I was grocery shopping in Safeway in Tucson, Arizona the other day for RollerbagMom and an 88-year-old neighbor and friend of hers.
RollerbagMom had a humble grocery list; just to get her through the next week or so. A couple of white potatoes. Iceburg lettuce. One bag of frozen corn. Butter. Flour. Her friend had an even more modest list: chicken thighs, a half gallon of whole milk, cereal.
The store was as empty as I’d seen it since the coronavirus scare began, with entire shelves cleared of their supplies.
Empty but for the shoppers. This store is set in a humble residential neighborhood, but on this particular day, the picture was particularly grim. A woman on oxygen, pushing a walker was despondent, “I can’t find anything on my list.” A blind woman and her caregiver were in the frozen foods aisle, faces turned toward shelves cleared of nearly every vegetable but frozen peas. Another guest in a wheelchair just shook his head. And a woman in the parking lot was shrieking to me about a gift card she had that didn’t work and how she had to feed her son.
I called mom, over and over again as I shopped, while staring at the vast emptiness. “There are no potatoes, will boxed potatoes do?” “There’s no regular flour. Will cake flour do?”
There was no butter except pasture-raised at four times the price. There was no whole milk except organic at four times the price.
This is a scene unfolding across America right now. It showcases the battle between real need and Sam’s Club culture. And it is a direct result of the hoarding, stockpiling and panic shopping that we’re doing. A fire arguably stoked by a cultural, bottomless hunger for more.
When this all began, I was in Thailand. Though remarkably close to China, there was no fear-based shopping, no stockpiling. But then, there’s no Costco culture there as we have here. People live from day to day, eating small meals of mostly fresh food, and shopping at the market in the mornings. Most have neither the means nor the chest freezer to hoard. And yet whenever I’ve been there, I’ve been shown incredible hospitality. There is a sense in so many of the countries that I’ve visited, that although they have little, although they live simply, they always have enough to share, even with a comparably rich Westerner.
One of the lessons I’ve learned in my travels, time and again, is that we are the 1%. And I mean nearly every single one of us here in the U.S. There’s this sense that the 1% are the other…living in mansions, driving expensive cars, having maids and nannies and luxury vacation homes. And yes, that exists.
But the hard truth is, the very fact that you are reading this on a personal device, whether phone or laptop or iPad, is that when compared to much of the world, nearly all of us in the U.S. are among the 1%. Let me explain.
Most of us have fresh, clean water, enough to flush our toilets with it.
Most of us have something more than a tin shack to live in.
Most of us have not one, but multiple vehicles in our family–much more than a motorbike or bicycle.
Most of us can shop for food and stock up. And we have safety nets in place for those who cannot.
Not all of us, but most of us here in the United States are among the 1% richest in the world.
Yet what we are told time and again in our culture is that we don’t have enough. That buying the new shiny technology or the new clothes or the new house or the new car will make us happy. Studies show quite the contrary: it’s proven that we value our purchased possessions less over time. What we truly value, what our souls hunger for, are experiences.
We are told time and again in our culture that having more is better. Yet studies show an inverse relationship between happiness and increased choices. Flash to me standing in the toothpaste aisle at Target, staring at shelves and shelves of choices. Whitening. Enamel strengthening. Gel. Paste. Charcoal. Bubble gum flavored. Natural. And the truth is, we don’t really need any of it to brush our teeth. We are bombarded with this messaging that choices are great, and new choices surface every day–often the same cookies in a different shape or package. Yet our souls hunger for simplicity. Indeed, we want our basic needs met, but after that, money has diminishing returns from a happiness standpoint.
Even our very concept of poverty is different. I’ve seen children in Cambodia kicking a plastic bottle around; I’ve spoken with a religious sister who lived in Zimbabwe, where children played with a ball of tape, all because neither had actual toys. And I’ve stood among piles of toys at a Toys for Tots collection and wrapping site in the U.S….so many toys, some were deemed too old and worn for our children, so we threw them out.
