Tuesday, January 29, 2019

My life as a museum

Brad saw me working on this post last night. "Let me guess what it's about,"  he said. "You connect the American Girl store with something from OnBeing and a book you just finished."

"How did you know?" I asked. "Were you reading over my shoulder?"

"Wait. I'm right?" he replied. Apparently, he really been guessing.

I'm wrapping this post up today, feeling all internally kerfuffled. Like maybe it's time to retire this whole blogging enterprise and move on to something fresh. The record is broken. I return to the same things over and over and over again. What else is there to write? Is it really necessary anyway?

This is a decision for another day though, I think. 

For now, as predicted by Brad, a post featuring American Girl, something from OnBeing and that book I'm reading.


This weekend, Brad and I decided the two older girls needed some one-on-one time with a parent (or one-on-one-and-a-6-month-old time). The catalyst for this was Jovie's big move into Lily's room- a move she was not thrilled about but agreed to nonetheless in order to make way for Annie's nursery.

Originally, we'd talked about having Annie and Lily be roommates. Lily was very excited about this plan. She figured she could manage overnight baby care and teach the baby to read and do other cool stuff like how to communicate with neighborhood dogs or strut like a chicken.

But Annie has a habit of waking up throughout the night still (even with two sets of closed doors, when the baby gets too loud, Lily still has to don the pair of noise-cancelling headphones that were intended for use at NASCAR races. Lily is nothing if not resourceful). And Lily has a habit of waking up at 5:30 in the morning. Every morning. Which doesn't really mesh well for an infant.

Plus, there's the Lego problem. All those tasty Legos littering the floor or displayed on low shelves- just perfect for little fingers to grab and stuff in their gummy little mouths.

So Jovie agreed to share a room with Lily. We sweetened the deal with a new-to-her loft bed. And a fresh aqua-and-magenta paint scheme. They've adjusted really well to the new arrangement. But we figured they could use a little breather from each other.

Brad took Jovie and Annie out to run a couple errands and grab lunch. I asked Lily what she wanted to do, bracing myself for the response I knew was coming.

"I was thinking we could go to Tyson's Corner and maybe check out the American Girl doll store and then get some sushi and go to Cinnabon."

Her eyes were all dance-y and hopeful in that way they get when she's in charge of making the plans. Bottling up a heavy sigh, I smiled and said, sure. We could do that.

Her idea wasn't totally unreasonable, I know. I mean, she just wanted to go to the mall, right? She has American Girl dolls, and so naturally is interested  in accessorizing. I love sushi. And who would turn down a hot, gooey cinnamon bun?

But I've come to really not like malls. And I really, really dislike that mall in particular. It's just ... too much. Too shiny. Too fancy. Too filled with excess. I inevitably walk in and feel underdressed and out of place- even after swiping on some "going out" mascara.

It is not a place for necessities. It's a place for want. And all that want feels both desperate and exclusive.

There's this song I love by Neko Case- "Margaret vs. Pauline."

Pauline is "the cool side of satin." She's privileged. Destined for a life of ease. And Margaret is "the girl with the parking lot eyes" who works at a cannery. 

This mall is designed for Paulines. It's so glossy and smells of expensive perfume. And this whole area feels as if it's filled with Paulines. Paulines, of course, are just people living their lives. Driving their cars. Picking up their groceries. Dropping their kids off at school. And I grew up here. I most certainly am a Pauline. At least from a privilege standpoint. I know that. But it's never been a skin I'm comfortable in. And the thing is, while our area is filled with Paulines, it's also filled with Margarets. And I see them all over. In this place that costs so much to be in. In a place that feels so focused on status. 

We all live together amid this wall-to-wall stuff. And I feel suffocated by the stuff. And frustrated for all of us- the Margarets and the Paulines- that we spend more time slaving at the feet of this stuff by choice or by necessity than we do dancing in the glow of our beautiful existence (Whoa there. That's a little over flowery, isn't it?)

Which is why I try to avoid places like this mall. And especially places like the American Girl store in this mall because it feels like a training ground for more want. And it's want that is only attainable for the Paulines. Because there are no Margarets who can justify owning a $115 doll who wears outfits that likely cost more than many of the outfits the actual humans wear.

