I suspected that spiritual meaning for this week would be found at the mall. I don't go to malls as often as I once did, nor as often as perhaps I should, considering their cultural richness. Aiming for a platonically perfect experience, I mentally struggled over which shopping mecca would receive my pilgrimage. I balanced: not too urban, not too rural, not too discount, not too upscale. I settled on suburban Hillsdale Shopping Center, in middle-everything San Mateo, California, a mall I'd hardly frequented since frolicking through it during a youth group scavenger hunt midway through high school. Naturally, it had been remodeled since then.
I aimed to empty my mind of all expectationsother than, of course, enlightenment. I wanted to purposely wander the skylight-lit arcade at a snail's pace, lingering longer in stores than I normally would and opening all my senses for total observation. I hoped to stumble across, and eavesdrop upon, fragments of typical mall conversation, queries about whether a certain lipstick color worked with a certain skin tone sprinkled between somewhat intense complaints about mom, boyfriend or manager. I was particularly interested in encountering the out-of-school preteens and teens, whose fresh yet timeless outlooks might remind me of simple pleasures or archetypal angsts I forget about in my important mature life. Plus, I planned a leisurely lunch lounging around the food court. I'd make a day of it.
Okay, so maybe I did have expectations. But predictably I wasn't disappointed. Immediately upon entering the mall via Macy's, I was offered help by a perfectly overly made up, overly teased haired, orthodontically braced young woman working the Clinique counter in what I judged to be her first job, based upon her overeagerness. I politely declined. Then I meandered down to the men's department, where I overheard a slick (and slightly sexy) salesman flirtatiously gossiping about co-workers with some cute female who threatened to squirt me with their best-selling cologne if I didn't stay on my toes. I enjoyed their conversation, though drew no insights worthy of sharing with you.
In fact, I found the magic words I sought to hear quite elusive and hard to pin down. I would occasionally spot compelling-looking groups of mall friends, chatting or pointing at items in windows. But as soon as I sat down on the nearest bench to spy, they'd lower their voices or move on to somewhere else. I situated myself, smartly so I thought, in the grand middle atrium, then realized that shoppers gravitate toward the outer perimeters alongside the stores. (It makes sense in hindsight.) When I targeted one particularly engaging pack of teenage girls, I actually followed them half the length of the mall, at a rather rapid pace, several steps behind, in hopes of gleaning goodness from their giggly wisdoms. Still, I didn't possess the chutzpah to get close enough and accompany them into Bath and Body Works, where they appeared to be sampling lip gloss flavors while sharing cosmic secrets. Bath and Body Works isn't one of my stores.
As a target of simplistic criticisms of capitalist culture, the shopping mall is too easy. We could create long lists of the useless and indulgent consumer goods that clog its arteries, hanging on the sidelines like street hookers, hailing us to stop and spend. We might catalogue the stereotypeable personalities we watch whiling their days away herefluff chicks, soccer moms, skaters, stoners, rent-a-copschuckling snobbishly that they are everything wrong with America. But how dishonest and judgmental it would be. I, for instance, couldn't stop myself from interrupting this "spiritual" treasure-seeking to hunt for bargains on the Banana Republic sale racks, all the while fascinated by the two faggedly groomed, A-&-F-clad straight high school boys doing the same. Dare I admit I felt kinship with them? In making sense of our experience, the challenge is to synthesize the worthy critiques with our own complicity in the status quo. The world will continue to change, though our neat judgments often remain fixed. This week, with Venus in Virgo squaring Pluto, we must reevaluate our categorizations to reflect the past year's deep transformations, as these determine how and to whom we dole out (or refrain from doling out) our affections. Pigeon-hole and classify out of compassion as well as convenience.
The week also marks the conjunction of Mars and Mercury in Leo, a concentration of expressive energy that drives us to want to speak and act in ways that attract attention to ourselves for being ourselves. At the mall, people do this through the clothes they wear and the company they keep. I couldn't help but notice the remarkable similarity in style among those who travel together. In one group, all the girls wore hooded sweatshirts and jeans; in another, spaghetti-strap tanktops, short shorts or mini-skirts, and flip-flops. If one boy had a backpack and extra-baggy jeans, all his friends had backpacks and extra-baggy jeans. One pair of pigtails begets more pairs of pigtails, one Burberry purse deserves another, and so on and so on. What was I expressing about myself, with white t-shirt, goatee, two earrings, black boots, and digital camera atop my lap, surreptitiously snapping pics of other mall-goers? I won't flatter myself with labels, but I certainly had some role I appeared to others to be playing. We individuals together comprise small groups, which then make up a larger social collective, and beyond that all of humanity. An obvious concept, yes, but one that always astounds me with its beauty and range, even as its full realization also evades me. With Mars and Mercury opposing Neptune in Aquarius triggered by the Full Moon on early Wednesday morning, we intuit that we aren't yet conscious of how our independent expressions actually coincide in symphonic unity. Yet we just keep on making our music, knowing it will all make sense later.
For lunch, I finally settled on the heat-lamped Chinese specialties of Panda Express after several minutes of food-court disorientation. As I patiently waited my turn, I scanned the smorgasbord to select three items for my three-item combination plate. I watched the guy before me being helped. He also ordered a three-item combo and impressed me by being fully ready with three choices when asked. Then, as he dug into his pocket to produce the exact $6.70 for his meal before even being informed of the total, it became clear that he'd been here before. But, boy, was he thrown off when the woman behind the counter told him, "You can have a fourth item if you want." That wasn't part of the deal. He appeared flustered and quickly answered "no," sacrificing free food for familiar security. Meanwhile, a different woman was helping me, and as she scooped items two and three onto my plate, I privately debated whether or not I would accept the phantom fourth item. Imagine my shock when she didn't offer it to me. It made no sense but didn't need to, this gorgeousness of life playing out its inconsistencies at Panda Express. In that moment, I found my mall enlightenmentand of course it was at the food courtbut what it means, we will not ponder here together but should do so privately, on our own.
This week's links are sponsored by the mall. Now, thanks to the Internet, you don't even have to go to go.