Sunday, March 9, 2014

Lenten Grocery Penances for Bourgeois Outcasts

At the evening Mass on Ash Wednesday I sat in the pew realizing that, for all my pushing away the truth of the matter, I am a failure. The proof could not have been starker -- here I was, sitting in my coat in an unheated church in the ghetto of a once-thriving, now-crumbling Rust Belt town, far away from all the things that, to my mind, had long defined not only my own life, but even life itself -- the things that had nurtured my belief that I was special, out of the ordinary, made for something important.

My older son was with me, half asleep in the pew. I shook him awake to get in line for ashes, and when it was his turn, the priest -- a gruff, stern, socially-awkward west African man with a heavy accent and a hortatory preaching style, who is known to have conflicts with some of his brother priests in the diocese and who has been mostly benignly ignored by our parishioners -- murmured to my son, as he daubed the ashes onto his brow, "Remember that you are dust, my brother. And to dust you shall return." I was struck by this entreaty; after all, Father didn't call me "my sister" -- and I mentioned to my son that Father's words to him were special. And I believe that they were, because Father loves my autistic son, and I heard his words as not only an exhortation, but also a greeting cast out across the chasm of loneliness, from one outcast to another. I recalled Father hearing my confession a couple of years ago, when I was still wallowing in my own sense of exile and loneliness (well, I still am), and I mentioned it to him; he said, "Oh, my sister. I understand." In loneliness, I became his sister. As outcasts, we were next of kin.

Of course, I've mentioned my feelings of isolation in my new hometown too many times to count. They stem from the obvious: I'm far away from home; my friends and family are at a significant remove. I can go through a day hardly seeing another adult except through the glass of my windshield; driving, while making my life incalculably better, has increased my sense of isolation, and also, I fear, my complacency. When I was still walking everywhere, I was forced to confront the poverty of my fellow walkers in the city; now I am safe from them.

Not that this place hasn't also forced me to confront my child-of-the-utopian-seventies notions about poverty, too. I have reached out to a couple of poor mothers here, and found their lives and their children's lives to be hobbled by the kind of disastrous decision-making that right-wing pundits like to rail about. But I have made disastrous decisions too. I think I know something about the fear and despair that drives people to cling to even the most harmful and toxic attachments, and I have seen that the lives of the poor are shot through with a loneliness much worse than my own.

I see now how we hold ourselves back, apart, and away from people who are not like us, and how I have done this, too. My singing was the thing that I imagined could keep me safe from the misery of broken human promises and relationships, and of stumbling and falling attempts at human love. I had something I could use to put up a wall of protection between me and the lives of utter loss and failure that are common to the poor women I have known: a key, a tool, an instrument, a wedge.

To counter this still-prevalent attitude in myself, I'm doing grocery penance for Lent again this year. I'm going shopping at Aldi's instead of Wegman's, for starters, and putting the price-point difference in our Lenten sacrifice Jar to buy formula for medically-fragile Chinese orphans. This means that I have to forego the smug sense of self-satisfaction that Wegman's lulls me into, the sense of being with other people like myself: clean, bourgeois, well-educated, able to pick out the freshest and most beautiful groceries in a warmly-lit, expansive space. Instead, I must stand out in the cold waiting, along with the gray-faced night-shift workers, the toothless, tubercularly-coughing women, and the lank-haired young mothers of children in dirty coats who ought to be in school, for Aldi's to open its doors and let us in to its boxy cheerlessness, to fill our rented carts with foods in knocked-off packaging (the Benton's graham cracker box looks so much like the Honey-Maid one, but just isn't), with brand names, like Cattlemen's Ranch and Happy Farms, both vaguely euphemistic and reminiscent of Chinese communism. 

And it also means that I have to strive to stop exalting myself, my knowledge, my gifts, and trying to use them to pry open the world to give me the things that I want, and to try instead to accept and desire being forgotten.

In "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen," one of the songs he wrote to texts by the Romantic poet Friedrich Rückert, Mahler succeeded in creating a sense of stilled timelessness, of dying to self and to the world. The text says, in translation:

I am lost to the world
with which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing from me for so long
that it may very well believe that I am dead!