I get panic shopping, I really do. I come from a place of need, and I have to fight the urge myself as my fear of scarcity resurfaces. It’s hard not to panic these days, to keep it in check, especially if you understand the concept of exponential growth and the risk to supply chains. Especially when you see how many people aren’t taking this seriously. Especially when mixed messaging in the public realm creates uncertainty about our government’s ability to protect us or support us or ensure delivery of necessary items in lean times. I think those of us who are educated about the issues (rather than feasting on conspiracy theories and lies) realize the government–as it is today–will not come to our rescue. They will save major corporations. They will provide silk parachutes for their richest donors. They’ll create a soft landing for infrastructure. And the money will be magically summoned to do so. But if I can’t find flour on the shelves, and all the bread is gone, I’m S.O.L. I should have bought a Costco membership and stocked up sooner. I should have had enough in savings to cover myself if I lost business. If we lose my husband’s health insurance, I should have gotten a job that gave me health insurance, or paid for it out of pocket…and if I can’t pay my medical bills I should just set up a GoFundMe so that the general public can determine whether or not I am worthy of not going into medical bankruptcy. If we can’t for some reason make payments on our house, we should have eaten less avocado toast.
In America, the greatest imperial nation in the world, if I fall through the cracks, that’s on me.
In our culture, getting sick, being poor, being disabled, or failing to prepare sufficiently for a pandemic is attributed to personal shortcomings. There is so much blaming, and so little recognition of the random free-fall of this life.
And that, I don’t get.
Standing in Safeway, among the poor, the disabled, the marginalized, in a store empty of basic needs is devastating. Seeing lines wrapping around buildings at big box stores is scary. Hearing about fights over toilet paper, or people treating cashiers like crap, my god, what has happened to us? Were we truly once great, or were we always this awful?
My cupboards are not empty, and I have enough. I have traveled more than I could have ever dreamed possible as a little girl living in a mobile home without hot water, a phone or heat in Stoney Brook trailer park in Brainerd, Minnesota. I am, and was even then, among the 1% in the world. But I am part of the 1% that could easily fail on multiple fronts.
In the midst of this storm, I can’t help but wonder whether we are collectively being called to simplicity.
So, what if?
What if we sought less?
What if we bought less?
What if we saved more? Shared more? Gave more?
What if we valued more the aspects of life that come without a price tag? What if we stopped with the nauseating platitudes and memes and instead composted, crafted and sourdough-started our lives?
What if we checked out of the fast fashion, fast food, fast weight loss, microwave and instapot treadmill society in which we live and instead….simplified?
What if we aimed to waste less so that what we have lasts us longer?
What if we commuted less, worked less, sold less and restored more?
What if we appreciated the small and family-owned business over the convenience of a homogenized, Amazon-Starbuck-McD’s-dollar-store world?
What if we changed our culture’s values, so that instead of seeking distraction from sources outside of ourselves, we found the peace within?
What if we changed our nation’s politics to reflect what we are witnessing now, that we are all one. That we are one world, one people, one life. No longer the self-serving YOLO, but instead WOLO: We Only Live Once.
What if we suddenly saw clearly that what we have is enough? Or, even, dare we say it, too much? What if we stopped blaming those who have less, or have nothing?
And what does that mean for the travelers among us? Is it time to stop with the checklist tourism, with the travel “influencing,” and instead, when we are able, to seek out deeper, more personal, more meaningful experiences that connect us with one another?
If we simplified, would we have more gratitude and appreciation? Would we make room for more wonder?
We all have lessons to learn here, in this worldwide experience, in this hard reset of everything.
I believe simplicity is calling to us. Will we listen? Will we learn?
Charish Badzinski is an explorer and award-winning features, food and travel writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, Rollerbag Goddess Global Communications, providing powerful storytelling to her clients.
Posts on the Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World travel blog are never sponsored and have no affiliate links, so you know you will get an honest review, every time.