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American Girl: Two Years Ago and Still Shopping

I wrote this blog two years ago, on the old One City blog of the IDP. I wrote it around this time of year, when we are shopping, shopping, shopping, urged ever onward in pursuit of what we want, what we need, in order to be generous, to be good. I'm out of the country on Black Friday this year, a little distant from New York and the internet's subtle, sly, frenzied, brilliant, desire-fanning inducements.

But when I look around at what to buy, I find this post is still as true for me as the day I wrote it.


Last week I went Christmas shopping for my 7-year-old niece. Her mom and my mom had list of things she wanted from American Girl, (which is, in case you haven't heard, "a premiere lifestyle brand that offers a variety of age- appropriate, high-quality dolls, books, clothing, and accessories"), a marketing tsunami so huge that it has a flagship store on Fifth Avenue, across from Saks.

I am not a big shopper. I avoid Fifth Ave like the plague, and American Girl, with its semi-educational historical message, insanely high prices, and brilliantly aspirational never-enough-stuff genius merchandising is EXACTLY the kind of consumerism that makes me most uncomfortable. But I love my niece, my mom and sister-in-law couldn't make it into Manhattan, and it made sense for me to do the shopping.

The store is a marvel. Multistoried, clearly laid out, enticingly displayed - the merch even features dolls that a child can buy that are styled just like themselves, with dozens of choices of hair and eye color.

Rows of dolls, with their sightless unblinking eyes behind little plastic ovals, dolls in historic dioramas matching their "story," dolls in glass cases  . . . the whole place more than creeped me out. You can take your doll to tea for $33 a head, you can get her hair styled - and your hair, too!

I bought what was on the list. I rode the escalator down while the iTunes in my head played Tom Petty: "She was an American girl, raised on pro-o-mises. . ." (not much control on that mental iTunes randomplay, alas).

Then I decided to do what I could to throw away my preconceptions for the moment. Recognize my likes and dislikes, see my aversion and attachment, see the filters for what they are, and just be present. What was really here? I settled down to breathe, be present, and open up.

Hit like a freight train, I was, as I watched the mothers and their daughters, grandmothers, mothers, kids, the flood of femininity, old and young. And I knew the one thing I couldn't pick up at American Girl.

A daughter.

No little girl to dress up for me, no little version of myself and my husband. We don't have any kids, and we are over 40. There are no kids promised for us, not anymore. It was all I could do not to burst out bawling on the escalator.

What a great opportunity for practice! I decided to just be present with the emotion, not breathe it out, or distract myself; just be there with it. No one is going to point out tears in midtown at lunchtime. I figured I'd just walk with it, my emotion and me, to the F train back to the office, and see what developed.

First thought, "What an ass I am. If I hadn't spent all that money on freakin' yoga school and meditation retreats we might have had enough cash to adopt. No way we can come up with $15,000-$25,000 now.  J-- and L-- spent $25K + to bring N-- from Vietnam. I'm a spendthrift fool."

And I walked with that. How bizarre. What was coming up next? Hmm, exactly WHOSE desire is this? My husband and I had made peace with our childlessness and what to do about it some time ago. Neither of us is so wedded to our DNA that we would go to incredible medical lengths to recombine it. Neither of us is too comfortable with the current state of the adoption market - 'cause a market it is. We decided to accept it and be the best aunt and uncle we could.

How weird that the desire for a "little me" to dress up should hit me in the middle of the American Girl store. Where every single aspect of the experience is designed to make a shopper want exactly that.

How very not-so-weird at all.

The artificial stimulation of desire is what our interdependent marketplace is all about. And how much more powerful when the desires stimulated are  the very basics of human existence: sex, food, reproduction. Everything can become a commodity, even children.

So practice worked. I could be with the emotion, and feel it, and see the swirls of color that made it up: my ego, human nature, and interdependent response to my environment. I got a little insight. And it's okay. It is what it is, and isn't it always, anyway?

We are American girls, raised on promises. Promises of a family, of Barbie and American Girl, of career success, of total fulfillment - take your pick.

Like Tom Petty sang:

"Well, she was an American girl,

Raised on promises
She couldn't help thinkin' that there
Was a little more to life
Somewhere else
After all it was a great big world
With lots of places to run to . . ."

