It’s funny how ordinary pleasures—dried fruit and lattes—have become my little indulgences. Once a splurge had more to do with charging a bargain found at Urban Outfitters (some candle or a t-shirt) or having a nice dinner out. Not that higher-end things aren’t still on the “save for when more flush with cash” list, but something has gradually changed in me. When I first arrived in New York City, four years ago this August, I’d come here to flee suburbia, a life too boring and tepid. And since I was poor and jobless at first, how much was now near but still out-of-reach overwhelmed me at times. As I wrote home in those early months:
New York is a walking city. … Though this amounts to a kind of egalitarian pedestrian experience, it somehow serves to reinforce one’s own sense of being without so many things that other people have. Because the streets are shared by everyone, poor folk like me brush shoulders with very wealthy people or those sufficiently comfortable with debt to dress as such. Never have I been in a place where I was so aware of the material goods I was doing without or could own—and I don’t think it’s just a weird-Anna thing; I’ve talked to other people who comment on the same thing. There’s an odd sense of the material here, and consequently a different sense of one’s material-goods-related class, relative to others’, than most other places I’ve been.
Sometimes it starts to get you down a little (or me, anyway). At times I feel like I’ve ordered this amazing créme brulée that’s been sitting in front of me for nearly two months. It’s both sickening and tantalizing at times, but I can’t really get below the surface to enjoy all the exciting contents beneath; seems like I keep scraping flakes off the top.
My clothes, my income, my evenings seemed all too ordinary compared to the restaurants and shops and outings I saw my street-mates experiencing. But everyone seems to feel both that inadequacy and envy. I don’t know how many people I’ve talked to here, whose “day job” is someone else’s dream job, though they work to pay the bills while pursuing some other passion off-hours. The papers are in on it too; besides the New York Times, two tabloid-sized rags keep the masses abreast of what star is seeing whom and wearing what. Why do we care? Why are we so committed to worshiping and reviling them by turns?
Because, I think, such celebrities live out the dream of many of overcoming humanity—progressing to an extraordinary existence. This, as my pastor, Tim Keller, pointed out, is the salvation most of us long for: Not a redemption of our day-to-day life in its normalcy and subtle peaks and valleys, but an escape to something grander that seems to supersede our humanity.
And when you’re in your early twenties, this thirst for escape and quest for adventure tends to define your nightlife. At least it did mine. The last thing you want is a boring, quiet—*gasp*—ordinary Friday night at home. What clearer sign of loserdom? Or not.
Maybe this is just proof of my spinsterhood, but I can no longer count how many vanilla Friday nights I’ve passed in Brooklyn. And since I’m now leading a fairly suburban life after all—except at a higher cost than one finds in other parts of the country—I sometimes wonder if I need to live here at all. But that’s neither here nor there. My main point is, when I think about the experiences I long for these days, they’re not quite as exotic as they used to be.
Sure, I might miss the fish ’n chips I had in New Zealand three autumns ago, or long to revisit Malaysia’s tea plantations, but what I loved the most about those trips was reveling in the simple pleasures of eating a good meal with family, laughing at my brother’s fake accents or nursing a steaming cup of tea. Although those trips took place in rather “extraordinary” settings, our greatest joys were savoring ordinary moments.
I’m starting to think the secret of contentment is not learning how to “escape” from life but to enjoy it for what it is—not sorting out the conditions just so, finding someway to stop the boat’s rocking, but learning to keep your balance no matter how smooth or rough the seas. The trouble with the old me was that I hoped a boyfriend and marriage would save me from boredom and the travails of a normal life. And since I secretly feared it might let me down in that, I made sure to like men more wrong than right for me. Having my dream of the perfect escape was preferable to having that dream come true and still be stuck here in a life most banal.
What is it you think you need in life? What do you hope it will save you from? Perhaps we fear our dreams’ fulfillment more than this longing interminable because we sense the problem is not in our circumstances, but restlessness. The problem is not what you have that I don’t, but my ever-renewing envy.