It is of no consequence to me
whether it thinks me dead;
I cannot deny it,
for I really am dead to the world.

I am dead to the world's tumult
And I rest in a quiet realm.
I live alone in my heaven,
in my love and in my song.

May it be so, eventually, for all of us.


Sally Thomas said...

Aldi is where I shop all the time. I know what you mean about the brand names -- "Friendly Farms!" "Fit'n'Active!" There's something kind of relentless about them, like they think if you focus on the optimism of the brand name, you won't read the label for the ingredients. To be fair, though, I am a label reader, and a lot of it is fine. And they have good dark chocolate, and the wines and beers aren't half bad for the price. All of this came as something of a revelation to me, sometime member of organic food co-ops.

What I seriously like is that I see my First Communion children and their families in Aldi all. the. time. For them, that is the mainstream grocery store. It's where I've had more kids tell me that they've made their third Communion, or their fifth First Confession, or whatever. Also, and this may be a function of being in the South, I find that people are about five times as talkative in Aldi as anywhere else -- I've had old ladies tell me I could get turkeys cheaper at Food Lion, I've had people talk to me about how to cook cabbage, my husband and I were once stopped just inside the door by a man who wanted to show us his photo album filled with pictures of buildings on his property that were covered with coffee mugs on pegs . . . In no other store, even in my very intimate small town, do people do this on anything like the same scale.

So I really find Aldi interesting and entertaining for all its utilitarian atmosphere. And they have German stuff that, at least in this part of the country, is hard to come by otherwise. But it did take me a long time to shake that reflexive feeling that I was slumming. I've come a fair way from the day when I had to go with my husband and children to the DHS to sign up for Medicaid, and looking around me at the misery in the waiting room thought first, "But I'm not like these people," and then, "I am exactly like these people. We're all human." It's been almost eleven years since that day, and sometimes I need reminding. Even Aldi is becoming too comfortable.

Pentimento said...

Yes. To paraphrase Nietzsche, all too human. I need reminding all the time.

Your Aldi sounds nicer than mine. At mine, you get the feeling that people shopping as quickly and furtively as possible, and would rather not make eye contact, let alone have a chat. It is strictly a lower-income place. I do love that dark chocolate, and I forced myself to grab a bag of their dark roast coffee, though I haven't opened it yet. But actually I think their stuff is comparable to other stuff elsewhere. Sadly, we don't have wine in grocery stores here, and our Aldi doesn't sell beer, either.

I wonder if Aldi's owners ever dreamed that someone somewhere would shop at their store as part of a fumbling and effortful path to holiness. :)

MLN said...

You write very well. Keep it up.

Sally Thomas said...

Re your last musing: heh, who knows? One evangelical homeschooling-mother friend of mine was all huffy back in October, which is when she does her Christmas cards, because they had card selections representing Muslims, Jews, etc., but not one Christmas card that mentioned Jesus. So she wrote them in this huff and got back a response that said, basically, "Lady, we sells what sells, and Jesus don't sell." I'm sure they said it in more Euro-posh terms than that, but anyway. Somehow I doubt "holiness" is on their list of objectives, but there's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will, right?

I think the niceness of my Aldi really is largely a function of its location in a Southern small town. People just are chatty here. All cashiers, everywhere, tell you to have a "bless day" -- I'm convinced that there must be a grocery-cashier master class at the community college that teaches them all that phrase.

And a lot of older people seem to view going to the grocery store as a social event. So, fixed-income seniors looking for conversation and conviviality, plus low-budget grocery store they can afford . . . there's your formula. Add large, straggling Hispanic families that include several tiers of children I've taught in my classes, and it's like a multi-lingual community center, all the time.

Oh, too bad about the wine and beer. They have two or three brands of German beer that are truly totally not bad at all.

Pentimento said...

Thanks, MLN. And yeah, Sally, that makes sense.

GretchenJoanna said...

Mahler's words and your feelings both remind me of St. Paul saying in Philippians 3 "But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ."
O.k., well, in that case yes, may it be so for all of us.
Thank you, Pentimento, for a provoking post.

