Getting Out of the Way
Sacredness, as I have known it, is something unattached to liturgy. I have found that most worship exists outside formal ceremony: it is the way we spend our time; its object is the object of our attention, the things in which we find slivers of the divine. Outside of the explicitness of belief structures, small rituals arise, and our idiosyncrasies become holy artifacts of our identity, the daily affirmations of our character that we repeat to ourselves in the language of habit. As we model our belief more in action than in profession, we compile a litany of tasks that allow us to invoke something sacred in the preparation of coffee, the folding of sheets. Our routines, wordless reminders of the unchanging, answer our supplication for the comfort of stability.
Touring is a unique and inverted mode of travel that reframes destinations as temporary and journeys as permanent, that makes the need for routine, the search for sacredness, more pronounced. A life lived in transit demands a person become more accustomed to the intermediary than the static, and requires the skill of crafting familiarity from foreignness.
One of the places that this approximation of the familiar takes place for me is The Store: the moniker encompassing supermarkets, 24-hour pharmacies, convenience stores, and gas stations. They appear like neon obelisks from the desolate interstate or small citadels nestled inside industrial parks, monuments to big oil and snack foods, recognizable landmarks signaling respite in a strange terrain. Each is fundamentally the same, linoleum aisles of brightly packaged snack bars and fluorescent colored soft drinks under harsh lighting. For all of the criticism I heap onto multinational corporations and massive chains that own the means of production, I find myself among their patrons often—there is a paradoxical, personal feeling of security I derive from the uniformity of massive retail titans, despite my objection to their existence in principle.
The pilgrimage to The Store is a ritual exercise of re-centering that anchors me in something common and universal; strangers converge at a single nexus for that unavoidable suburban rite, the completion of errands, and I happily join the other shoppers wandering through rows of soda, dog food, and detergent like a sleepy school of fish.
At nearly midnight in downtown Eau Claire, Wisconsin, after most everything in walking distance has closed, this craving for the familiar—and literal hunger, along with the reluctance to take a gamble on the late night menu of the local dive-bar—prompts me to call an Uber to transport me to a humble Kwik-Mart.
As I climb inside, the driver, a short, chipper woman not much older than I am, asks in a puzzled voice, “Goin’ to get groceries, huh? Now?”
I explain that I am playing the festival and have just arrived, and confess my distrust of bar food. She nods understandingly and looks into the rearview mirror.
“Well, whaddya eat?” she asks.
I tell her I don’t eat meat, joke that I have aged out of the time in my life where Oreos (though technically vegan) can constitute a healthy meal.
“Oh, honey, I know. It’s hard on the road. I actually don’t eat meat either,” she adds, in a friendly, midwestern bray. “I try to eat real healthy, organic and all that stuff. It’s crazy what they put in foods nowadays— stuff’ll kill you, you know.”
When I complain casually about the state of global food production (GMOs, am I right?), she responds with sudden intensity, “They know they’re doing it! Those big companies, they do it because it’s cheap, and because they’re tied in with Big Pharmaceuticals. They feed people stuff that makes ’em sick on purpose, and turn a profit off it!”
I’m surprised, but not offended, more impressed by than uncomfortable with her ability to confidently circumvent the usual barrier of civility erected between strangers and dive headfirst into topics usually omitted from small talk.
Skepticism discourages our belief in the extreme, but even the extreme serves as a barometer of society, reveals something of our fears and values. And after all, the distance between science fiction and reality seems ever diminished by the creation of a new vocabulary for the phenomenon of genetically modified foods (not to mention data mining, surveillance omnipresence, robotic automation, and the like)—the realities of a modern industry in which profitability supersedes ethics, humans are regarded as capital, and the desire for inexpensive goods exceeds concern for environmental cost.
So when my Uber driver says ominously, “Monsanto, Pfizer, Wal-Mart, they’re all in it together, ya know,” I think, I mean, who knows? Probably.
“Sounds like engineering a need, then selling a solution,” I observe.
“Exactly!” she exclaims, her messy bun jiggling as she points an emphatic finger at me in the rearview mirror.
“If you eat healthy, you sure you wanna go here?” she inquires. “There’s a market with healthier stuff just up the highway.”
Thankful for her suggestion, I agree to lengthen my trip slightly and change destinations.
We talk about the influence of nourishment on mental health, the class stratification of wellness, and I regretfully compare the United States’ food culture to that of the rest of the world.
She groans in agreement, telling me how much she loves Europe, how difficult it was getting used to the food in the United States again after living in France. I ask what sent her abroad for so long.
“I studied at Cordon Bleu,” she says casually.
