the joke. Supermarket hell may be my clearest window into heaven.
And it is my happy place.
Illustration from “Let’s Go to a Supermarket,” 1958 (out of copyright)