It is October, the time of year when the wind sighs so deeply that the trees begin to weep leaves. It is the season of football and homecoming; it is the season of our homecoming. We are two weeks back; and I have lost my mind, wandered by myself to a grocery store the size of some small towns. It is a Saturday, when the rest of humankind also descends upon such stores, and I have somehow inexplicably put myself there.
How is it that everyone around me knows how to operate in fast forward? What superpower have they developed in my absence that has enabled such speed? Are we being chased? I tell myself that I used to do this, that it is in me. Channel it, Sarah. But no, sadly, I don’t seem to have this superpower at my disposal anymore. I don’t fit here. Moreover, I don’t know if I want to fit here.
The whole place feels like a movie set; a manufactured world made to mimic the real one. The light? Artificial. The ground? Hidden under a uniform sea of white tile. The air? Conditioned- they make their own weather in this place. I am thinking fondly back to the market down the hill from my house in Kicukiro, where women nursed their babies next to their stacks of pineapple, and chickens fussed in their crates, and the air was full with the sounds and smells of living things. Okay, maybe shopping in Kinyarwanda by the metric system had its challenges at times. Maybe I did grow tired of being followed by young men who insisted I give them a job and by others who insisted I give them amafaranga when all I wanted to do was buy a kilo of ibishyimbo and move on. Maybe it wasn’t all roses and fairies; but it felt real, that much I know. It felt like buying real food from real people in the real world.
I walk down aisle after aisle after aisle, each one buried under a thousand choices for a thousand products. This one is on sale, but this one is fair trade, but this one is a new value size, but this one… is where my brain jumps the track because I just want salt. But fine or medium or coarse? Sea or not? Iodized or not? Low sodium or regular? And isn’t low-sodium just low-salt? Does “low-salt salt” even make sense? I throw something with some version of “salt” on the label into my cart and take a step forward. Flour… a wall of it: self-rising, unbleached, bread flour, cake flour, all-purpose flour, presifted, white, wheat, light wheat, organic, all-natural, name brands, store brand.
Breathe, you can do this.
It is the pasta aisle where I realize, no, I cannot do this. The shelves and all their contents are swimming around me. I put my head down on the handle of the grocery cart there in the middle of the aisle. My stomach is swaying to the rhythm of the shelves and maybe I will be sick right there in front of the lasagna noodles, while the rest of the shoppers blur past me in well-crafted invisible shells of oblivion. And why do I feel angry right now?
My ears are ringing. Wait, that’s my phone. It’s Paul calling to see if I’ve left the store already, and if not could I pick up some light bulbs for him? I laugh bitterly on the inside and maybe on the outside too because, no, I’ve not left the store and feel that I might never get to leave. And light bulbs? I’ve seen the light bulb aisle. It eats salt and flour for breakfast. I don’t know what exactly I tell Paul- something about how I’m not handling this very well and I don’t know what to do and maybe we should come up with an extraction strategy.
Living and traveling in Africa we had a “go-bag”. Mostly it contained passports, copies of important documents, a sat phone, and cash enough for our family to exit the region in case of unforeseen instability. I was a fool to come into this store with no evacuation plan. Walk away, Sarah, just walk away.
But Paul is coaxing me on with gentle words. “You can do this,” he says. “Why don’t you find something to put in your stomach and then just take your time, go slow.” His encouragement does its work and keeps me going till I reach the finish line; it is called a check-out line here.
People have asked what it was like, coming back to America. For quite a while I found the short answers unsatisfying and the long answers mysteriously illusive. Transition looks like a lot of things for different people. As a returning ex-pat, one of the things it looks like is complicated emotions lurking among grocery store aisles and other such seemingly mundane places. These days I’m reaching that check-out line in much better time; I have even learned to enjoy it, but it was a bit of an emotional wrestling match to get there. And wrestling matches, while inherently helpful things for testing strength and building perseverance, can still be tiresome affairs. They did not leave me any extra energy at the time for waxing lyrical about the chaos of guilt and gratitude, grief and excitement, disappointment and hopefulness that took turns ambushing me. I spent myself observing, reflecting. I spent myself in listening but not so much in speaking, not when all there was to say was so frustratingly just beyond the fringes of words.
But it is months later now. The brightening green of limb and leaf outside my window broadcasts aloud what spring has already whispered to them in secret: it is coming. Unchanging One is changing seasons. Timeless One is resetting our clock to the hour when new things grow where old things were wept away. I drink it in because I am thirsty for it. I drink it in because I belong to that race of humans who, from time to time, find themselves in Transitions that are winter wastelands of Letting Go and Waiting and Other Hard Things; and spring is a special song for us- an unapologetic anthem reminding us that Endings make way for Fresh Beginnings, that the God who Makes is also the God who Makes All Things New.
Though it may very well be more, spring can be nothing less than His plea for us to taste the truth of it: that our roots will be safe sunk down deep into Him, that for all things there is a season, and that He is making everything beautiful in its time.
by Sarah Stehlik
March 4, 2016