12/09/2011 07:54 pm ET | Updated Feb 08, 2012

Shopping for Presence: A Christmas Lesson

Against all better judgment, I got it into my head to go Christmas shopping. In real stores. Considering we live in a world that enables anyone with a credit rating and internet connection to go bankrupt amassing everything from psychotropics to caskets without ever leaving home, the idea of going to actual stores might seem perverted. But I prefer to think of Christmas shopping as a nostalgic pastime, and so it was that I got in my car and drove to the mall (the cost of parking downtown now exceeding the cost of parking tickets).

I parked my car on the outer limits of the parking lot so I would get plenty of exercise and not lose my patience trying to wedge my car in between a Hummer and a tour bus, and spent the next four hours getting rid of my money as fast as I could. I marveled at the hordes of desperate women rifling through the shoe racks, gasping at the great bargains on $200 shoes that were once best left to the feet of street corner hookers with big hair and chewing gum, while I patiently browsed for sensible heels that would cover up my bunions. I coveted $30 bottles of nail polish and $50 lipsticks as if owning them would redefine my social status. I strode from one end of the mall to the other in search of "perfect gifts," and as the weight of my bags grew heavier I realized I needed even more things. By the time I was done and trudged back to the car as the sun went down, I applauded myself for keeping my cool amidst the thousands of shoppers who jostled and surrounded me, noting that the Occupy Wall Street movement was no match for a good sale at the mall. I got in the car and drove home, listening to the news reports of people gone bad and nations gone goofy.

And on that drive, as I thought of all those thousands of people crowded beside me, I recalled the dozens of hands that appeared to snatch up a shoe, a bauble, a trinket, a pretty blouse as I set it back, the hundreds of feet that raced past me at a speedwalker's clip or got in my way because they moved too slow, the shoulders that pushed me aside, the backs that I found myself facing on the escalators, the striking coats, the designer bags, the grungy jeans, the sleazy sweaters, the slouched shoulders, the crying toddlers, the tired voices, even the hurried professionals with eye-catching watches and exquisite rings presenting golden credit cards with practiced elegance, carrying away small bags with big logos. But I recalled no faces.

I had ventured out into the world to shop for gifts to celebrate a holiday of joy and love and giving and gratitude, I found myself surrounded by thousands of people doing the same, and I saw no one. Had a crime been committed, how many of us could even testify to who or what we saw, I wondered, as I realized I could remember an endless array of things, and yet only one face: the man who upgraded my daughter's cell phone. Everyone else was as invisible to me as I was to them.

Somehow, that revelation -- along with the realization that more people shop for shoes and iPads than occupy Wall Street, yet no one's tear-gassing hordes of shoppers when they block traffic -- made me rethink the nostalgia of Christmas shopping. Where was the joy, the community, the spirit? I got home, turned on some holiday music, lit some candles and made a pot of spicy tea and before long these thoughts were long gone, replaced with where to put the Christmas tree and wondering why it's so hard to get those things delivered.

A few days later, my daughter asked me to take her shopping at the good mall, the one on the better side of the lake. As long as I disappeared once we got there, she said, so she didn't have to listen to me complaining about the awful music in those teen clothing stores or the lousy quality of designer clothes now that they are made with less durability than Kleenex. Having upgraded her cell phone, I was delighted at the opportunity to set her free, knowing she is much more sensible with money than her mother. But this time, I made a vow to myself. I had all the stuff I needed, so I'd go shopping for the faces that I'd missed the first time round. I would make a point of looking at the faces on the people I encountered, observe their behavior like a secret shopper, see how many different kinds of people, emotions and actions I could spot in a given hour, and see if my experience of shopping was any different -- or if I could even do it.

By the time I met up with my daughter for lunch a couple of hours later, I felt thrilled. I'd actually had conversations with people, helped people with their strollers, their spilled packages, conversed about jobs, the economy, Hanukkah and Santa Claus with total strangers. I came home, pretty much empty-handed (except for 32 samples of perfume and a blush the price of a car payment that the saleswoman assured me made me look like a 30-year-old Ali McGraw, give or take some hair dye), and though my feet were tired and I couldn't wait for that pot of tea, I was ready for Christmas. I'd found that nostalgic joy, not by anything I bought, but by all the people I'd encountered, just by making an effort to really see them. And somehow, spending less but seeing more made me feel like Santa Claus finally is on his way, one passing smile at a time.