Esteemed Reader: Thinking Outside the Box (Store) | June 2022 | Esteemed reader | Hudson Valley

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“Hell isn’t punishment, it’s training.”

—Shunryu Suzuki

We drove through the parking lot strewn with oversized pickup trucks and nearly abandoned cars. The twilight sky was alive with rapidly moving clouds. Windswept trees, clad in nubile spring leaves, danced energetically on the horizon. A flat cube of a building at the end of the parking lot was a cutout of this natural scene. Walmart.

A flat tire on Sunday evening in the rural northeast necessitated a trip to the superstore. The car didn’t have a spare so we needed a donut or repair kit to do a repair and that was the only open place nearby.

My teenage son hesitated as we approached, looking down. With the arrival of spring, he prefers to walk barefoot everywhere. Dark soles of dirt, the density of dirt thins out as it progresses to the tops of his feet, giving the impression that he is becoming a hybrid dirt being. We agreed that he would leave if he asked because he was not on track.

As we entered the store, we saw a solitary figure, motionless in a yellow vest, with his back to the sliding doors. As we approached, the woman came to life as if activated by motion sensors. She gave a warm, toothy smile and advice to the automotive area at the back of the vast, neon-lit space.

The shelf was empty except for tire racks along the walls. I pressed the electronic call button several times but no one came so I ventured out to find help. Halfway down the store, in the electronics department, behind shelves of huge televisions, a blond-haired teenager offered to help. He didn’t know anything about tires, he said, but wanted something to do. He seemed eager for human contact, and together we began the long walk back.

Even with the help of a tattooed, military-looking customer, we gave up looking for a new tire and opted to fix the puncture. Arms laden with a jack, jack kit and lug wrench, we continued, looking for a compressor, which the boy thought he could use to power construction tools in addition to filling the flat tyre. Unable to locate a compressor, we wandered around looking for someone to help us.

She was stocking boxes of antiseptic wipes when we approached. “Excuse me,” I said, but there was no response. I moved closer and she turned around, made a sound like a seabird swooping down, and waved her arm between us in a gesture of refusal. Then she pulled out a small spiral notebook and handed it to me.

I wrote “air compressor” in cursive on the notebook. She looked at the page, let out another high-pitched moan, and shook her head violently. My son remarked out loud that my handwriting is terrible. I turned to another page and tried again, this time in all caps. The woman was beaming and whispering, pointing us back in the direction we had come from. There was no air compressor, so we agreed to use a bicycle pump to inflate the tire.

Back at the front of the store, a dozen customers lined up at each of the two open stations. A man with long stringy hair and crazy eyes got angry at the cashier. I thought to my son about the strange, drowsy atmosphere that reigned in the place, as if there was an agent in the air intended to numb the conscience. My son interrupted my comment with a gesture towards the cashier. She cried. Another woman, a customer, spoke to her in a soothing voice, and as she finished the transaction and started to walk away, she turned and hugged the cashier.

Inspired and taking the cue, my son and I beamed to the checkout with focused attention. All I could think of to say was to compliment her earrings. After I paid for things, I opened my mouth to make a comforting sound and the words were something like “Know that love is everywhere, always there, and you are loved.”

Outside, the wind was blowing, clouds were flying and the darkening sky was beautiful. We noticed a mixed sense of relief leaving this place.

“We just descended into the pit of hell, and look, now we’re in heaven,” I said.

We agreed that anyone who was able to perceive and feel the harmony and beauty of nature would not build such a place as we had just passed through. It would be impossible. Instead, people would create environments that reflect the inherent consonance of the natural world.

We talked about how the full measure of human beings is untapped and unused in a society where men and women are valued as resources; how each deeply desires to be used in a way that accesses fullness of potentiality, and how that desire is not fulfilled.

“It’s so hard to think outside the box,” my son commented. “We don’t even notice the limits of our ideas and beliefs about ourselves and the world. What we consider normal is actually a disease.

It occurred to me that seeing this limitation is in itself the start of a movement towards true normalcy.

Maria R. Newman