The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes suggested, in Leviathan (1651), that anxiety animates curiosity: ‘Anxiety for the future time, disposeth men to enquire into the causes of things.’ I’ve long worn my anxiety as a badge of honor, believing that without it, I would not cultivate the thoughts that run through my head on an hourly basis, thoughts that ultimately lead to curiosity and—on the best of days—inspiration and clarity of direction. The days in which the swirl stops long enough for me to focus, the days in which the trees blocking the path give way to a tangible way forward—the days in which I see the proverbial light—are what I’ve come to live for.
My curiosity has propelled me around the world and back; driven me to discover different cultures, different landscapes, different beliefs; prompted me to write, reflect and share my learnings with the world. It’s also led me down dangerous paths, paths of solitude, paths of unknowingness, paths of strangers and itinerants and the road less followed. My anxiety has pushed me to overprepare for those trips, to triple check every detail, every flight, every booking, every dot-gov website warning, every weather alert. Anxiety, in this case, is a good thing.
In other cases I suffer greatly. I’m learning to identify triggers but haven’t yet landed on what to do when I see, hear or feel one approaching. My current response is to remember to breathe, try not to cry and sing a Beatles song in my head.
Today’s incident occurs in the grocery checkout aisle, or more accurately upon its approach. I see a woman in an electric mobility cart of the variety the store lends out. This means she is mobile enough to get in and out of the car—and possibly walk into the store— but not mobile enough to walk around the length of the inside. She pulls up behind another patron and clicks the switch to reverse a bit. Beep, beep, beep. Beep, beep, beep. No. Please. Stop. Each beep catapults dozens, maybe hundreds of memories through my head, memories of backing up, of crashing into people, things, the doorframes of our childhood home, of trying to back the chair up while walking alongside it and causing it to curve wildly to the side, of people staring innocently enough because they hear a beep, of people continuing to stare not so innocently anymore at the lady in the chair and her daughter beside her, like characters in a circus freak show. The memories grow darker and now we’re falling, we’re picking Mom up, she’s losing function in her legs, her arms, her hands, her fingers; now we’re lifting, bathing, toileting, watching tv, it’s all we have; now we’re dying, now we’re gone.
The woman has only a few items in the front cart, which is to be expected because they don’t make those carts very big, they must not think people with mobility issues are real humans, no, rather miniature versions of humans who don’t need a full cart sized grocery trip. In fact it’s the opposite, people with mobility issues have a harder time getting out to the store, so they likely need more, even though they might have a harder time putting it into the car, in which case maybe somebody should help, a nice passerby, maybe I should help, and goddamn it shouldn’t I know better!
The items in the cart all appear to have come from the bakery aisle, they are in brown paper bags, a few large, a few small, and why would that be? Who goes to the store for only a few items in brown paper bags in the middle of the day, when it’s clearly lunchtime and maybe a salad or sandwich would do better? Is it because the bakery items are placed on open tables waist level and she can therefore reach them and maneuver around? What about items on higher shelves? Or those in the refrigerator? What about the deli? Or heavier items like cans of sparkling water? Ma’am, would you like me to grab you a few packs of Spindrift?!
By relegating this woman to a category of “needing help” I am committing the cardinal sin of ableism, which is to say placing my able-bodied self on a higher plane than she, both literally and figuratively, assuming she can’t execute ordinary, regular-day tasks like going to the grocery store on her own, and thinking I can “save” her. Nobody knows this more than me.
And still—anxiety pushes on. By this point three minutes have passed and tears invade my eyes. I focus on breathing, sing “Let Me Roll It” in my head, even though it’s not the Beatles it’s still McCartney and that will do, I shift my gaze to magazines. Scientific American—breakthrough discovery in pain management—no! Not that. Real Simple—21 ways to get organized! Yes, that will do, flip through the pages, sing the Wings song that’s not the Beatles but still McCartney, breathe in, breathe out, fight back the tears, don’t let them fall. Almost to the conveyor belt. Unload the groceries, mumble when the Amazon Prime phone number doesn’t register for the tenth time, smile at the cashier, thank the bag person. Right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot, all the way to the car. Bag in the trunk. Hands on the handle. Feet in the car. Push ignition. Is this a breakdown-in-the-car kind of day? One. Two. Three. It doesn’t appear to be. Tears are still pushing but not falling. Progress. The sun is out. Inhale, exhale.
The woman is gone. I lower my sunglasses and back up more slowly than I need to. Inhale, exhale. Wings. McCartney. 21 ways to get organized. Clear skies on a late April day.
I drive on.