Around here, when the weather gets hot, the hot go shopping. Not (I hasten to add) because we're all raging materialists, but because the two big grocery stores have the best air conditioning in town. So when we're in a heat wave (as we were a week or two ago, for a long disgusting spell that seemed eternal), we naturally head for the frozen food aisle and stay there, sociably catching up on the news, as long as we dare.

Actually, I have to modify that last statement some. At the old supermarket, we schmooze in the frozen food aisle. The big supermarket doesn't lend itself to that sort of behaviour. The big store recently reinvented itself as a suburban big-box ultrastore, with quarry tile flooring and rich colours and little specialty shops and lighting to swoon for. Dotted around the place are deep-toned solemn portraits of the staff: Angela as Bakery Queen; Kevin as Produce God. The whole effect is a little .. church-like. It has a sort of hushed and reverent air. There are lush piles of tomatoes and endless variants on the frozen burger. The joint is crowded with people whose faces I don't begin to recognize; I think the place is pulling 'em in from all the surrounding towns.

By contrast, the old store is still very much an ordinary small-town supermarket. It also redid itself lately--there was a while there when I don't think anyone in town could have found the cornstarch in either store, to save their lives--but it's still the same store: a bit less shabby, perhaps, but there's not much you can do with elderly terrazzo flooring and 20-year-old shelving. By the standards of new big-box stores, it's hopelessly out of date; it lacks the lavishness, the promise of refined, knowledgeable gourmandise. It's just a grocery store, with a pretty good hardware section. It has a friendly, businesslike feeling. The selection is marginally less than the new store's, but the prices are much, much lower.

It occurred to me, thinking about our two stores, that there's an unspoken "should be" in up-to-date grocery stores, and our old store doesn't really make it. Our old store just *is*; it's itself, very nicely, but it fails when held up against the "should be" of the new store. Mind you, that's true of most of this town. Except perhaps for the new houses springing up in the township, an awful lot of hereabouts its just itself, and it doesn't meet the "should be" of suburbia. And the people who shop in the old store don't meet the "should be" of suburbia either. We dress for comfort; we're far more padded than fit; and we tacitly believe that anyone who wears makeup on a Saturday needs to have her head examined.

The culture and the media constantly hold out an assortment of "should be-s" to us, and every time I turn around, they seem to have upped the ante. We should be thin, fit, health-conscious, nutritionally perfectionist, non-drinking, non-smoking, non-french-fry-addicted self-health mavens, focused on making it into our 90s without an ounce of flab and hardly a wrinkle. Our houses should be up to Martha Stewart's standards, places where we entertain friends with the latest in foodstuffs and the longest in wine-glass stems. Our lawns should be green velvet. We should be hard-driving keen-eyed professionals, but also loving, engaged parents who are still in love with the spouses we married. I could go on. Society sets the standards and gives us the fish-eye when we fail to meet them. And because we've accepted its norms without question, we feel like abject failures when we compare our "is" to its "should be" and find ourselves miserably wanting.

Some of these standards have at least some objective reality (if you want to live a long and healthy life, knocking off ciggies, booze and french fries is indeed a good idea). But often they take for granted certain assumptions: that, for example, all of us want to make it into our 90s instead of dropping off the vine at three-score and ten. Or that Martha Stewart's perfectionism is a Good Thing. Or that lawns ought to be monocultures. Or that the supermarket experience should be full of visual richness and a sort of commercial holiness, because it lulls the shopper into a sort of worshipful transcendent state that detaches us from our worldly cares (and gets us to spend lots of money). There's often a large, unspoken gap between Is and Should Be, and we're meant to feel that this gap is a problem--our problem!--that we should be rushing to fix.

But who said that society should be setting these standards? that these standards are indeed those we should be following? Maybe there's another standard by which the old store is a triumphant success and the new store is a wannabe. In the old store, it's still "done" to make eye contact with your fellow shoppers, to have tiny conversations with total strangers over the breaded cod, to stop and catch up on the news with a neighbour. In the old store, there's that sense of being in a real community, where people connect, where people have known each other over time and watched each other's children grow, and have seen other people age and quietly vanish into death. In the old store, there's a certain tolerance of idiosyncrasy, also of well-padded waistlines and missing back teeth. Okay, maybe the Greater Culture would look at the old store and say "Humph, what a dump." But the old store feels real in a way that the glossy new big-box does not.

We are told that there's the kingdom of this world, and the Kingdom of Christ, and we really can't answer to both. If we buy the values that the new store proposes--the beauty of glossiness, the spiritual promise of materialism, contempt for anything less than "excellence" --then of course we'll hold the old store and its odd, small old-fashioned virtues in disdain. Increasingly, this world seems to look on the those who live by the Kingdom's values and sees them (at best) as naive and out of date and (at worst) as losers. It probably always did, but now even the lip-service is gone.

So how do we live the Kingdom's values in the kingdom of this world? There's going to be some sacrifice entailed: money you don't make if you invest ethically, jobs you have to turn down because you can't live with what they entail, relationships that can't succeed because one party is hellbent on avoiding spiritual growth and the other party is equally bent on the Great Journey. If I choose to write God-stuff, I can abandon all hope of getting my books reviewed in the big Canadian newspapers, because Canadian intelligentsia of Boomer years think that religion is private and personal and a bit icky, rather like sex used to be regarded in the 1950s. Oh well. _Sic disintegrat biscuit_ (so crumbles the cookie).

And there's going to be some compromise involved as well, unless you mean to turn your back completely on this world. You can't ensure that your kids will keep going to church--not unless you strong-arm them, and that becomes increasingly difficult with time. You may have to live with office politics and do the best you can. All any of us can do is to try to make decisions in a Godward way and pray that we've made the right ones, because Our Lord does not do sky-writing, more's the pity. Some of those decisions will, when we look back, have been mistaken. Others won't.

The "should be" that we're supposed to aim for is old and straightforward, like our old store: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbour as yourself. All other "should be-s" are optional compared to that one. When we compare "is" to "should be", this is the one that really matters.

And when we compare this world to the Kingdom, we are comparing "is" to "should be". This world isn't evil, but it isn't perfect either. Some of its "should be-s" make excellent sense, and others are really pretty stupid. It's up to us to choose which is which, and please God we'll use the minds God gave us instead of blindly following whatever the "should be" trends are. The more we follow the Kingdom way, the sillier many of this world's "should be-s" become. The old store really is just as good as the new one, and the prices are definitely a whole lot better.

Time to go grocery shopping.

Copyright © 2001 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 18 Aug 2001
[Sabbath Blessings contents page] [Saint Sam's home page] [Comments to web page maintainers]