|Photo by Emma Brabrook via Flickr|
Today I drove out to the garden center to buy some more tomato plants to replace the ones that are already failing in my garden. (Doomed, I tell you, they are all doomed!) I got the last, lonely little 4-pack. Their sorry dried-out state and exposed roots don't give me much hope for their longevity in my garden.
In order to get to the garden center I have to drive past one of the elite subdivisions. You know the kind, five story homes, sweeping lawns, 4 car garages; the embodiment of the American dream. And I will tell you that some days it is hard, driving past these perfect exteriors, to not feel a pang of envy, to hear a small voice whispering "Isn't that what you wanted? And you're never going to get it."
For years that was everything that I dreamed of, all that I thought I wanted. I grew up solidly in the lower middle-class income bracket and we weren't so poor that I ever lacked for food or the necessities, but there were rarely any extras. In an era before hipsters made vintage and thrift coolly ironic, my clothes were almost all thrift-shop and yard-sale bargains. In the era of Jordache jeans, I was wearing orange polyester and praying at every yard sale to see that coveted horse head on an item of clothing. I was consumed with the desire to have something that declared "I fit in, I am one of you." The memory of the first and only time I begged, really begged for a piece of clothing is still etched in my mind. It was the most beautiful shirt I had ever seen, pale flowers, three-quarter length rolled sleeves and I wanted it desperately. It cost twenty dollars. To my mother, no piece of clothing was worth that much. To me, it was the embodiment of a longing to express my individuality, to make my own choice about something. I won the battle, surprisingly enough, with my mother muttering that I wouldn't get my money's worth out of it. I wore it for ten years, long after the colors had faded, just to prove her wrong.
And so I dreamed of the day I would be somebody. Of the day that I could buy any shirt, any dress I wanted without questioning the cost. (Granted, designers like Gucci and Armani didn't figure into that desire, even then I didn't desire $10,000 outfits.) I dreamed of the house I would have, the rooms I would fill with furniture, the American Dream I would live. (Oddly enough, the American Dream looked an awful lot like the JC Penney Christmas catalog.) This was the pinnacle achievement in life, to fit in and to be seen as a 'have', not as a 'have not.'
But life doesn't always follow the plans we set for it, for which I am grateful because I have a suspicion that dream would have turned me into someone quite insufferable. Instead, I fell in love. I fell in love with a social worker and never mind that his income was never going to bring me even close to that dream. (Pardon me while the memories make me a little mushy. It is totally his fault I almost failed macro-economics; how's a girl supposed to concentrate on economic formulas when she keeps daydreaming about a certain crooked smile and hazel eyes?)
Here's what I know now, though. I've realized over the years that those dreams were never really what I wanted. I would not trade a thousand big houses for our first year in the attic apartment, on the hand me down bed that sent us both rolling towards the center. I wouldn't trade all the sweeping lawns for the basement apartment we lived in next, with the centipedes that fell from the ceiling. (Well, ok, I would trade the centipedes.) But that was the apartment we brought our oldest home to, that was where he learned to crawl and to walk, that was where the memories of his first smiles are captured. I wouldn't trade the four car garages for the house we lived in for six months before moving to South Dakota, or the months we spent in our in-law's basement, or the apartment we brought our second child home to.
It took me a long time to learn, but contentment doesn't lie in all that I thought I wanted. Contentment lies in my heart, in rejoicing in whatever my circumstances are. Contentment lies in knowing that I don't need all of that stuff to be somebody, that I'm loved as I am by my husband, my children, my friends, and most of all, my Creator. And yes, contentment even lies in scouring the thrift stores for something to wear, as long as it isn't orange polyester pants.
The flash of envy dies quickly as I drive past those huge houses. My house is alive with love and laughter. It's taking a beating from two small boys, but those dings in the wall are part of our lives. The shingles may be peeling but it's a roof and we are blessed to live in all of the richness and the mess and the goodness that lies under it. Life is good, and I know that I have everything I ever really wanted.