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Catalogs stuff mailbox and vex spirit


Normally Madison Avenue tries simply to exploit our cherished childhood memories, not to ruin them completely, but I can name one experience mass marketing has seriously corrupted for me: autumn.

In my childhood, I was a big fan of this time of year. I absolutely loved -- and still do -- the blaze of maple, sumac, oak and birch; the pungent scent of decaying leaves; the crisp air; the delicious knowledge that in a few short weeks, we here in the north country will be required to hunker down, to brace ourselves for the cold.

I loved the morning I would sit up in bed to peek out the window at the first snowfall of the season. Starting right after Halloween, I'd go to sleep thinking, "This could be it". I loved the air of mystery about exactly when it would happen and the definite change it represented. We moved indoors, and were allowed to become more private, more bookish. I still love entering a warm, lit house on a cold evening, to smell dinner cooking, to warm up after being on the very edge of frostbite.

And, of course, there was the knowledge of Christmas coming. Autumn was never the end of summer, it was the beginning of winter for me, with the joy of the holidays looming just over my existential horizon.

Now things are somewhat different. As an adult, a homeowner and a credit-card holder, autumn has taken on a different and decidedly less pleasant significance: It's the beginning of the catalog onslaught.

Since Labor Day, each new day brings a fuller mailbox. I have catalogs from all the standard direct mail businesses -- the L.L. Bean, Land's End, Harry and David's. I am enticed daily by such products as expensive South American knits, discount silver and china, museum reproductions, "classic" toys, religious goods, nature-themed trinkets, "products for progressives," deceptively casual furniture, and books, books, books -- history, self-improvement, spirituality, even cookbooks.

And these people know I've got kids. I get catalogs full of Halloween costumes, cheap plastic toys, expensive wooden toys, lovely historical dolls, cheap synthetic clothing, expensive natural fiber clothing -- and you can fill in the blank with your own personal favorites.

Never mind that I couldn't possibly afford to buy the way these people seem to think I can. Spend $330 dollars on a Peruvian ruana sweater in "muted melange hues" with a "cross-cultural totems" pattern -- Celtic, Nepalese and Andean, to be specific? I don't think so.

Don't get me wrong, this stuff is actually beautiful. It's just that there's too darn much of it. Too many catalogs with beautiful models wearing perfect ensembles that cost as much as many biweekly paychecks.

I have tried asking to have my name taken off the direct-mail marketing list. This worked for a while, but the problem is that I actually do buy from catalogs sometimes. It saves time and helps me to avoid the near occasion of sin by keeping me away from the malls, the mother of impulse purchases.

My autumn pleasures, in other words, are now diluted by the daily battle to resist consumerism. It's hard. I try to teach my children that it's not what we have, it's how much we love each other that matters. I walk a fine line between what I see as a natural desire to be surrounded by pleasing things in a comfortable home, and the danger of never being satisfied with what I have and how I live.

"Resist," I tell my husband, who will soon pick out a new car, paid for by the company for which he works. Having scraped by as a one-car family for years, we recently acquired a second car that is 12 years old and just scraping by itself. Ben is excited about the prospect of buying a genuinely new car. He wants one of those huge sport-utility vehicles that get terrible gas mileage. We can justify this "need": We live in a state where four-wheel drive comes in handy in the middle of winter. "It's safer," he tells me, and I nod in assent.

We all have our own demons -- I ogle the ads for Coach leather goods in The New York Times magazine every Sunday. Like my husband and his new car, I could make a case for needing this stuff. Still, I have to wonder what it all means. Where does legitimate comfort end and soul-destroying materialism begin?

I remember a Catholic Worker once discussing her simple lifestyle with a group of new Jesuit Volunteer Corps members. She said, "It's not that I don't appreciate nice things. Would I enjoy wearing a Cartier watch? Sure. But I can live without it." Feeling okay about living without "it" whatever "it" is for you, takes practice, creativity and a sense of humor.

So here's my suggestion for the next time you've got the too-many-catalogs-in-the-mailbox blues: Fight fire with fire. If the retailers and marketers can try earlier and earlier to reach our pocketbooks in a convolution of what is holy, we can practice detachment with equal stamina. Put on a pot of soup or simmer some cider and cinnamon sticks. Go outside and rake leaves, talk to your neighbors, walk the dog, play tag with your kids. Immerse yourself in the sensations of autumn. Await the coming of your Creator by reveling in creation. Remind yourself that resistance is hard work and requires constant vigilance, but that you have plenty of company. (Remember to offer your mail carrier a kind word or a cup of hot chocolate.)

Maybe these small steps could help us take autumn back from the mass mailers and retailers of the world, and restore it as a reminder of our own childhood -- and as a herald of the coming of the Christ Child, who offers a satisfaction that infinitely transcends what any mail-order cutlery set or action figure could provide.

Kris Berggren lives in Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, October 3, 1997