I exhale a genuine “Wow,” leaning forward so fast that the automatic mechanism in my seat belt snaps taut. I ask why she moved back, if she still works sometimes as a chef, and she tells me she hasn’t worked in a kitchen in years.
“Oh, honey, I was only there a semester. The Cordon Bleu I really went to was the satellite in Minnesota. If you wanna be a chef, though, you gotta get the real thing. The school I went to was a joke—closed down while I was there. I didn’t even get a degree. Still have all the debt, though. And the worst part is, with the loan I got, I’ve been paying for ten years and I still owe the same amount.”
Narrating internal dismay out loud, I ask how or why she found herself with that awful a loan.
“Remember all those loans they were giving out when the housing market crashed? I got a loan like that for college. Interest is so high that I can hardly make a dent in it. But since I never got a degree, it’s completely worthless.”
I tell her I’m sorry, having no idea how else to console a complete stranger for such bleakness, but she shrugs and retorts with mild annoyance, “What can ya do?”
My heart breaks, and I’m reminded again that real life contains misfortune more terrible than fiction, somehow more tragic for its ordinariness.
When we arrive at the abandoned supermarket, she asks if it would freak me out if she got out, too, and bought some hummus. “I won’t follow you, I don’t wanna be one of those creepy Uber drivers,” she says, making her hands go ghost-story limp as she enunciates “creepy.” I laugh and assure her that it’s perfectly fine.
Carrying armfuls of hastily collected snacks, we return to the car and start back towards Eau Claire proper. The return journey is at least twenty more minutes, and in the ensuing silence I continue timidly, “Did you move here for college then?”
“Sort of,” she replies hesitantly, “I used to live in Salt Lake City, and I got out.”
She seems reticent to divulge any more, so I don’t press the subject, but after a moment of quiet she blurts, as if she had been holding her breath, “I was raised in a Mormon community, actually. It was pretty messed up. Out there it’s called Latter-Day Saints though. You know anything about LDS?”
I say I know a little, not much, and the woman tells me about growing up in the church, criticizing the way shame and fear had been weaponized as a method of control. Her final departure from the church happened when her best friend, also a Mormon, came out as queer and was excommunicated because of it.
“They tried to tell me being a lesbian was contagious, can you believe that?”
All at once, overwhelmed by the absurdity of contagious queerness, she bursts into a cackle that ripples relief through the somber air, and I laugh with her.
“I just couldn’t stand how they used fear to control people. Anytime someone uses guilt to control you—there’s something wrong there.”
She bemoans the way that scripture is removed from its historical context and literalized to encourage obedience, wonders aloud why Planned Parenthood and marriage equality are the political preoccupation of many churches, and alleviating the poverty epidemic is not.
Intrigued, now sitting all the way forward from the backseat, I point out that the Bible addresses corrupt power structures and urges relief for the poor more frequently than almost anything else.
“I freaking know!” she says, smacking her hand against the steering wheel, “but when is that brought up?”
“But I guess it’s not always like that, you know,” she relents slightly. “There’s people out there that aren’t like that.”
I agree, recalling the only other interaction I had ever had with a member of LDS, a longtime school friend. In the decade we had known each other our conversations about faith were without condemnation or motive, she engaged with inquiries about the church kindly and non-defensively, and she was, astonishingly, unfazed by my queerness.
Now, I wonder if the acceptance that contradicted the mores of our religious affiliations was something automatic with our youth. If, like my driver and her friend, as children we had known intuitively the difference between canon and truth, between rote performance and the true practice of love.
We are born immersed in our traditions, our communities’ manual for instructing our behavior, for instilling its values. But beyond the community-specific virtues imparted by our tradition is a higher virtue of humanness, that can, if honored, exhibit the nature of a graciousness ungoverned by the small and restrictive definitions of dogma.
As we near my hotel, she asks if I still go to church. I say, “Sometimes.” She tells me she doesn’t, that she believes in something, but it wasn’t whatever she was taught God is, that she sees worth in faith, but danger in institutions. With conviction unencumbered by convoluted theology, she declares in breathless protest, “I can’t believe in a God that makes you hate yourself. I just can’t do it! That’s not God to me. That doesn’t make God happy. That doesn’t help anyone. God just wants you to do your best to be kind.”
Her testimony, a hurried list of all that God is not, has the urgency of a defendant’s closing remarks, a structure like an argument rehearsed. I nod and say, “I know.”
“I feel like I can’t talk like this to people,” she sighs, before putting the car in park. “Nobody cares. People don’t want to think about it. I guess I don’t blame them.” I tell her I think it’s better to care than to not.
We say thank-you’s and be-safe’s and I step out into the deserted downtown, the weight of her story resting on me, small but heavy, a totem from a stranger, never completely deciphered, carried with reverence either way.
“Getting Out of the Way” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
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