Betty Duffy

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

All Roads Lead…to the Mall. (Engaging the World, Part 1: Shopping)

I went for a walk on one of those paved walking trails outside our hotel and as I watched the Canadian geese frolic and splash in the man-made lake, I very soon found my path meandering, not towards a woods or meadow, but towards the front door of a Target store. As if the appearance of a mall on my quiet morning walk were not surreal enough, ads on the window at Target showed economically successful, shiny mannequin people of varying ethnicity doing things like feeding a baby in a high chair while wearing an evening gown and high heels or floating weightless in red space suits.

Shortly after the Target was an outdoor food-court. This court had a sampling of the most popular ethnic restaurants: Sushi, Kabobs, Mexican, Tai, Indian, Italian and a Hamburger Joint. The Mall complex was new, flawlessly landscaped, and utterly processed for people who fancy themselves to be like those lovely Target mannequin people. We are open minded in our dining tastes; we like diversity; but we’ll have it in the suburbs, please, with other white middle class diners, to whom we will not talk, but for whom we will just “appear.” And by “appear,” I mean the only kind of communion that people in a consumer culture can have with one another, the kind of communion that is looking at others, and being looked at by others, but never actually interacting.

I was originally going to make this post about Georgetown, because I assumed, foolhardily that this culture of appearances was something unique to the upper class, but Georgetown, upon further reflection is just a more quaint, more expensive version of the suburban mall. It is a place that offers invitation after invitation to an impermeable world—the one in the ads, the one that we will never be able to imitate completely, and even our best efforts to do so will leave us starving for a witness—to be observed in our material perfection.

These thoughts came to me on my first day of relative freedom, while the kids were back in Indiana with my parents, while Husband did his 9-5 stint. My gut reaction was, “When one is free from the kids, one goes shopping.” I could go to Marshalls and buy a good bra, get husband some jeans, and though I feel they would be strong and wise purchases, things we’ve both needed for awhile, they would be accompanied by a pit in my stomach, when I think about the cost and how I keep throwing money at life, at the same time I have knowledge that a nice pair of jeans and a good bra really do NOT MATTER.

I am sitting at a Starbucks with my coffee saying my morning prayers, watching everyone Jonesing for caffeine walk in, throw down money for a quick fix, and walk out, everyone attending to their own personal wants. And I am no better. Where do I go to pray? And yes, part of it is convenience: prayer, coffee, outdoors, right across from the hotel. Part is pure self indulgence combined with a weird helplessness. Where can I go to forget about myself? Where can I go? All of these stores are built up around the city like a cage. How do you administer to the needs of others at a Starbucks? Pay for their addiction? Hold the door? Practice random acts of kindness?

They are not enough—though they might contribute to my own self-satisfaction, the concept of my own personal generosity. But to make a difference, one really has to practice RADICAL acts of kindness—which amounts to a theoretical self murder. This is why I stay home with my kids. They matter. My self giving makes a difference to them, and I forget about that, wishing to engage a world that refuses to be engaged.

It is the rare individual who is truly entertained by the fabulousness of others. You look great?—congratulations! So did the last lady who walked past me. And to tell you the truth, I’m starting to feel a little smug about my stretchy maternity clothes, because they are a sign that I have not been so completely snowed by this culture that seems marked by a palpable despair. It’s so cliché to talk about suburban despair, but it has to be real and hungry, or we would by now have sold all these material things that bind us in order to live more closely in community, serving one another. I’m so sad for our world, for the faux diversity, for the isolated cars and houses we live in, for the meager things we find to sustain us from one week to the next.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

oh duffy, you hit the nail on the head. really you did. i am so sad for our lack of culture too, so sad i ran away. radical change. only now our town has starbucks, mcdonald´s, 2 giant grocery stores and a wal-mart mexico subsidiary coming to town. when did we stop engaging as humans outside the commercial realm. there should be/is more than "have a nice day". brilliant post