Leaving the Station
Last Thursday, I went to the grocery store for the first time since March, 2020. I’ve been so fortunate to have Ya-Jhu doing all the food shopping. She’s done a wonderful job, and it’s been a relief to be spared that particular risk. But I’ve missed selecting my own produce and chatting with Frank at the fish counter and Diane, my favorite checker. Mostly, I’ve missed the normalcy of hopping in the car and dashing off for a gallon of milk.
Two weeks post-vaccination, it was time to take on this family task once again. I was thrilled to push the cart down the aisles, to pull a loaf of bread off the shelf. It was all wondrous, and felt like a preview of more wonders to come (hugging my kids, returning to indoor worship at church, a restaurant meal).
So why did I have to stop on the side of the road on the way home because I was sobbing too much to drive?
I’ve thought about the jumble of emotions that swept over me that morning. Intense regret for a year lost. But also this: I was afraid to venture out, and I am still afraid. I’ve gotten so used to thinking of the outside world as a disease-ridden and ominous place. Safety has been my primary focus, along with worry for the many who haven’t had the luxury of working from home. What in the beginning had seemed bizarre (airing out the mail for days before touching) quickly became expected routine.
As a result, part of me misses isolation, misses hunkering down with just my household. Making small talk in the checkout line with Diane felt very strange, when so many conversations have been planned Zoom events. I’m sure I’ll acclimate, but I am amazed at my nostalgia for what has been a horrific time.
My friend and gifted writer Te-Ping Chen has written a lovely book of short stories, Land of Big Numbers. In it, she shares snapshots of life in modern China. A favorite story is “Gubeikou Spirit.” It’s a fanciful tale of many commuters stuck in a station after a mechanical failure delays the next train. The strict rule is that no one can exit the same station they had entered, so they are trapped for months. At first extremely agitated, the people become used to the food and entertainment delivered to them, all their needs met. After a while, they don’t mind the loss of their freedom. When at last a train arrives and the door opens, only a few people climb aboard.
Oreland has felt a bit like Gubeikou Station this past year to me. Now, when at last the “trains” are beginning to run again, I hesitate. Am I really protected? Isn’t it safer to just stay at home?
But in my heart I know it’s time to return to the outside world, scary as it still may be. And so I dry my tears and pull back onto the road.