I went to the mall the other day, and it was like visiting another country. Looking around, I wasn’t sure I spoke the language, and felt that I wasn’t quite in step with the common culture. Everywhere were unfamiliar objects of unknown use, odd-looking clothing, and shops offering bewildering services. A mother and her pre-teen daughters clustered around a small kiosk filled with glittery plastic Christmas ornaments, obsessively fondling everything they could see. Further down, in a circular, high-ceilinged intersection of two-story passageways, a lone man paced impatiently among several massage chairs that looked like they’d fallen from a passing alien ship through the frosted glass overhead.
I walked by tables covered with sausages and crackers, a man calling out to me and holding a small piece of cardboard, large panes of glass containing headless bodies and enormous photos of half-dressed women looking like they were about to pass out if they didn’t get a sandwich and soon. Eventually I entered the food court, trolling like everyone else from one collection of high-fat, high-sodium treats to the next. I settled in with my greasy plate of Asian noodles and bourbon chicken, and watched around me as men in dress clothes and parents with children sated themselves with hamburgers and chicken patties. I was one with them, all of us drawn to this bizarre bazaar seeking what we could not find elsewhere.
So this is America, I thought to myself. These are my countrymen. And this is what our American lives are about. Strong perfumes, tight clothes, shiny plastic possessions. Earlier I had stopped in the cosmetics area of a department store to buy my facial soap, and the bright light bouncing off the brilliant floors and glass countertops nearly blinded me. The saleswoman helping me reminded me a bit of the older version of a friend from graduate school—if she had not followed her calling, gotten divorced, and tried to fill her days with superficial chatter while covering her aging skin with bright colors. There is not a bright enough lipstick shade to cover a tightly downturned mouth.
It took me longer than I wanted to not find what I was looking for—comfortable, attractive black shoes without a heel. So I ended up wandering from one end to the other of this glitzy, glittering cage. At one time in my life, the opportunity to spend an entire day here would have been sheer bliss. I could have stopped in store after store, sniffing lotions and trying on new fashions in an attempt to keep up with my peers. New, sexy bras. Flashy, expensive sunglasses. Chic designer objets to display on wall or shelf.
Today I look at this stuff and realize not only do I not need it—something I always knew, at heart—but I no longer even have the desire for it. I like my quiet, simple life. As I strolled the reflective tile floors, what was on my mind was not a perfect knickknack to highlight the niche in the kitchen, but whether I had enough garlic from last year’s planting to set out a new crop. Everything I looked at seemed like it was simply fodder for overstuffed closets and shelves. Enough, I thought. I already have enough. In fact, I have too much as it is, and adding any of this would possibly make my house vomit from overindulgence.
So now Christmas is coming. The holidays loom in front of me like a mall-sized monster, composed of plastic toys and unneeded scarves, gobbling up shoppers in its path. Its venomous breath causes otherwise sane consumers to camp out on sidewalks in freezing cold, trample each other in their eagerness to worship at the monster’s feet, and toss themselves into the abyss of senseless debt. I have to try hard to see past the monster, to quiet winter nights, phone calls with loved ones and the small joys of sharing home-baked cookies with my coworkers. I don’t know what to do with the thousandth Christmas-themed coffee mug I’ll receive, the generically cheerful ornaments, the charming but useless holiday figurines. I truly appreciate the sentiments they all express, I do…I just wish our sentiments didn’t have to be demonstrated with molded resin compounds manufactured in China.
All this pondering has been focused by my recently spending a three-day weekend in my yard. I spent hours digging up the garden, raking and mulching leaves, scrubbing rain barrels and winterizing outdoor spigots. The quiet truth of earth, air, growth and death overshadows anything inside the smooth-sliding doors of the mall. That building and all that is within it will one day disappear, whether through changes in taste and lifestyle, economic depression, or end-of-the-world catastrophe.
A thousand years from now, regardless of what we throw at it, the dirt will still be here, plants will continue to seed and sprout, and leaves will decompose into new dirt. My bones will be long disintegrated, as will yours, as will the computer I’m typing this on and the screen you’re reading it on. Our crumbling bones can feed the earth, returning to the system that produced and sustained them. But what of the computer? What of those glitter-covered Christmas ornaments? A thousand years from now, their bits will still be bits—separate from the giant biochemical factory that is this life-giving planet. Are those bits what we want to leave behind when we’re gone?
No, not me. I don’t want to leave anything behind that this earth cannot use again. As it turns out, the Christmas gifts being sent out from my home will be mostly biodegradable—homemade jam, local peanut butter, maybe a bottle of wine. Without intending it, I’ve stepped away from plastic gadgetry as gift. Maybe it’s a gift to the world I live on, but mostly it’s a gift to me.
Anything to stay out of the mall.
*Dépaysement centers on the French word "pays," country. It indicates a sense of being outside of one's home place, of not belonging, of feeling alien.