At the American Girl store, the dolls (not the humans) can visit a salon to have their hair styled and their ears pierced. Hair styles range in price from $10 to $20. There's a deluxe spa package available for $15. 

I just can't with this. Plastic cucumbers for the doll's eyes. So that what? To prepare Lily for a lifetime of facials and mani/pedis? Even at 8 Lily recognizes this perceived status difference between having a Real American Girl doll, versus similarly sized (and much more affordable dolls) from Target. Having dolls from this place, seems important. And walking around the shop only serves to reinforce that.

I know it's supposed to be fun. I get it. And truthfully, when I was Lily's age, I too, would page through the American Girl Doll catalogs that came to the house. I'd faun over Kirsten's stenciled lunch pail or Samantha's pinafore dress. And all their furniture and accessories- how you could have a perfectly put-together life in miniature. 

I know I asked for these dolls for Christmas. I never got one, but it's not something I've been sad about over the years (not like that pony I always wanted and still don't have. I would name her Flopsy and she would have a long flowing mane and a velvety muzzle). I think even then I understood they were impractical. I mean, the bedroom furniture costs over a $100, right? And that was in the 90s... so, you know, factor in inflation... or something.

I don't want that same jaw-aching want for the girls. I just can't. Especially when they already have so much. And we live among people who have so little. And the name "American Girl" seems to not be reflecting so much the realities of plenty of American girls in our country right now. Taking Lily to this store, where she wanders around from doll to doll, admiring their dresses and their various accoutrements- the swimming pool that doesn't hold water for $100 or the Airstream Travel Trailer for $350 or the Luciana's space suit for $75- it stresses me out. It leaves me feeling empty and sad. 

(Not just because this year's "Girl of the Year," Blaire Wilson, is basically living the life I should've opted for– running a farm B&B with chickens underfoot and trellises covered in wisteria.)

We went anyway. Because I wanted the day to be about her, not me and my hangups and rants. And Lily did wander around the store. With reverence even. And that little smile she gets. 

She picked out a pair of pajamas for her doll and used her Christmas money to buy them (I  couldn't resist pointing out they cost more than I'd spend on pajamas for her). She was so excited to add to her doll's wardrobe. 

For lunch, she wanted to go to this funny sushi restaurant in the middle of the mall where the food spins around a conveyor belt. Of course she wanted to go there. During previous mall visits, she'd gazed at it with wide-eyed curiosity. 

So I had to be brave (i.e., get over the fact that I didn't know how the restaurant "worked"). We sat at the "bar" and found out we just needed to grab whatever we wanted as the plates slid by. Our bill was tallied based on the color of the plates we picked out. We admired how pretty the dishes looked- the ruby-colored roe and the Mount Fuji Cake. Lily wanted a California roll and the rainbow roll- featuring raw salmon, tuna and yellowtail. My picky eater happily munching on raw fish. Will wonders never cease? 

"Mom," Lily told me, "Sometimes you have to try new things." She knew I was a little nervous about the unconventional restaurant situation. So she threw back at me something I tell her all the time. Clever girl. 

With the money Lily had leftover, she wanted to buy something for Jovie, which warmed my heart a thousand times over. We headed to the Lego store and picked out a little set for her. After that, we split a cinnamon bun. It was extra suburban and tasted a little like heaven. We soaked in our togetherness. Just the two of us for the first time in months. Chatting about school and Annie and whatever caught our eye. 

And that was that. We were in and out in under two hours. 

If I had to go to the mall, at least it was with Lily, who made the experience palatable and fun.   

And, trying to get past the ridiculousness of the American Girl experience, I decided to just observe Lily there. She stopped by the displays- pointing out the little speckled tea kettle in Mary Ellen's Airstream, sharing that Kit's family went through hard times because they'd lived during the Great Depression (she'd read about Kit at school), commenting on how pretty Nanea's special hula dress was, deciding that Kaya must've been a Plains Indian because she had a tipi. She treated it almost like a museum. Like when we went to see the dollhouse exhibit at the National Building Museum. She saw the dolls as characters in history and enjoyed telling me their stories and wondering about their lives.

Recently, I was listening to an interview with writer and artist Maira Kalman, known for cartoons she's drawn for The New Yorker (here's that OnBeing reference. Score another point for Brad!). Kalman talks about spending time in museums and how to her, they are kind of places of meditation. You wander through them silently, taking in the things that catch your interest. It's a collective experience, but also a quiet one.

