The last time we felt this way was at the ten-year point. The result of that restlessness, in combination with opportunity and, we felt, calling, was a move from San Francisco to Salt Lake City. Two years, we thought. A whim, an experiment, a chance to shake things up.
We rented part of a big old house, without central air conditioning or three-pronged outlets. It smelled of cat and had crooked floors. Here we still are, twelve years later. And still treating it a bit like a trial period.
A couple of weeks ago, on something like impulse, I called mortgage lenders and made an appointment with my friend the real estate agent. For about three days, I got excited about buying, and my husband played along. I looked at houses, “for fun and practice,” in person and online, and pictured us in each of them. One, though not in the ideal location, particularly captured me with its massive covered patio and perfect kitchen.
Shortly after seeing this house, I freaked out. I walked in our neighborhood, in our cemetery, and got teary at the idea of never walking there again. I ran a twenty-minute errand to the grocery store and library, both within half a mile, and imagined the End of Convenience. For All Time. I missed the view out our back windows, even as I was staring at it.
I’ve been thinking about friends of ours back in San Francisco. They were much older than us, and had been together forever.
The one who would have had money was estranged from his family and financial stability because they wouldn’t accept his homosexuality or his partner. Our friends made a life out of two tiny rent-controlled studios, thrift store clothing, furniture, and decor, and careful management of their fixed incomes.
We took turns hosting dinner. Theirs usually featured something from Grocery Outlet, where they foraged for the best of the closeouts and oddly flavored snack items, which we enjoyed with our martinis.
I was sixteen when I met them, a wife at nineteen, and they more or less taught me everything I know about hospitality, from soup to nuts. I saw in them proof that there were many ways to think of success and happiness. They never complained about the limits of their lifestyle at a time when many of their peers were enjoying far more luxurious retirements.
During times of our own financial uncertainty, we held their example close. If we never made it up another rung of the ladder, we could still be content––and still show our friends a good time.
But, sometimes I look at the homes and lives of friends our age and it can feel, in comparison, that we’re living like college students.
Our furniture is a mish-mash of hand-me-downs and garage sale finds and leftovers from the school plays my husband directs, plus a few things we bought new ten years ago. The display on the stereo receiver (which doesn’t actually receive anything) blinks constantly. Most of our windows require propping open with dowels, books, or whatever is handy, because the sashes are so old. The upholstery on our kitchen chairs is torn. We hide their disrepair with pillows, but the pillow stuffing is coming out.
I’m forty-one. My husband is fifty. Shouldn’t we, by now, have a real dining room set? (And a real dining room?)
It’s not that we can’t afford to improve our environment, at least to a degree. For some reason, we don’t choose to.
We’ve always resisted certain aspects of the American dream that would tell us we need children, property, and an ever-growing nest egg to consider ourselves successful adults. We seem to have lumped “serviceable furniture” in with that which we resist.
In a way, we’ve chosen to live like college kids because of opting not to have children, and, thus far, not to own a house, not to own much of anything, really, that couldn’t be given away or sold if we took a notion to move on. This isn’t because we are enlightened rejecters of consumer culture, or part of the movement to simplify. It’s more that we’ve feared certain kinds of responsibility.
But I think we’re changing. I think, maybe, after twenty-two years together, we’re finally ready to settle down. Not by buying furniture or a house or having a big financial obligation. I still find comfort in the possibility modeled by our older friends, the difference an attitude of joy can make. It’s more about being ready to make decisions that will affect us further than a few years into the future, something we’ve mostly avoided for the last two decades.
I’ve waved verses from James around as my justification. “Don’t say you’ll go here or there next year, or do this or that, because you don’t know! You’re gonna die soon anyway!” I tend to leave off the next verse: “What you ought to say is, ‘If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:13-15, Zarr paraphrase).
I also think about those famous verses in Ecclesiastes. Along with there being a time to search and a time to quit searching, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, maybe there’s also a time to live like college kids and a time to grow up.
Lord willing, we will.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.