To the Northwest Isolationist
Over the past year and half that I’ve lived amongst YOU, northwesterners, I’ve noticed something interesting about, not all, but the bulk of you. You’re amazing, beautiful, deep and soulful, but something (I’ll call it...unusual) happens when you’re in shopping scenarios; i.e: grocery stores, convenience stores, Target and the like; the majority of you ignore one another...and ME.
For months I thought that possibly I was encountering isolated pockets of isolationists; reclusive sorts who forced themselves out of reclusion ONLY in extenuating circumstances, (like to replenish the t.p. supply). But, after months and months of study and observation and intense loneliness, I’m now convinced that this public isolationism is a real and pervasive thing, unique to this green and gorgeous northwestern region of the U.S.
I wasn’t going to write about it. I wasn't even going to bring it up. But the more it sat with me and the more I thought about it, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stay silent. I’ve never been good at pretending. Plus, this is FAR too important to me!
I planned on saying nothing about this...thing, because I didn’t think my words would make a difference. I imagined each letter floating through the air, settling to the ground and eventually washed into the Puget Sound, never to be considered again. But I’ve decided to address this thing because I’m choosing to believe that ALL of us (humans), for as long as we have breath in our lungs, are capable of change. We’re capable of greater things than we were yesterday. There are exceptions (of course); sometimes, for various reasons, bitterness, discouragement, sadness and depression settle in and stay a while...because life can brings us to our knees. And during those times maybe growth slows, BUT those lows can make us greater. Because once the cloud lifts, we’re left with an upgraded ability to approach life (and our fellow sojourners) with more love, forgiveness, grace and dignity than we were capable of yesterday, because we’ve grown! So, in the spirit of believing for better, I think it’s time we have a little chat!
For those of you who have not lived in this area, nor have visited and experienced the cold, I see you (in my mind's eye), scratching your heads curiously. Not originally being from here, I can understand how grasping this scene could be a hard thing to imagine and perplexing at best. So, let me paint you a picture. This is what shopping in the northwest looks like (to me): upon entering any store, most shoppers try their hardest to not look directly at one another or acknowledge each other’s presence/existence. There are some smiles, but they are few and even fewer words pass between customers. When shoppers need to pass one another in an aisle, it’s customary to either squeeze the cart through the available opening without uttering ANYTHING, such as “excuse me”, “pardon” or even “sorry” OR the other option, is to wait silently for the aisle-blocker to sense their need to move and accommodate the waiting party. Nearly 100% of the time, the store employees are lovely, welcoming, friendly and cheery. Customer service is NOT the problem...the customers are!
I promise that this ‘come to Jesus’ post isn’t coming from a place of personal unhappiness with living here, because I truly love it ALL! The green and the water and the mountains; it’s stunning! It’s striking! It’s breathtaking! And when the sun shines bright, everything shimmers and the hills come alive. I think it’s more magical here than anywhere else in this majestic country! And I truly LOVE the people. They’re deep and soulful and open (once you get to know them). But this ONE thing has got to change!
Why does this social phenomenon exist?? Seriously, who really knows! We could speculate...I’m sure it could be due to any number of things, like the dark, dreary, 8 to 9 month long fall/winters or maybe vitamin D deprivation makes people feel unfriendly. Honestly, I could psychoanalyze this idiosyncrasy till the cows come home, but I don’t think any amount of psychoanalysis will adequately answer the question or make it OK that I feel invisible!
The impact of this cultural quark (if you will) hit me REALLY hard two weeks ago. My family and I took a little vacation down to Sunny southern California to visit family. My parents swung by the airport to pick up our kids while my husband and I stayed behind to deal with the details of our rental car.
Being childless and FREE, stop number 1 was Trader Joe’s, for some groceries...and this is where I nearly wept before strangers.
Within minutes of being in this store, no less than 5 fellow customers smiled at me (warmly). Note: these smiling customers weren’t teenage boys are flirtatious, straying men or even legitimately single, flirtatious men. They were all women: warm, wonderful, smiling women. And one particular woman beamed for at least half a minute after we parted ways. I watched her walk away with her big, sweet smile still rounding out her cheeks. After more than a year a half of public isolation, right there, in the beer and wine section of the market I nearly lost it. I was no longer invisible.
This is what smiling does for us and for other; it fills us up! It warms the atmosphere and lightens our souls! A smile says, “I see you, I acknowledge you, you’re worthy of my attention (if only for a smily second), you’re valuable and welcome in this space”.
Maybe it’s odd that I could glean so much from a smile. Honestly smiles never used to feel like such massive gestures. But then I moved, and the smiles disappeared and suddenly I realized how naturally I began to assume negative things about myself and the people around me. I’d think, “she must be having a terrible day and that’s why she’s not willing to smile...poor thing” or “that man isn’t smiling at me because he’s judging me. He probably thinks I’m a crazy hot-mess of a mom with wild and unruly kids...now I feel really awful” or “I wonder if I forgot to put on deodorant this morning...maybe that’s why no one wants to be near me. I must be repulsive” or “not even an excuse me...was she/he born in a barn?? Where have common courtesies gone?”
I hadn’t realized until that very moment, in Trader Joe’s, how this simple gesture of acknowledgement and warmth meant so much to me. While living in SoCal-land, I’d COMPLETELY taken these exchanges for granted. The possibility never occurred to me that they might not readily exist EVERYWHERE. So there I stood, tears blurring my vision over the sweetness of being acknowledged and welcomed, by not just one, but multiple strangers. And none of them could have ever known how desperately I’d missed it, how deeply alone I’d felt (for months and months), EVEN while being surrounded by a store full of bodies.
While visiting my native land, I talked to some people about this particular stark difference between the two western cultures (northern and southern). One response, my Dad’s, stood out to me the most. He said, “be a catalyst for change”. His words sorta grated on me at first. At the time, my loneliness felt fresh and my cynicism levels were HIGH. I declared, with fervor, that it would be impossible for one smiling person to change an entire state of people whose culture insists upon ignoring the existence of one another. But, here I am, back home, in Washington state and his suggestion is still lingering in my mind.
So, although many of YOU, my beautiful, deep and soulful fellow northwesterners, may have a bit of blind spot, I’m choosing to believe for greater things than were possible yesterday. Because this is important! We need each other! Life was never intended to be lived in isolation!
Here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to be a catalyst (I hope). I’m going to look directly at you and smile warmly. Maybe you’ll think I’m a crazed grinning lady...or maybe I’ll brighten your day a little. Maybe it’ll be contagious and smiles will get passed around a little less reluctantly. And who knows, come February, even though it’s dreary outdoors, maybe indoors life will feel a little sunnier.
Writer and fellow traveler on the road of life.