Joan Didion, an author of whom the likes I immensely idolize and can only DREAM of coming close to in terms of writing ability and accomplishment, in her essay, On Morality, writes:
Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want
something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to
have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join
the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard
in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble.
Reading over Didion’s words begs the question of us all: What do we really absolutely need? I have written about my wants and desires before, here and here. It isn't a rarity that I find myself daydreaming about a dream house. As of lately, my latest obsession is with having a new car. The good old Passat has begun to show its almost thirteen years of wear. Currently, to exit the car, I have to roll down the window (while the car is still on because everything is push-button powered), open the door using the external handle, roll up the window, and then turn off the car. There are 135,000 on it, is absorbs oil on par with a ShamWow!, and some belt has begun to squeak. All that having been said, it’s a virtual Monet. From afar, the car looks fabulous. Really, it does. It’s only when you begin to inspect things up close that you might notice the wrinkles. I want a new car. I go to work every day, I pay my bills on time, I file my taxes, and for God’s sake I’m a teacher! I’m shaping the lives of future contributing American citizens! I deserve to have a nice car.
Big Red’s automotive skills will keep the Passat running long past when the average pedestrian would have signed her death certificate, and I’m certain we can get several more years out of the vehicle—but this past weekend I was in a three year-old state of mind, pitching a fit about how everything I want is too expensive. Damn the prices of those German imports. I was feeling sorry for myself, how my life as a teacher married to a mechanic would never afford me that BMW 5 series, or a Volvo T6, or an Audi A6, or even a Range Rover. Oh, the atrocities of life!
You don’t even have to say it. I know. I was being totally ridiculous. I promise my size eights are now firmly planted back on the ground.
This afternoon I previewed the documentary, Which Way Home, one of many that I’m going to be showing as part of new class I’ll be teaching to juniors, beginning in February. The film documents three children as they travel from various points in South America in an attempt to cross over into the United States. It is heart-wrenching and humbling. Most of the young boys site wanting better lives for themselves and finding jobs to send money back to their families. And here I am, sitting in my own house, with a job, and two functioning cars, and money with which to buy groceries—complaining that my perfectly good vehicle sucks. I fear I’m being pulled by the undertow of “[joining] the fashionable madmen…” Yeah. I know. Disgusting.
Here is what I wrestle with: How do we find contentment in what we already have? And then take that a step further: How do we find happiness outside of stuff. Cause frankly, happiness that isn’t tethered to stuff sure would be a hell of a lot more inexpensive than chasing after a luxury German car or a dream house. But on that same note, the stuff I already have makes me pretty happy. Take for example my camera. It wasn’t cheap; at least, it wasn’t cheap for me. But I LOVE that camera. It has brought me immense pleasure, and I use it constantly. I find fulfillment in taking pictures and in learning to become a better photographer. Is it okay to just not want big stuff like houses and cars? Maybe that’s where the journey begins. Scaling back on everything cold turkey might be too much of a shock to the system. Perhaps beginning with acceptance and being grateful that I’m married to a mechanic who can keep our cars going, is the first step. Making the lovely little sweet house we have, a home. Is it okay though, to want to remodel the horrifying 1963 pink-tiled bathroom? Please say yes. Please.
I realize there’s no absolute answer to any of this as it’s all quite nebulous. I’m not willing to cash out and live as a monk, but I find myself, more and more, grasping towards moving away from wanting so much. Honestly, if the universe wills it, and if I make it through all the budget cuts threatening our jobs, I stand to make a good living as a teacher. I really do. If Big Red and I stayed put in our charming (read: small) house, and if we had two kids (preferably of the same gender, cause I don’t know where we’d put the second one given that the office is about the size of a closet—dear universe, please send us two of the same gender, thanks), we would have more than enough money to create wonderful experiences for our family. Is that a reasonable goal? I don’t know. Problem is I know damn well when I was a teenager all I hoped was under the tree were those awesome $60 overalls from The Gap. Am I dating myself? I would hope for my own children that it would be less about how many gifts are under the tree when Santa comes around, and more about the actual things we could do with our money. I want it to be less about the Gameboy and more about what they saw or did. Now I know I’m dating myself.
Lofty? Maybe. But it’s worth a shot, although I’m still keeping my camera. I mean, whose going to document all these memories?
And p.s. - I still have the overalls.