"The time when we are closest to each other"
I committed my first crime in a Baton Rouge grocery store when I was four years old. A pad of stationery caught my eye–pale pink with darker pink lines, a bouquet of flowers in the bottom right corner. I asked my mom to buy it for me. She refused. I stuck the notebook under my shirt, into the waistband of my shorts. What happened next is, to this day, the subject of debate. I have a vivid memory of making it all the way home, hiding on the carpet between my twin beds, drawing on it with a thick crayon–just a few strokes–then running, wracked with guilt, to find my mom. She insists she caught me right away and forced me to own up. (“You were four years old! Of course I saw what was happening!”) Either way, she took me to the cashier and I handed over the stolen goods with a tear-streaked face. Either way, I learned right there in that supermarket that I am capable of breaking bad.
Do we all have tales from the grocery store? It’s been an unexpected theme of my reading this month. There’s nothing about supermarkets in the description of Above Ground, Clint Smith’s latest book of poems, which I bought because I’d like to be less terrified of poetry. What kind of writer is scared of poetry? It’s like an accountant being frightened at the sight of natural numbers. But I know there are layers to poetry I don’t see, so I like the idea of studying it in a class—except I never manage to sign up for anything. So I decided the next best thing would be to buy Above Ground on audio and listen to Clint Smith read his poems to me as I walked the streets of my neighborhood. Genius idea, highly recommended (except the line breaks get lost, but shh. We’re just trying to get a start here.)
Smith began writing Above Ground when his wife was pregnant with their first child. The collection includes poems about everything from an infant’s hiccup, to the gravestones of those whose lives are lost while we’re waiting for the moral arc of the universe to bend in the right direction. The book as a whole conveys, as Smith said in an interview, “the simultaneity of the love you have for your family and your friends amid the larger cycle of despair that we so often live through." One of the poems capturing love between parent and child takes place in the cereal aisle of the supermarket (“In the Grocery Store You Are Wrapped Tightly onto My Chest”). Stevie Wonder is playing over the loudspeaker, and Smith starts dancing with his infant son, “spinning and dipping around the oatmeal bopping among the Froot Loops moonwalking past the pancake mix,” “turn[ing] the space between Pop-Tarts and Quaker Oats into Showtime at the Apollo.” The store manager chastises Smith for “keeping other customers from purchasing their breakfast,” but the thought of it makes me smile.
I had in my head the image of Smith and his baby boy spinning past Cinnamon Toast and Apple Jacks when I learned that the brand-new Annie Ernaux book (new in English translation, anyway) centers around her visits to a supermarket! There’s no one better than Ernaux at taking what is commonly dismissed as trivial and proving that it’s in fact revelatory. Look at the way she describes the checkout line in Look at the Lights, My Love:
Wait time at the checkout is the time when we are closest to each other. ... Here, as nowhere else, our way of life and bank account are exposed. Your eating habits, most private interests, even your family structure. The goods deposited on the conveyor belt reveal whether a person lives alone, or with a partner, with a baby, young children, animals. Your body and gestures, alertness or ineptitude, are exposed, as well as your … consideration for others, demonstrated by setting the divider behind your items in deference to the customer behind, and stacking your empty basket on top of the others.
Does it not make you want to give up Instacart and head back to those lines, to see what you can figure out about everyone around you?
Ernaux says she first realized that supermarkets were “full of stories, lives” in the early 1970s:
A winter evening, in the liquor section. Two or three guys facing a girl who is all alone. One sneers, ‘I’m telling you, it can’t be mine!’ and the others laugh. Not her, red-faced and serious, confronted with this bold public denial of paternity, to her great misfortune, since legal abortion did not exist then.
Ernaux herself needed an illegal abortion in the early 1960s; she writes about that experience in her stunning memoir Happening, which is better (more urgent, more raw, more complete) than Look at the Lights, My Love. Of the five Ernaux books I’ve finished so far, my favorites are Happening and The Years, her collective memoir of her generation. I’ll keep reading more and reporting back.
I tried for a long time to turn my own, sordid supermarket story into a picture book—can’t you just see the little girl in the pages of a book, her arms wrapped around her tummy, outline of the notepad clear beneath her shirt, peering anxiously around the end of the canned goods aisle? But I never found an interested publisher. (I finally stopped after an editor pointed out that parents weren’t going to line up to buy a book modeling shoplifting for their young children.) Which leads me to On Writing and Failure, by Stephen Marche. I loved this book. On page after page Marche insists that writers have to keep going, keep trying new things, keep submitting. “Rejection never ends,” he says. “Success is no cure. Success only alters to whom, or what, you may submit. Rejection is the river we swim in.” I’ve been writing for a while now, and I know a lot of writers, so let me confirm: It’s true.
This made me laugh: “You think it should be easy to sell your feelings? You want to be congratulated for it? You think they should throw you a big party?” Yes, I do. Is that so wrong?
This book should be disheartening—it’s laser-focused on rejection and failure in my profession. But it concludes: “Know this: If you’re writing well and failing and submitting and persevering, there is no more that anyone can ask of you, even yourself.” That’s what I call sustaining.
If you’re thinking, Well, they could ask you to do a better job of marketing your writing, then know this: You’re not helping.
Please let me know if you have a supermarket story to share, or poetry to recommend, or a book of any kind you want to chat about. I always love hearing from you. Just hit reply above.
That’s it for now. As I like to imagine my best friend Annie Ernaux saying: Bisous. Julie