BettyDuffy said...

I love this post. And I second Sally's comments about people being chatty at ALdi. It is the same in Indiana.

Pentimento said...

I am trying to count them dung, GretchenJoanna, but I still pine for them.

Thanks, Betty. Ain't no one too chatty here in the frozen north of Appalachia.

Maureen said...

I am avoiding my 3 local Aldi stores for Lent! The chocolate! Also there are excellent cookies (the chocolate covered ones from Germany) -- For Lent I am avoiding these.

Fresh produce can also be a good buy.

I find their prices and quality on paper products and plastic bags excellent.

They feature German imports -- especially during the holidays -- Their chocolate Easter candy is a good value.

I hope you find good things when you next shop at Aldi.

Janet Cupo said...

That was beautiful.

I like Aldi because you do not have to walk forever and ever. It's more like the family grocery store we went to when I was growing up. And the produce at ours is good. And not having to choose between 52 different brands makes things easier. However, getting TO the store is almost impossible--contorted entrance off terribly busy street next to a complicated expressway entrance.

I'm always so proud of myself when I remember my quarter so I can get a cart.

Now I get to prove I'm not a robot and choose my identity. I've actually gotten to the point where my own identity will do just fine.


Pentimento said...

Aldi is not actually the least elegant grocery store here. I'd say that's Save-A-Lot, and if I were a hard-core Lenten grocery warrior I'd be forcing myself to shop there. I did go in once, but it just wasn't that good.

We have Price-Rite here, too, a store featured in this article that I read last year:

But our Price-Rite has excellent produce and meat, so going there feels more like a money-saving coup of the kind that makes me feel clever, where Aldi's has a real penitential feel.

Anne Kennedy said...

Oh the trauma of Aldi and the glory of Wegmans. I think this just completely sums up everything that is this town. You have put into words the soul of us all.

Liz H said...

I gave up self righteousness by leaving Wegmans for Lent and making Aldi and Price-Rite (right?-the one by Target…) my home for shopping. But I think I failed. I may have enjoyed the challenge too much. According to my friend we are supposed to fail at Lent in order to bring us to our knees and thus, to Jesus. To realize we can't do it ourselves and how much we need HIM to help our pathetic selves. So I only failed at failing. But I'm keeping Aldi. Perhaps next time I will try Walmart.

Pentimento said...

Liz, that's it exactly. I failed too, because, after feeling a few moments of compassion for the shared suffering of humanity at the off-price grocery store, I started feeling clever about finding good bargains, and then I started feeling proud.

But I like the idea that we're supposed to fail at Lent to bring us to Christ. And actually, I have never thought of it that way. I hope I can remember that for next year.

Liz H said...

Anne sent me here to read this since I too gave up Wegmans for lent. (and I'm hoping this posts since I have already lost one comment…) I used to joke that they should set up a zip line between my house and Wegmans to deliver milk for my kids. So for lent I decided to go without Wegmans and go to Aldi and Price Rite. But I think I enjoyed it too much. The only thing I really missed was Green and Blacks chocolate. And Baci. But then my birthday was in the middle and my husband bought all the Baci at Wegmans (he didn't give it up with me). And I ate it. So it was a failure all around. I actually enjoyed the challenge of shopping at Aldi and Price Rite and didn't really miss too much. I also gave up Facebook which just made me feel better about myself. So I failed at failing. I was supposed to fail at something for Lent. At least that's what Anne said. So maybe it was a success?

Pentimento said...

Also, I'm feeling a little giddily excited that someone else shared my Lenten grocery penance exactly. I wonder if we ever passed each other at Aldi's or Price-Rite.

Liz H said...

I would have been the one ogling over the amazing prices on large jugs of spices at Price Rite ;)

Pentimento said...

I have to tell you that Price-Rite had Green&Black chocolate bars for $1.24 last month, but they're gone now. :(

Anne Kennedy said...

So, we can all go to coffee then? L'Aveggio? They don't open till 7:30 though. Because we shop at Aldi, and love Jesus.

Pentimento said...

So I think this must be why I moved to northern Appalachia.