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Shopping as communion

  • 15 November 2010

My young daughter and I caught a bus into the city to do some shopping. A seemingly mundane errand was transformed into something magical. Meeting the world through her curious eyes made me stop and see things afresh: a top hat in a shop window, 'just like in that storybook'; a stained-glass parrot peering over a door frame; a creaking grille lift with pulleys and a handle.

Weaving in and out of stores and crossing streets, we passed back and forth under the sky, feeling the weather change, the day shift. Staying connected with the real world this way made it a very different experience to the kind that might be had in a sealed and modulated shopping mall.

We were there to take shoes to be re-soled, purchase a new watchband, and replace a cracked tea cup. A neat fairytale set of three tasks. Visiting the cobbler was a particular delight — a rare encounter in the modern city with real craftsmanship skills, and a father and son happy to answer the questions of a chatty three-year-old.

The trip, and Eva's excitement, reminded me of outings I had made as a child, coming from country Queensland to visit my grandmother in Brisbane. Always beautifully-groomed, Nana would put on an especially good 'town' dress, dust her skin with face powder, and spray a little eau de cologne behind her ears. Our ritual trip to Darrell Lea for a miniature bottle of rainbow-coloured sweets was one Eva and I repeated.

Our Saturday adventure got me thinking about the role of shopping in our lives, a role that grows, triffid-like, in the approach to Christmas. Was my enjoyment nothing more than middle-class nostalgia? How did this leisurely trip compare with December's jostling in the supermarket queue, besieged by piped carols? 

It seems right to be dismissive of the ridiculously elevated place shopping has in our culture, part indulgent leisure activity, part fantasia of a ready-made store-bought identity. The mass of credit card debt and our vast social inequity is evidence of consumerism gone mad.

But if my experience is any guide, then our caution about consumerism can easily slide into something else; a false division of experience into grubby materialism versus pure spirituality.

It is salutary to remember that trade is an old, old human activity. Buying and selling has shaped history. Alongside goods, new ideas and practices get exchanged, leading to the creation of remarkable civilisations from Baghdad,