She talked about how she has an exhibit at the Met- a recreation of her mother's closet that she installed with there son.

"It's in the American wing, and it's a wonderful - my mother only wore white, and she was very precise about her clothing and about her closet. And her closet really was a work of art, in its way."

I kind of laughed at the thought of my closet as a work of art. Stuffed as it is with cardigans and shoes boxes of old notes and photos. I doubt anyone would ever take the time to re-create it in a museum or that anyone aside from the cats and an occasional hide-and-seeker would want to go near it.

Still, I thought it was beautiful, this idea of taking something so mundane as a closet and putting it in a museum. Like it was a way of somehow elevating the tedium of a life. The non-flashy, day-to-day parts of living as an ordinary person.

A vast majority of our lives will not be curated for museums or noted in history books. We might get a few lines of smudged ink in newsprint that yellows and disintegrates. And that's probably OK. 

When I finished the manuscript for that novel I wrote, I experienced this palpable, painful yearning for it to be published. Because if it were published, it must mean that I meant something. That I'd left a tangible mark on the world in the form of a book. I thought about my book on a shelf in a bookstore. Then I thought about the next book and how it would have to be even better than the first. Even more successful. Before anything had even happened (or not happened with my little manuscript) I watched my ego inflate. My self importance. I realized that I would never be able to keep up with the insatiable appetite of my ego. That no matter how much I wrote, no matter how many books I published, no matter how many people told me how great I was, it would never be enough. Just like that lovely song in "The Greatest Showman."

That realization didn't feel any more comfortable to me than the fancy mall. 

So I go back to this place of finding satisfaction in the life I have right now. I thought about treating my own life as if it were a museum exhibit. Marveling at it the same way Lily marveled at those dolls. Studying it with curiosity. Allowing my eye to swing around a room and land on the things my heart feels most drawn too. 

It's not about imagining my things, my life in an actual museum. Not about needing affirmation or aggrandizing. Not about elevating my existence for anyone but myself. 

I do this throughout the day now, in the confines of my home and it makes me smile- the things I end up focusing on.

Snack's couch:

The cactus in the fairy garden we made in York that keeps growing and growing. Proof that I can keep a plant alive. How it's growing in a terra cotta pot my mom shared with me. How the colors complement this handmade picture frame I was given as a baby shower gift when I was pregnant with Lily. How the frame filled with little birds and trees has always suited photos of Lily as she grows up. 

The shelf where I keep my Jovie things. Baby photos and clay creations and the little wooden doll that captures her spirit so precisely. The Willow Tree figurine that reminds me of rocking Jovie to sleep for her afternoon naps day after day after day when she was smaller.

The plant that the previous homeowner left behind thriving in a piece of art my niece Hannah made in high school. The pot with its wild "hair" makes me smile and think of her and our shared hair hangups.

This shelf with a sign Brad found for me and the remains of a sea urchin found at the beach, and a Native American seed pot decorated in colorful birds my Dad gave to me, and a rock painted by a neighbor kid and these little figurines that I think were my mothers...

The crow in the tree outside my kitchen window that visits several times a week- reminding me to leave peanuts outside for her and her two friends.

Corduroy, my childhood bear, snuggling with Annie.  

Curating my home in this way made me realize it is enough. More than enough. And it's not so much about the stuff, but the feelings and memories the stuff evokes. How it helps me remember Jovie's pillowy cheeks and playing Barbies with Hannah and how Lily can't see a crow without cawing at it and the way my mom laughs, which I'm pretty sure is part of that music the Earth has for us. 

It's not the stuff. It's what it evokes in us. 

I'm listening to the book "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari (here's that book reference Brad predicted!).

In it he writes about how much more stuff today's humans have compared to our forager ancestors. 

"Over the course of his or her life a typical member of a modern, affluent society will own several million artifacts from cars and houses to disposable nappies and milk cartons, he writes. "There's hardly an activity, a belief or even an emotion that is not mediated by artifacts of our own devising."

