Lost in a World of Checkout Magazines
When I began the depressing task of writing New Year resolutions, I found myself miraculously saved by a quote from psychologist James Hillman who wrote, “You can’t move small enough.” Since I had been around the block a few times, I guessed that the quote came by way of Buddhism that was brushed up and passed along by the poet Samuel Coleridge of “Ancient Mariner” fame. Sam had a habit of saying such crisp, august things.
I have read enough of Hillman to understand he probably wasn’t advising me to stop screaming at the television and elbowing my way through Grand Central Station in NYC with an eye on vulnerable tourists who always seem to be looking at the sky, rube-like. Similarly, he probably wasn’t advising me to make like a snail and curl up in my shell until the summer sun at amplitude warms my very restless ass.
After all, Hillman is a psychologist and probably wants me to revel in the small movement of my heart, tongue and limbs, cutting down on mischief and finding pleasure in modest, patient wanderings. He probably wants me to lower the temperature within and around me; to be more observant and to take some muscularity out of my daily lunges.
Perhaps the good doctor would suggest that I cut down on my words and bombast. I assume that he must have spoken to a professor in graduate school who recommended that I read Hemingway day and night. Was this good man telling me that my syntax was overwrought and a tad flamboyant? But I took his advice to heart and spent months on end watching the subtle movement of a waiter in Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” as the poor soul moved from table to bed where he ominously and finally turned to the wall. Every Hemingway reader knew suicide was in the air. This was my Eureka moment.
In his “Healing Fiction” Hillman writes about how the image, the dream and the subtle fictions of life can heal us from within. In this spirit, we must slow down, observe and move small enough. By now I’m all in with this Buddhist-inspired plan for personal regeneration, inside out. I immediately find an opportunity in the checkout aisle at my local Shop-Rite supermarket where the people in front of me are cashing in hundreds of coupons and anticipating rewards by paying their bills with fistfuls of change. While others in the queue stomp their feet and cast aspersions in the direction of the manager’s Quonset hut, I focus on the image in front of me and imagine that it comes from another world. There, smack in the middle of the check-out newsstand rack, is a National Enquirer with a photo of a just-born alien child who in the splendid irony of lag time and year-end hangover is attributed to none other than Hillary Clinton.
I am done with politics and say to myself, there are magazines and there are magazines. I retreat to a safer, guarded space that had figured prominently in my education: the Black Powder Magazine on a Navy ammunition ship where sailors retreated to read tattered copies of Playboy to better prepare for all the seas of sensuality that we would face in the Far, Far East. Just in case all of our projections didn’t find land and recognizable flesh, there were copies of Readers Digest that always had a wise tale for men in uniform. I wrote my first published piece for Readers Digest appropriately titled “Outdated, Out-rated and Outranked.” The story didn’t end well for this mere untested seaman in a world full of gold braid competing for a beautiful woman from New Orleans.
That was then, this is now. I am still at the Shop-Rite checkout transfixed by a more modern Readers Digest, smaller with less anti-Communist bombast but with headlines suggesting that we can all grow soul and become happier through slight movements and breathless prayer. I could feel myself getting smaller by the minute, happy to be years and oceans away from that frenzied world of Playboy and perfectly content watching an elderly woman hand grocery coupons, one at a time, to the clerk, stopping to spit on her fingers between every transaction, making sure nothing got stuck.
Entertainment Weekly tried to get my attention, as did National Geographic, showing a very large polar bear napping on some ice flow that was well on its way towards the Cape of Good Hope. I am keenly interested in climate change and the flow of very large objects to hopeful capes but I wanted to stay focused and open. I found the perfect guide in the 2017 edition of the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which cut to the chase and offered suggestions for planting green beans at every location from 30 degrees to 50 degrees north latitude. I was immediately taken in by the smallness of the garden plots featured and the weathered hands that placed seed in pockets of soil. At the same time, I was lured away from my mission by the reference to the sun, moon, stars and planet featured on the cover of the magazine. I saw this as a temptation to take me from my path and send me on another transcendent leap into other worlds where vanity and overreach thrive.
I was saved by a cluster of digest-sized crossword magazines taking center stage at the checkout, advertising that finding the right words could be helpful in solving life’s big problems. One magazine devoted an issue to four-letter words — not that kind; rather, words like love, dove, small, kind, soul and hope that floated on the magazine cover like an exaggerated crib sheet, giving me the power to shape my life and my desires.
Words were no longer enough to hold and ground me. I saw arranged in perfect geometry six Sudoku magazines about the Japanese puzzle game. They suggested that arranging numbers 1 through 9 in perfect harmony would improve logic and brain power and also settle the soul. Were these magazines talking to Readers Digest? Was there some collusion in the interest of my eternal soul?
I am looking at the elderly woman in front of the Shop-Rite queue, handing the clerk her last few coupons. I could have sworn she said “I’m all sixes and sevens,” reminding me of my mother who used similar language when she was a little confused and trying in her understated British way to put order back into her world, one number at a time.