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Gwyneth, Joanna, and Tolstoy: Pilgrimage to Magnolia and Goop

I often revisit the final scene of War and Peace. Tolstoy concludes his epic about the Napoleonic wars with a goofy scene about parenting.  The exquisite Natasha has put on a few pounds and is married to Pierre, literature's favorite bumbling dork with a huge inheritance (sorry Mr. Bingley, we love you too).  The novel's oscillation between the battlefield and the ballroom (war and peace - get it?) shows the similarities between the two worlds, especially the way glory and self-promotion are at the heart of each.  After the fighting concludes, Tolstoy seems to say that domestic happiness is the only happiness.  This point is made more concretely in (the less romantic but superior work of art) Anna Karenina. The novel begins, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  No matter how glorious our worldly activities, it all comes down to the home and family.

Today I consider Tolstoy's idea in the context of two visits I recently made to modern pilgrimage sites: the goop mrkt in San Francisco and the Magnolia Market and Silos in Waco, Texas.

The women behind these two brands are pretty different.  Joanna Gaines is down to earth, friendly, relatable, and likes to get dirty at work.  She shows us how hands-on she is as a mother.  Gwyneth Paltrow works hard to disguise how hard she's working.  She chooses to appear sophisticated, wealthy, and cared for by helpers and handlers.  Joanna is a designer-decorator by trade while goop "collaborates" with other designers to create exclusive products.  Joanna achieves a trendy, simple, farm-chic look on a LAUGHABLY TINY BUDGET that makes the nation consider moving to central Texas.  Gwyneth recommends $125,000 golden dumbbells in her holiday gift guide.

People - mostly women - are flocking to these places to, well, that is what I am here to discuss.  Why do people want to be in the physical spaces engineered by these two brands?  And what do they have in common?

I visited the Magnolia Silos with my brother (who had never seen an episode of Fixer Upper), and I found myself trying to explain the appeal while we walked around.  I was SHOCKED to find the experience strangely moving, and I actually fought tears for much of the time I spent inside.  I don't really like that farm style very much - I abhor distressed anything, be it jeans or bookcases - and I'm determined to fight the good fight in defense of formal living and dining rooms.  However, the space was inviting, beautiful, and filled with people who were thrilled to be there, and I was able to put my taste differences aside and truly enjoy an hour wandering around.

I entered the goop shop alone after a meeting in SF so I could hate-shop the same way I hate-read my goop newsletter.  To my surprise, I found myself captivated by the scent, the simplicity, the sheer gorgeousness of the space I was in.  Every object was perfectly curated, and the opportunity to experience Gwyneth's taste through a haptic encounter was delightful.  I suddenly wanted to spend $300 on a juice cleanse.

Why did my cynicism melt away when I stepped into these two very different shops?  And why on earth was it emotionally charged?  Both shops are pictures of a domestic simplicity that feel so, so out of reach.  Magnolia has a section of the shop full of bins of fake flowers near an empty butcher block counter with a huge farm sink in it.  I really welled up for the first time when I walked past it, my imagination running to images of a garden full of big flowers and a clean, spacious kitchen in which I cut, cleaned, and arranged them in vases.  There's a huge dining table spread with casual dining paraphernalia, and my mind filled the chairs with relatives and the friends of my nonexistent 9 year old or my husband's Army buddies.  There was a section with bright white bed linens and towels, a desk with a fetching bulletin board and a big family calendar, and then a huge attached empty barn and a big lawn that pulsed with readiness for a 4th of July BBQ or a post-church Sunday picnic with friends.  It was a mine field of domestic fantasies that completely laid me low, even if I would never be caught dead with a repurposed rusted metal farm tool nailed to my wall.  I bought the candle that was burning at the checkout.

Goop, too, filled my mind with scenes from an imagined life.  A casual and easy outfit for picking my kids up from their school in Brentwood, beauty products that would make me grin through a makeup-free face at weekend pool parties in my backyard, a million-dollar no-frills kitchen that would reduce inflammation systemically for my nonexistent family and into which I could proudly invite Mario Batali to give me a gnocchi tutorial.  I saw intellectual friends leaning against beautiful throw pillows for good conversations, impossibly thin-walled glass tumblers and pitchers to place beside guest beds, silky black ceramics that showcased a tablespoon of pink Himalayan salt, minimalist wall hangings that featured black and white photos of my future kids as preschoolers.  I bought the candle there too.

When I first read War and Peace in college, I identified strongly with Natasha when she felt herself becoming beautiful, strong, and desirable and wanted to spring off of her windowsill and fly into the full moon. That sense of potential and awaiting adventure - ah! to be 19.  At that time, I hated the domestic-chaos ending scene because it was so un-glamorous.  It was the opposite of possibility and potential - the heroine was arguing with her awkward husband about curtains.  Ew.

I'm reminded, though, of that great Kierkegaard line, "Pleasure disappoints, possibility never."  Adolescence is all about possibility.  And once you've started making commitments - to a spouse, or to a child, a home purchase, etc. - the realm of possibility gets a little narrower.  And then more narrow.  There is real pleasure in accepting the direction that adult life moves, and I believe that Tolstoy is ultimately correct about domestic happiness.

In this adult phase, the impossible fantasies about marrying Prince William are replaced by fantasies about your actual life: clean laundry.  Dishes actually in cabinets.  Living room furniture you actually like.  A yard where you can host your friends.  Magnolia and Goop are two very different icons of domestic perfection, and I think it moved me because it doesn't seem like it should be as far-fetched as it is.  It doesn't really matter at age 19 if you actually marry Prince William or not, but the thought experiment is thrilling.  But it does matter a decade later if your home is peaceful.  It does matter whether or not you fill your home with children and family.  It does matter if your friendship are stimulating and if there exists a platform where you can exchange ideas and linger long over dinner.  It is meaningful if you can cut fresh flowers in the basin of a farm sink.

So we flock to these places to spend a few minutes, an hour, in the realm of domestic bliss.  It's like Disneyland for grown women.  It's a place for the imagination to run to places that have actual significance - the places where peace, beauty, and tranquility do actually matter.  And that is the story about how I expected to roll my eyes and laugh but ended up crying at Magnolia and Goop.


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