In play we use a plethora of toys- everything from plastic cars to 100,000 seat stadiums, in intimate relationships there's everything from flowers to chocolates to condoms to rings. We bring the sacred into our lives "with gothic churches, Muslim mosques, Hindu ashrams, Torah scrolls, Tibetan prayer wheels, priestly cassocks, candles, incense, Christmas trees, Matzo balls, tombstones and icons."

Harari notes that we don't even notice how much stuff we have until it's time to move to a new house. But foragers had to move houses every month, sometimes every week or every day. And because there were no moving companies, carts or pack animals to help carry things- they toted only their most essential possessions on their backs. It's hard for us to know what they used day to day, as many of their tools were made not of stone as we have been taught but of wood or bamboo that has long since decayed.

"It's reasonable to presume than that the greater part of their mental and emotional lives was conducted without the help of artifacts," he writes.

Framing all the things I have in my house as "artifacts" that future archeologists might one day dig up to piece together the day-to-day lives of a long-past civilization is both amusing and embarrassing to me. The things that would seem to matter most to me- photos, letters, books, etc. would more than likely not survive a millennia buried underground. Leaving behind, what? Ceramics (Jovie's pinch pot? My mom's flower pot? Hannah's art project), Broken glass from picture frames maybe. Metal utensils and cabinet pulls. Door knobs. Light fixtures. And, of course, all the plastic. That won't ever go away, right?

As I'm writing I'm experiencing a moment of horrified irony as I realize that the "smooth vinyl" heads, arms and feet of the American Girl dolls would no doubt survive to tell our stories (though sadly, not their "huggable cloth" bodies). Beyond the dolls themselves- their accessories- the fake plastic pool and the rainbow unicorn floatie, the 65+ piece gourmet kitchen set, the Mars Habitat that Lily covets for her Luciana doll. All of that would survive more or less in tact waiting to tell the story of our people. 

Strangely enough, the things that might best share the narrative of our interior lives- all this digital ephemera we leave behind will be gone.

Harari noted this, comparing it to the trouble today's researchers have piecing together the lives of foragers with so few artifacts to those of our descendants.

“It’s much the same dilemma that a future historian would face if he had to depict the social world of twenty-first-century teenagers solely on the basis of their surviving snail mail – since no records will remain of their phone conversations, emails, blogs and text messages” 

The stuff we do leave behind and the status we associate with it won't matter much. I don't imagine future historians will be able to differentiate between an American Girl doll or a My Generation doll. 

Even the memories fade from one generation to the next. What we hope survives is our values. The root of our human-ness. 

Browsing ridiculously overpriced dolls is just a vessel for time shared between a mother and a daughter. And that time is special and sacred. The terra-cotta pot makes me think of my mom and how Lily says Nana's laughter is the gold standard for what laughter should be. How my girls already know the importance of laughter as a thing we commune over as a species. How I hope to somehow impart to my girls and their girls in turn, and their's and their's, that the Paulines and Margarets can learn to see- really see- each other as the same sort of people in different circumstances and learn to lift each other up in their own ways for the betterment of the whole. 

The artifacts I hope are preserved in the ephemeral museum of our existence aren't things at all but deeds and qualities. Compassion. Generosity. Mercy. Love.

It's always the thing I circle back to. 

The broken record that actually doesn't need to be fixed.

1 comment:

  1. Great piece. Once you get past your internalized kerfufflement, I think the keys are these: (1) Keep writing and (2) write what YOU want. It doesn't matter whether it's a blog or a journal or Facebook or on a roll of shelving paper. Just keep writing.
    As for your line "Strangely enough, the things that might best share the narrative of our interior lives- all this digital ephemera we leave behind will be gone" -- I think about our digital lives and future historians quite a bit. Obviously there are so many things (most things) that are out of our control in that regard. 99.9% of our society's digital detritus will probably be zapped by a solar flare, an electromagnetic spasm or just bad archiving practices (probably that). But we do have a valuable tool in our back pocket: the magic of dead trees. (And I say this as a guy who likes trees.) We might not have the power to have our books published by Random House, but we can create our own books at this magical point in history. Maybe you've already done this, but there are plenty of print-on-demand sites that will take every word of My Inside Voices and turn it into a Real Actual Book (tm). Make one for each kid, pass 'em down. I have a strong suspicion those real words on real paper will last much, much longer than any old doll.

    PS- Keep writing.