After my daughter Jennifer texted me a photo of her pot roast dinner, well, I just had to have one of my own. I got to thinking about a Boston butt, cooked all day, with potatoes and carrots, that rich smell filling the house. The kids used to love it, because they could say “butt” with carefree abandon: “I love me some butt” and “Yumm – the smell of butt!” maybe even “I’m gonna eat some butt.” They were kids, after all. I knew I had to have that butt on the slow cooker first thing in the morning, so it was either go early Sunday morning or go after dinner.
So off to the store we went.
I have not been out at night since, oh, I can’t remember. I do not drive at all, and Diana does not care to drive at night if she can help it, plus there’s not a whole lot of reason to go out during the current pandemic. But we were both shocked at what we encountered.
Soddy-Daisy was a ghost town. Virtually no cars, the burger place had two cars in the lot, Home Folks was not packed, El Metate, usually so full you had to wait, was mostly empty, the fast-food joints bleak. Even Walmart was quiet. And all of this on a Saturday night, before 8:00PM. It was almost eerie, like maybe we missed the big announcement. Or worse, we joked, maybe we missed the rapture. We laughed about which doctrine we must have ignored and who else was left behind. Except it almost wasn’t funny…
Back in the 1960s I lived in my Mom’s hometown of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, called by locals E-town (kind of like people call Soddy-Daisy “Soddy”). It was, then, a quaint and quiet little town, the county seat for Hardin County. It had a classic downtown, centered around a courthouse square, with shops and offices arranged on all four sides and up the four streets that intersected there. Of course, there were sidewalks everywhere because people walked. It was a bustle of activity, cars parked two deep around the square, the sidewalks packed, business being carried on. There was urgency for a simple fact that my Dad loved to proclaim:
“At 5 o’clock they roll up the sidewalks!”
And seeing my little town now, usually bustling, too, on a Saturday night, got me to thinking.
Is a 24/7/365 lifestyle really all that good of an idea? Is it really necessary for everything to be open all the time, everywhere? Have we gotten so used to having our demands met NOW, that we don’t know how to behave when we can’t?
The current pandemic has brought a lot of change to the daily lives of just about everyone. Work-at-home has become normal, home grocery delivery and touch-free pickup is common, the UPS guy is hustling. We look for alternative ways to entertain ourselves, new ways to keep amused. People are out of work, especially in the service industries, because there is less traffic and dine-in is challenging. Less work means less income, and it is a downward spiral from there.
Our culture was not prepared for this turning-upside-down of not only our economy but our very lives. We have built the American Dream on two incomes, readily available childcare, public schools, and daily commutes to work. We have created a society where $65,000 pickup trucks and $350,000 houses are the norm for working people. Having sold both new cars and houses over the last 25 years, I can tell you I am shocked. We have constructed a financial house of cards, and the younger among us can’t see that life can be any different. Consumerism (of which I am a big fan) has reached a zenith – so where do we go from here?
I have more questions than I have answers. I am not criticizing our culture – I like it. I love being able to buy what I want, go where I want to go, eat whatever my heart’s desire is right now. This essay, after all, came about as I was riding back home, at 8:30 at night, with my purchases tucked neatly in a sack, looking forward to the next day’s promise of tasty butt.
I do fondly remember those Saturday walks downtown in E-town, with my weekly dollar bill in hand, ready for whatever treat I could discover at J.J. Newberry’s or the Dollar General or the Western Auto. My early adventures in consumerism were fun. But they were limited by time and money because I did not have much cash, just that buck, and because the sidewalks were going to rolled up at 5:00PM, whether I had found my treasure or not.
But I wonder: have we learned anything from our current predicament?
Maybe life does not have to be 24/7/365. Maybe we can live in simpler houses. Maybe if we are working from home that mega-buck truck is not necessary. Certainly not two of them. Maybe a one-income family is not only possible, but desirable. The finger pointing straight at me – maybe we don’t need to hear that thump on the front porch as the FedEx lady leaves my package. On a Sunday. It’s not like it was urgent (replacement cushions for the hot tub. Shut up).
My best memories of my own childhood are of warm sidewalks and stubbed toes. Dilly Bars from the Dairy Queen, the drive-in theater on a hot summer night, fireflies in jars. The view from the back seat of our station wagon, the little house on Henry Street. And those memories did not change much even in adulthood – I believe my own kids would tell you that they do not recall what car they rode in or how many bathrooms we had in our house or how much money we didn’t have.
Maybe a little wisdom from 2,000 years ago is worth considering:
Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. Philippians 4:11-12
We have before us an opportunity in the midst of a calamity. Can we restructure our lives and priorities? Can we ratchet our expectations back a bit (and maybe our anxieties at the same time)? Is it possible to live a simpler, more enjoyable life? Do we really want to go back to the office and sit in a cubicle every day?
Many questions, no definitive answers.
The future does not belong to me, and I do not presume to tell the next generation how to live it. But if you let this current situation go without at least examining your priorities, pondering the good things that showed up, focusing on your future in a changed world, then you have lost a grand opportunity to reinvent life. You may have squandered a rare chance to find contentment amid the chaos.
Maybe it is time to roll up the sidewalks.