Recently I found a writing exercise that directed, “List 25 things [objects] that represent to you sophistication and success.” After making my list, I glanced back over the handwritten page. Reading over my catalog of tokens of sophistication, such as “the perfect little black dress” and “trips to Europe,” I realized that I already own, have owned or am on my way to owning several of the things on my list. I went over the list again, putting a star by the items I already have and a dot by the ones I sometimes have, or have begun acquiring. I was surprised to discover that of the 25, I already had sixteen—the two mentioned above, as well as quality writing implements, crisp poplin shirts, long sparkly earrings and several others. I have owned or begun collecting four others, such as “an extensive library of classics and ‘good stuff.’ ”
What does that say about me? That my expectations of success (at least material success) are too low, my dreams too small? Or have I been too heavily influenced by InStyle magazine and the Pottery Barn and Pier 1 catalogs? I admit to espousing a definite idea of Western, upper-middle-class sophistication and elegance, which I associate with material success. I don’t think it’s necessary to have Tiffany lamps in every room and original Van Goghs and Monets on the walls and duck á la orange (or something similarly gourmet) every night for dinner. But I do appreciate (more items from the list) handmade blown-glass Christmas ornaments, framed original art (by local artists) from the places I’ve been and jazz music playing while I cook a simple but tasty dinner.
What sort of person does that make me? Am I limited to one certain idea of success, imparted to me by the media or by the ideals of a particular segment of society? Or am I a wee bit spoiled because, at age 22, I already have many of the things I consider to be tokens of sophistication and success?
I would like to believe my list reveals that material success isn’t that important to me. That all my items, taken together, would create a home in which beauty and small luxuries are balanced with comfort and scholarship and simple pleasures and time and space to relax. I am, after all, the daughter and granddaughter of simple folks, farmers from the Ozarks, Mississippi and central Ohio, who believe that family and God and community are more important than material things.
My maternal grandparents’ sky-blue clapboard farmhouse never had air-conditioning, and yet it was my favorite place to spend part of every summer as a child. My dad didn’t have to walk uphill both ways in the snow to school, but I know there were some lean times on the farm outside of Neosho, Missouri, where he grew up and where my grandmother still lives. I hope that by observing and being taught these values all my life, I’ve absorbed some of them, and that my true heart lies in people and places, not things.
That being said, I wouldn’t mind someday owning every single thing on my list. Not so that I can check them all off and declare to myself that I’ve arrived, but because I want to be the kind of woman who has “time for tea and scones in thick ceramic dishes” with friends, who leaves “thick, fluffy towels” in the guest bathroom for her friends and relatives and who writes poignant, witty, insightful meditations in “nicely bound journals.” My true aim should be the lifestyle that those things complement—not a lifestyle of luxury, but one that emphasizes relationships, reflection and community.
Perhaps it’s human nature to crave comfort and nice things. But I believe human nature is transformed when we use nice things (or even the Target and Wal-Mart knockoff versions) to become the people we were created to be.
Tea and scones, anyone?