Saturday, May 31, 2003

A brief report on Ca-go.

Well, this is how hagiography gets going.

As I told you, Joseph decided he was going to see horsies in Chicago. As we approached, he announced that he was also going to see bunnies. Not exactly what the place is known for, but whatever.

So on Thursday morning, as we're actually going into the city from Bloomingdale (where we were staying for the show in St. Charles), I hear the cry from the backseat, "Horsie!" As I turned, I saw one of those tourist horse-drawn carriages on a sidestreet, so I suppose that's what he saw. Later that day, as we were leaving the Blues Festival, walkng through Grant Park, we saw an older couple standing in front of a little round bit of landscaping. They were looking at - you guessed it - a rabbit.

As I said, this is how those stories begin:

The young saint told his parents what he foresaw in the great city: two creatures of God that would appear in the midst of the creations of men.

Of course, they would leave out the part where the young saint had to be taken out of Mass at the St. Therese Shrine because he was tearing up paper, loudly, and protesting, loudly, when it was taken away from him...

So yes, we were there a little more than twenty-four hours and we saw a lot.

We saw scads of new books, a few that were even interesting, at the Religious Booksellers’ Trade Exhibition. We saw several homeless fellows taking naps in the Cathedral, and heard their snoring echo off the ceiling, competing with the drone of a docent talking to a group of kids. We saw a woman at a restaurant eat an enormous amount of food: As we sat next to her, trying valiantly to control the young saint, she steadily worked through her meal: a huge salad, her very own inch thick stuffred pizza, a large piece of tiramisu and a couple of glasses of wine. We saw lovely white beluga whales at the Shedd Aquarium, spouting water out of their heads at us, sending Joseph into fits of giggles. My husband is absolutely certain that he saw actor Tim Robbins walking around at the Chicago Blues Festival, and I believe him.

We also saw two shrines to two very different kinds of girlhood, both in the company of an 11-year old girl.

The first, on the way up, was the National Shrine to St. Therese in Darien, Illinois, naturally, by Carmelites.

There is quite a lot there: the tiny chair upon which Therese sat, writing The Story of a Soul, a map of North American she drew when she was twelve, first class relics, and, in the chapel, a vast bas-relief wood carving of important moments in the life of Therese. It’s not the most inspiring building every constructed, as you can tell from the photos, and what's even more dissatisfying is the museum-like quality to most of the display. There's one reliquary in the chapel, under that gorgeous bas-relief, but the others relics and items of interest are in the center of an adjoining room, grouped in a roped-off circle in the middle. Not the best arrangement.

The next day, we gave Katie her reward for watching Joseph during our book signings by taking her to the famed American Girl Place in downtown Chicago, a place where, according to her “everyone” else in her class had been, some multiple times, except for her.

“American Girl” , in case you have no daughters or granddaughters, is a trademark for a line of books, dolls and other products. It started out as a book series – and a good one – for elementary age girls, each series focusing on an “American Girl” from different points in history. Molly goes through World War II with pluck, Addy deals with life as an African-American girl during Reconstruction, and so on.

The $98 dolls and hundreds of dollars worth of accessories, came next, and then a magazine, books and clothes.

Then there’s the shrine in Chicago, where you can buy American Girl products, watch a live musical production, eat in the tea-room, and even pay $10-20 to have your doll’s hair styled (in a little beauty-shop chair) while you shop.

On one hand, I have no problem with the American Girl ethos. I’ve read interviews with the editor of the magazine, and they are consciously and purposefully positioning themselves in opposition to the over-sexualized alternatives that are out there for pre-teen girls. They say they want to be there to support girls in remaining girls – not little made up, bare-midriffed, clones of Britney Spears – for as long as possible.

And, as the American Girl all grown up – Martha Stewart – likes to say, “That’s a good thing.”

But still – it’s a little spooky, watching these girls walk around the store, clutching their dolls (because, you know, you’re supposed to bring your doll with you to the American Girl store, whether her hair is getting done or not, or whether or not she has the need to check into the Doll Hospital), and sometimes even grown women doing the same thing.

For in the end, as it so often is in our culture, the American Girl ethos, as worthy as it may be at its core, in the end, turns out to be about something else. The American Girl store, right off the Magnificent Mile, near Cartier, Saks and Ralph Lauren, is not so much a shrine to innocent girlhood as it is a shrine to Stuff and the money that buys it.

An innocent and charming girlhood is there – for a price. If you fill your bedroom with enough of the dolls and their sweet little miniature schoolbooks and pets, you too can be the American Girl, an identity confirmed you can finally reach the shrine, sit in the tearoom waiting to see your doll’s new hairstyle.

It’s a scene that screams spiritual emptiness, frankly, of a culture that has deprived its daughters of the possibility of defining themselves through God’s love, leaving them only with their pricey dolls and their shrines in which to seek their identity.

Now, one of the objects on display at the St. Therese shrine is a little tiny toy china teacup. It’s probably safe to presume that she probably sipped tea out of this cup -- in the company of her dolls.

But it wasn’t an American Girl.

And neither, needless to say, was St. Therese, whose life moved beyond the care and feeding of a doll and its cups to the care of a different sort of cup: the chalices she cared for as sacristan, and the adult faith and firm identity as a soul invaluable, not because it own precious little things, but because it is precious to God.