I didn't need to run. Just be on the escalator. And breathe. And watch.

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Such a beautiful post. thank you for connecting the concept of American materialism (which is so easy to disparage) to the universal impulse of longing. Longing (which sometimes i think is the root of all misplaced materialism) is so often born of the sweetest desire - to love, to be loved... to have a child perhaps. 

Thank you for your eloquent description of meeting that moment head on, and making that connection. We struggle in our family with something similar... my husband had a son who was the love of his life, and he lost that son 4 years ago when he was hit by a car and killed. He was 12 years old. The longing to turn back the clock, to just have one more moment with that beautiful child... and the hunger that this creates... how do we sit with that desperate longing... that abyss in our souls? 

What we really all just long for is connection, love, to disappear into something greater than our imaginary, finite selves. Parenthood can do that. Relationship can do that. all of our shopping and addiction is just a desperate substitute for a longing for the fulfillment that is Real: connection with another soul, and being relieved of the burden of our selfness through selflessness, being dissolved in a greater whole, which we describe with that mysterious word, Love. 

and a beautiful reply, too

Thank you for this, mu6. I so much appreciate your clarity about the concept of American materialism and consumerism and longing; that's really useful and refreshing to me. And I'm so sorry to hear of the loss of your husband's son. To sit with that abyss in the soul is so hard, and that longing for what and who is gone is so human. I think it's the root of humanity, sometimes.

And I agree about being relieved of the burden of self via love: "being relieved of the burden of our selfness through selflessness, being dissolved in a greater whole, which we describe with that mysterious word, Love." Do we find that dissolution of our (false, separate) self in love for a single being, or for all sentient beings? Can we even make that leap from one to all -- why and how would we even contemplate such a thing? Words fail there, but I guess that's why I practice. It's the only way to go there, or even near it.


... you could spend a life wondering about. :)
i think if you manage somehow to actually dissolve into love for another, it would necessarily be love for all beings. If you love just one, or a small few (who are tolerable to you while the rest annoy you), then you are only loving your own self projected onto that one, or those few. The attachment, even to a loved one, is just a fear of letting go into the whole. Or, to take it farther, a fear of dying... We think we have to love ourselves and protect ourselves, because it is all so fragile, and we could just disappear at any moment. That, maybe, is why attachment is trouble. Even when it is attachment to a loved one.

When the barriers begin to dissolve, you are upended and ravished by everything. The face of your loved one is the face that sleeps next to you at night, but it is the face of all the world. The ugly, the incomprehensible, even your enemies are in that face ... and "love" isn't about choosing this or that, it is just a big yes to it all, without good or bad being a part of it, i think. just, oh, yes, here we are! but that fact is devastating. how can you say yes about your political enemies? or worse, about Nazis and the like? But until we do, i fear we are condemned to repeat what we refuse to be one with. ugh... yes, how on earth do you do that?


sorry forgot to sign in above when i posted.


Useful insights

Thanks for reposting this. I have a 13-yr-old son who, alas, was never into dolls, even though we got him one when he was little. I wasn't into dolls when I was young, because dolls were too "girly" and I was going along with my parents' well-intentioned desire that I never feel held back by being a girl. Instead, I was more of a non-gendered superchild.

My sister, though, you also wasn't much into dolls, probably for the same reason, but also because she was more into horseback riding and track, has a five-year-old daughter. My smart, delightful niece, C. Because of a magazine subscription, C now gets American Girl catalogs personally addressed to her, and, man, does she want one of those. My sister, though, has made it clear to me, our mom, and anyone else who asks what C wants for the holidays: no American Girl doll. She doesn't want to find herself anywhere on that slippery slope of consumerism. C has lots of dolls, no worries there. But she's not going to have one of those dolls.

I applaud my sister's firm position. But a part of me is kind of sad that I won't be able to buy C a Molly or Addie or Rebecca, and all the cute accessories. (Or a doll that looks just like C, if I were feeling extra generous.) Because I definitely won't be buying this stuff for my son, and no, there's no chance of a daughter down the line.

Breathing in, breathing out ...

I mean, my sister who ...

I mean, my sister who ...

Beautiful post Ellen

Thank you

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