Thinking About

Errands as Escape from Everyday Life

Reflections on the existential relief of leaving the house

Photo: Markus Spiske/Unsplash

I grew up in a household where ‘running errands’ was a circadian behavior. Sleep, work, school, meals, yard work, and errands (by car) were our big 6. Church was a maybe, exercise and socializing happened when they happened, and once in a while we went to the movies. But errands, many of them aimlessly executed, were an always.

My parents did them, talked about them, planned for them, and complained about them (while seemingly finding salvation in them) as a matter of daily course.

Errands — or more aptly, the half-awake ritual of running them — felt like a currency of sorts in our suburban Philadelphia ecosystem of the 1980s. Other families operated this way too, floating past us at commerical intersections. Usual suspects on our hit list included the plant nursery, the fabric store, our small town hardware shop and food co-op, and a few early iterations of big box empires. Whole weekends could be devoured by errands, whole months of whole weekends.

As a child, I came to believe constant erranding held court with death and taxes. It appeared to be something every grown human simply must do, on repeat, forever. Only recently, halfway down my life chute, have I unlearned this.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that refrigerators and cabinets don’t fill themselves with fruit and rice and band-aids. I further understand that the privilege and prison of Amazon Prime is a modern convenience. And as a mother, I acknowledge that an invisible section of the parenting contract plainly requires the purchase of things, til death to you part, at a level directly proportional to your values and disposable income. Shopping is a part of the game — I accept this.

What interests me most about the degree to which errands took over my family patterns has less to do with the buying itself. Instead I’m struck by how often my parents (particularly my father) needed to “run out and get something” and how infrequently my family shopped strategically, so as to protect stretches of days ahead for other activities. I’ve come to wonder whether my parents ran errands as a way to be in the years they spent living in the married-with-two-kids, home-owning, laundry-folding, TV-watching, “Drink your milk” equation of upper middle class Americana.

Did erranding serve as a way for them to move while constricted — to break away from (while holding to) the confines of domesticity? Did my parents (and do we all, for that matter) disrupt the stasis of midlife, the subtle agony of hard questions and unknowable answers, by attending to manufactured needs? My money’s on yes.

I can remember multiple occasions upon which the sought-after item, the reason for erranding (a 2-liter of diet soda, spackel, pantyhose, mulch, tennis balls, lumber, fabric softener) was inevitably neglected or forgotten— one ‘quick run’ to a store morphing into a handful of other wanderings. Sometimes a parent left the house with a list, a car key, and a bad mood and returned pacified. And sometimes, a morning in the kitchen was filled with vocal consideration of this or that errand before the sun inevitably dropped and plans were abandoned. My father often blamed ‘inertia’ when this happened, a big word for me at the time which I will forever associate with him staring out the window talking about tools or dry cleaning.

So much of how we move through the world depends on how we are conditioned to see it — where our individual experience leads us to demarcate safe from unsafe, comfortable from foreign. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we frequently repeat behaviors we feel most at home within. I think it’s fair to say errands were a safe space for my parents, certainly in the years they stood as the pillars of our suburban family — reliably caretaking kids, pets, perennials, and storm windows.

Maybe by anchoring scattered attention on the quest to solve an acute problem or chase a finite remedy all those Saturdays ago, my folks encountered small doses of accomplishment, or felt refreshed in new surroundings. Maybe coming home empty handed help them realize they never needed the thing they chased in the first place? I can’t say for sure.

Though I don’t share the erranding approach to parenthood, I do know that when any one of us lands upon rituals that allow us space and time to breathe and move as we need to — particularly in life seasons that are incredibly full — we repeat them. And if we forget the milk every third time we go out for it, but we take refuge in starting the engine and come home feeling a notch better, maybe that’s plenty.

Senior Manager @ Medium. I edit stories and chase ideas about health, science, and well-being. I also write and, most of all, belong outside.