We moved recently -- Heather and I, to the same place -- and she commented today as we were walking back from the thrift store (a lantern for the porch, some things to hang on the walls) and the garden store (a plant to fill a bare space on an end table) that this whole business of having a home involved spending a lot of money.
"Well, nobody's forcing us," I said, a little unreasonably annoyed, feeling that if one is going to spend money it is in rather bad form to fret about it afterward.
But it is compelling, the desire for these things -- the 1960s European mod accessories and the antique zoological prints and the porch full of flowers and herbs. We think we can construct a happy life with them.
And they do make us happy. Heather has watched in amused disbelief as I've spent minutes moving furniture and vases back and forth, inch by inch, to find the aptest arrangement. At the same time, if I didn't live with someone else -- if there were no one to observe the details of my daily life -- I would surely not invest this effort. I would hang the same three things on my walls I've hung on the walls of the last three apartments I've lived in and let the initial order of everything else steadily decay until I moved again. But now there's someone to share all this with; plus, we'd like to have parties, and have our friends admire the work of all our good taste.
When I was a kid my mom and I would go out on summer evenings and walk the dogs and look into the lit windows of other people's houses. Richer people's houses, I should say. I grew bored of the same few neighborhoods and occasionally tried to tug us in the other direction, towards downtown and the somewhat more jumbled blocks before it -- my appetite for variety did not discriminate -- but would generally fail. There's nothing to look at there.
We'd walk and ooh and aah over thick drapes, gleaming lamps, expensive-looking just-built decks -- scoff at the super-sized TVs beyond them, too, or anything else in obviously bad or outdated taste. Later I thought my mom was being a little bitchy and judgmental with all this -- she, who decorated our home with faux-global tchotchkes from Meijer and had a stack of Cosmopolitan magazines on the coffee table -- and then later still I thought she must have been propelled by a certain longing.
I've felt it too, the beckoning of other, warmer, well-provided lives. In college during parties at professors' houses, their shelves full of books and desks full of pictures of children radiant with all the love and confidence they'd soaked up in those rooms. Wanting to curl up in -- forget that, even beneath would do -- one of their tastefully plump armchairs for the rest of my life. Visiting the childhood homes of college friends and tripping awkwardly over the casual abundance of their lives, which was being constantly thrust my way by their impossibly generous parents.
Heather and I loved this apartment right away, but it wasn't our first choice. There was this other one, in a building owned by a slightly brusque, flannel-shirted divorcee who lived on the first floor in dim rooms still decorated with the breathtaking stained-glass fixtures her ex-husband had designed; her adult son inhabited the basement. We walked inside and stood in the largest space I've ever seen in a Chicago apartment. Shiny wood and yards and yards of windows; a fireplace; huge wooden beams astride the ceiling. The currant tenant reclined with a glass of wine and a book on a chaise longue in a corner of the room, and looked up serenely as we entered. Her furniture was all very large and sturdy and expensive-looking. This could be mine -- this serenity, this space. I could feel myself moving daily through these rooms, becoming with every step a different and more elegant being.
When we didn't get it, I shed real tears, albeit laughing all the while at my ridiculousness -- that this ache for the inanimate should be so terribly real!
There is a part of me that is a strict ascetic; I've lived on $20 a week for months at a time and could do it again, and something in me never fails to flinch when I think of spending money on anything not strictly useful. I enjoy camping and backpacking in part because it plays to my Robinson Crusoe fantasies of paring down my needs to a sinewy package of essentials. How is it, then, that things call out to me so strongly, seem to promise so much?
Certain gifts I got for Christmas or for birthdays as a child deeply satisfied this itch; I felt wonderfully well-cared-for, well-attended-to, when I received the troll doll on a skateboard, the trick yo-yo everyone was getting in sixth grade. Such things were not only symbols that I, too, was loved, but were also keys, it seemed, into a larger world, my letter of introduction into a friendly social web until now closed to me.
So some of it is surely just a taste for beauty, the chord that lovely objects and well-appointed rooms strike on my heartstrings. But some of it is, maybe, this other thing -- this feeling that I have not yet quite been loved enough, but am about to be. There is just one more thing.