A woman sets her ladder against an enormous block of hay and begins to climb. Her ladder comes no where near the top of the pile but the thought of what she will do when she gets to the highest rung has not yet occurred to her. The climb itself is everything. To her right and left, men and women raise their arms above their heads and caress the hay, stretching to embrace their body-width portions of the mountainous pile. Some pluck what they can with long hooks and forks. Others fight over fistfuls of the hay, willing to beat each other senseless or slit a throat or two if necessary.
And all the while, the pile of hay is on the move. Pulled by a team of monstrous creatures, the hay wagon is rolling along, taking with it an entourage of peasants and princes. The front wheel will soon crush the man who clutches at a tuft of hay instead of saving himself. The back wheel is about to snap the boney leg of an old man who has found himself entangled in the spokes. There is a disastrous kind of momentum, a willingness to follow the hay wherever it is headed—a compulsion to see its value, accept without question its desirability. Those who parade behind it see nothing but a wall of yellow. Those lucky few who sit on top of it feel nothing but the comfortable ride it provides. Those who brawl and grasp to the side of it want nothing but to have more and more of it.
And who stops to ask if it is worth all this? If it is worth anything at all? What exactly is the stuff they fight over, the stuff they collect, worship and climb? It is nothing more than a bunch of hay.
I was thinking of The Haywain by Bosch today while I walked a circuit through the mall. It has been snowing too much lately to take my usual walk around the neighborhood, so my friend Staci and I go to the mall in the morning, just about the time all the stores are opening. We are not shopping. We are exercising, dressed in sweats, pushing Nora in the stroller and walking at a furious pace past windows filled with jewelry and prom dresses and the soft porn of Victoria Secret lingerie modeled by sultry manikins. And every time we turn the corner in front of the Nordstrom’s Department Store, we come face to face with this:
Setting aside the grammatical issue (What if…the subjunctive tense were not optional?) the window drives me crazy (and crazier and crazier as we pass it repeatedly). Staci says, “This is why our country is in a recession” and I totally agree with her. The greed, the sense of entitlement, the imperative to buy something (more than once if possible), and the artificial need created by advertising campaigns and by trends and by followers of the hay wagon: these attitudes have driven people to spend beyond their means and lose track of what really matters.
And the hay wagon is always on the move. Today it is a Maxx New York bag (yes, I called Nordstrom’s to ask. “They’re really inexpensive,” the handbag associate told me, “Only $48.” I’m not sure which disturbs me more, the cost of the ugly handbags or the fact that there’s a dedicated associate who sells nothing but the ugly handbags). Tomorrow it will be something new. Maybe not a skittle-colored, patent leather, appealingly-impractical-at-any-price accessory, but something equally worth chasing after.
It’s for this very reason that I normally steer far clear of the mall. Just a few days of walking past the shops and already I find myself thinking about fashion far more than I normally do, wondering if I should be dressing Nora like the lucky kids whose mothers shop exclusively at The Children’s Place. It’s an insidious toxin, this materialism. It fills the air in drifts and breezes, influencing all who pass the imagery and product displays in the same way that the scents of body lotions and baking pretzels and colognes reach their tendrils out into the mall corridor like cartoon smells rising from freshly baked pies on a windowsill.
“Avert your eyes,” I tell Nora in the stroller as we pass the insipid handbags. “Pay no attention to the stuff behind the glass.” We don’t need one of those. We don’t need any of this. It’s all just hay.