Throwback Lent: What the Grocery Store Teaches Us About Life


Flickr Creative Commons, Photo Credit: Kate Ter Haar

 “It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.” –David Foster Wallace, “This is Water”

Poor planning two weekends ago resulted in Fred and I having to grocery shop on Sunday, even though we vowed not to buy anything on the sabbath during the 40-day Lenten period.

Even in ordinary times, our grocery store trips are contentious. They ignite arguments that last the afternoon, the root of which is always discipline.

While I’d love to stuff myself with the latest processed invention (Red Velvet Oreos, anyone?), Fred is as constant in his healthy diet as he is in his spiritual practice. With miles of aisles tempting me, I require constant supervision in the store, the way parents have to leash their preschoolers to their wrists during public excursions.

When I shop without Fred, I dream of piling my cart high with boxed this-and-that whose ingredients I can’t pronounce. I imagine cramming a year’s worth of indulgences into a 15 minute shopping trip. But, then I think about Fred’s disappointment in my choices,  my subsequent stomach ache and guilt, and I choose apples instead.

From the parking lot to whoosh of the automatic doors, Fred and I were bitter with one other. We resented our poor planning and breaking our own spiritual rules, each blaming the other for finding ourselves in the belly of the beast on a Sunday. And so, our first sabbath grocery store excursion, with my processed food baggage and our Lenten parameters, was doomed from the start.

But, perhaps a crowded Harris Teeter on the sabbath was exactly the where we needed to find Jesus.

Small markets, big-box grocery stores, and convenience stores are often neighborhood hubs, the linoleum and fluorescent center from which local residents practice hostility or compassion with strangers who are their neighbors.

In David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College “This is Water,”  Foster Wallace shares that it is during these day-to-day doldrums of human activities (like grocery shopping) where we gain awareness of our common humanity.

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?””

–David Foster Wallace, 2005 Kenyan College Commencement Address

As Fred and I zig-zagged the aisles that Sunday, my resentment for the fresh food in our cart (in lieu of Oreos) made my grumpy. Like a sassy kindergartner, I wanted to throw a tantrum, stomp the floors with my “This is so unfair,” routine. It seems I almost never muster the maturity to realize how fortunate we are to live in a neighborhood where fresh food is available, and that Fred and I can afford to purchase it.

I was giving Fred the silent treatment when we reached the rows of cereal. As I thought of what snippy thing I could say next, we crossed paths the six-foot-something gentleman who stocks dairy products at our local store. He’s slender, with bluish hands, from what I imagine to be permanent frostbite from handing cold goods with no gloves.

He didn’t see us as he breezed past, his focus fixed on the hot slice of pizza boxed carefully in his hand. He darted between cashier stations to retrieve a King size Reese’s Cup for his lunch break, his large red Nike hi-tops shuffled as he walked—a size too big for even his looming frame. I thought of my father, whose poverty left him relegated to generic tennis shoes for decades, which he always liked to wear loose.

We’d seen the dairy stocker many times, and always stopped to say hello. The week prior, when we’d walked a mile to our grocery store on a snow day, we grabbed a Starbucks to sip as we shopped. White and green paper cup in our hands, the stocker saw us, tilted his head in recognition, and revealing a bright, horseshoe smile said, “Is that coffee any good?”

My face flushed, and I was embarrassed to be carrying the ubiquitous symbol of American yuppie life: the middle class luxury of a pricey cup of coffee, whose taste is relative.

I hadn’t imagined that anyone in America hadn’t tried Starbucks, let alone the grocery store employee who worked within feet of one.

“It’s perfect for a cold day,” I stammered, trying to imply that the coffee was a treat for us on this frozen gray outing, and not an everyday occurrence.

He smiled in agreement, his horseshoe row of teeth bright.

“This is water,” I heard David Foster Wallace say.  “This is water,” is the simple awareness of being present in the world and attentive to the fact that everyone is coming from their own unique situation, and that none of us are the center of the universe.

Here Fred and I were, on a Sunday, free enough from work obligations to shop at our neighborhood store, fully stocked with fresh food and adjacent to a coffee shop. While I pouted over the cookies I was missing, workers stood on their feet all day for low-wages, clamoring to get in too-short lunch breaks on a sabbath afternoon.

The dairy stocker and his co-workers were not at home with their children and families on the sabbath–resting or worshiping. They were working, a spoke in the American consumption wheel, in what The Christian Century has most recently called, “The War Against Rest.”

Fred and I entered in the store that sabbath day angry with one another. But, our eyes were opened to what Sundays looks like for many, we only have to be aware enough to see it.

I cannot offer the dairy stocker Sundays off, a six-figure job, or a longer lunch break. I’m not even certain I can bring him a Starbucks coffee without getting him in trouble with his manager. But I can offer a smile, a conversation, and a prayer. I can be more aware of my surroundings—more compassionate and open to the beauty of everyday encounters neighbors and strangers.

“It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.” –David Foster Wallace, “This is Water”

“This is water” and this is Lent: the wilderness that calls us from our selfishness into noticing.

Your Turn

What have you learned this Lent? What awakenings (spiritual or otherwise) have you had? Share your experiences (and lessons!) below. 

3 thoughts on “Throwback Lent: What the Grocery Store Teaches Us About Life”

  • This is lovely! I appreciate your honesty about Sabbath challenges, and the invitation to turn everyday moments into holy ones. Thank you!

  • Wonderful way to celebrate Sabbath! I give my salutations to the hard working staff at the store.

    I am a little critical about Fred’s choice of vegan food. Being a vegan I don’t see anything wrong with dairy base food like milk, biscuits, cereals, bread etc. You can’t simply be eating fruits and vegetable all the time or it may lead to weakness. Besides dairy base food helps in providing energy and protein which is required for the body.

    How is yr vegan lifestyle coming along, so far any ‘cheat meals’ at a fast food join or strong cravings for it?

    What are the odds of you returning back to eating meat in the future?

    • Janice:

      Thanks for reading!

      Per Fred’s encouragement of fruits and veggies, what I didn’t write in the post was that my cholesterol is elevated, most likely due to my love(!!) for dairy. Neither Fred nor I practice veganism (no dairy, no honey), but we are trying to watch our intake of cheese. You’re right: the ideal diet for both of us is one that is rich and balanced in whole grains, beans, fruits, and veggies.

      No cheat meals! 🙂 Today is actually the Hindu bi-monthly fasting practice of Ekadasi. On these days, I’m especially attuned to the “spirituality” of food and the needs of many hungry citizens throughout the world. It’s a good day for me to reassess what “hunger” really means and to see how fortunate Fred and I are to have access to nourishing food and clean water. It’s all about perspective, right?

      I’d say there’s slim-to-no chance of my returning to a carnivorous diet. I wrote recently for The Christian Century about “Christian Vegetarianism,” and I feel strongly now about limiting (or abstaining) from eating, especially as we know more now about the drawbacks and dangers of factory farming (both for the animals and the humans who work there, as well as the environment).

      Are you a vegan? Vegetarian?

      Many thanks again for reading!


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