Tuesday, December 14, 2010

When The Grocery Store Becomes Overwhelming (Pause, and Drink Coffee)

Today I inaugurated being in my hometown with the all-important trip to the grocery store. This trip is significant because this is not a local fresh organic produce market, or an overly expensive limited options grocery store on Pennsylvania Ave, or even the Peapod virtual grocery store where you search for what you want and your purchases are delivered to your door. Nope, this grocery store is your typical , so many options we don't know what to do with them, high in saturated fats and non-organic options, with so many aisles you could be filming a movie in one and the nice lady sniffing apples in the next one over wouldn't even notice. I was prepared for culture shock (or so I thought).

Our local Market Basket is only a few minutes' down the road, but it was a trip I have been dreading. I haven't operated a motor vehicle in just about 10 weeks, and the prospect of guiding our little green Honda down a stretch of 50 mph (where people actually go 67) and into the chaotic parking lot of overcrowded Christmas shoppers intimidated me.

However, this afternoon I ventured out of my driveway and down said treacherous stretch of road, and into said overcrowded parking lot. I locked my car. I walked into the automatic doors and into a blast of artificial heat. I exhaled.

My eyes had a heart attack. Everywhere I looked were blaring orange advertisements: Peppermint Candies! 2 for $0.99! Chicken Stock! Only $1.99! Campbell's Soup in a Can! Now Reduced Price! There were feathery paper decorations in green, red and gold over every checkout aisle. The fluorescent lights blared, the radio crooned Bing Crosby Christmas tunes, and I stood there, red basket in hand.

I wanted to scream FREEZE! This is going by me too fast! The noises of carts, boxes being stacked on shelves, people clamoring for attention, the steady bleep bleep of checkout lines, the music... I couldn't concentrate. I wandered through the store with an empty basket on my arm and a dazed look on my face. It was a simple task: get a carton of juice. But for the life of me I couldn't think of where and how to get the juice. Aisle 7 - where the non-refrigerated juice is stored, or Aisle 2, where the butter and cream cheese is kept? Did I want frozen make it yourself juice, or did I want juice boxes?

It is a strange thing to be so inundated with choices. The grocery stores seem to wear their number of choices like a badge of honor. If you have 35 types of cheddar cheese options, then you must be searching high and low to provide your customers with the best possible array. But what if your customer has just returned from a different place, and isn't equipped to choose from your brilliant array of cheddar cheese? What if she just wants you to hand her cheddar cheese, and guide her to the checkout, and leave the chaos for somewhere quiet? What if, when presented with choices, she can't make one?

This experience, I'm sure, is compounded when you return from a different country, where the very act of grocery shopping is not a scavenger hunt but actually a fairly brief errand. But there is something about the experience of return, and its temporary paralysis, that we all share. I can't make a decision in a grocery store, and I wander through my day marveling at the familiarity and strangeness of these sights, sounds and people. I sit in my living room, by the fire, with my cup of coffee and my computer, typing away, and I want to laugh and cry and smile and scream.

So I'm drinking coffee, and pausing in the midst of this day, to remind myself that the paralysis is temporary, that soon I will have returned more fully, and my lungs will fill with the air of this place, these people. In sign language, the sign for "here" involves moving your hands, palms facing the sky, in circles parallel to the ground (I know, a poor description... here is the sign). I find myself signing over and over, "I am here," in an effort to tell my body to rest, to exhale, to be. I don't know quite if I will ever cease to breathe a bit of DC air, feel the Potomac fever in my blood, yearn to see the people who entered my life in August and transformed it. I do hope, however, that my lungs will fill with Massachusetts air, and I will continue with great joy the relationships here. I hope that my grocery store will become more familiar.


(P.S. Remember the pink shoes post?)

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