In another month or so I will have spent a year in the small apartment I moved into when I left the ranch behind. Somewhere along the line I took to calling the place where I live ‘the flophouse.’ The word has all those connotations of a place inhabited by the desolate, the drunken and drugged, the indigent and unfortunate, and I do cast my eye critically upon my neighbors from time to time. As the months roll by though I am returning to a more humane understanding of people. I don’t know anyone else’s situation and experience and I ought not to judge.
We judge people in terms of ownership. The American Dream is a dream of ownership, at least at the individual level. From above, it’s the utopian dream that everyone who ‘works hard, pays taxes, and plays by the rules’© should be able to own a home; from the individual level it’s about me owning a home. To my way of thinking this whole system is now in question on two major fronts.
One is the simple fact that paying taxes and playing by the rules is problematic under a government that increasingly disenfranchises whole blocks of voters, that gerrymanders its way into office using the archaic electoral college, and makes common cause with despotic foreign governments who seek to intervene in our elections. As our next president has asserted, repeatedly and emphatically, ‘It’s a rigged system, folks.’ We should not ignore that fact.
The other change is that many people these days are shifting their emphasis away from using the money they earn to own things to using that money to buy experiences. Whether it’s tickets to symphonies, plays, concerts, and sports events, or dinner out at new and interesting places, or vacations to the kinds of exotic locales people put on their bucket lists and usually never get to, the thinking is that there has to be something more meaningful to do with the cash we earn than buying a bigger home and filling it with more furniture. Some call it minimalist living, and it is much talked about. I don’t know how much it’s catching on, but it certainly appeals to me.
In the early years of this century I lived with my family in a standard middle-class subdivision. We all had two-story brick-fronted, vinyl sided, four bedroom 3-bath homes on quiet cul-de-sacs. Most of the time that we weren’t working to afford these places we spent frantically preening the yards, painting the rooms, cleaning the carpets, and shopping for more bric-a-brac to fill them with. In the decade we lived there our vacations, our trips, our nights out to interesting places were few and far between. It was too expensive and all the money was going to feed the home. Neighbors, of course, rarely spoke. We were simply too busy to get to know one another. I did have one good friend, Jeff, and he was the first person I ever heard succinctly describe our condition. ‘We’re house poor,’ he said.
So now I am faced with a decision as I sit in my warm, cozy little apartment here in what is too easily derided as a flophouse. I have good fair-trade coffee with my breakfast of fresh hummus on homemade whole wheat pita, a baroque concerto playing on my Bose radio. I am surrounded by a few furnishings carefully chosen from Ikea. I have a good laptop computer to type this on. I don’t have Internet service in my apartment, but I do at work, and so it will be easy to upload this writing there when it’s done. What else do I need to be happy?
Yes, it causes one to ask seriously what is happiness? I know there are people at the income level that can afford both the big, richly furnished house and the experiences that make life worth living. More power to them, I guess: but I know they are a tiny minority in our world. For the rest of us it seems the question is in order. Do I maintain my material well-being at a level pretty much prescribed by societal norms (and the needs of The Economy to keep growing), or do I martial my resources in support of something other?
It may have been consideration of this question that all along drove my passion to study the seasons. I started studying the subject in that vinyl mansion in that standard subdivision. I knew that I needed something more than those material trappings to find happiness. For whatever reason, I focused on a finer attention to the world around us, as represented by the flow of the seasons. I read a book a few years ago called Holidays and Holy Nights by a man named Christopher Hibbert. It was specifically about the old Catholic liturgical year and how it defined the flow of the seasons over hundreds of years for a vast part of western society. It was a beautifully written book and very nostalgic for that old cyclical routine, which has been largely lost, even among observant Catholics. Mr. Hibbert noted that regardless of whether one is Catholic or not—and I certainly am not—we in the 20th and 21st centuries are the only people in history who are trying to live our lives without some observance of a seasonal calendar. I think he’s right, and I think it’s a loss.
So I find myself back here, in my small apartment in the flophouse. Soon, when certain niggling legal considerations are resolved, I hope to move on to something ‘better.’ What that better will be is a major decision at my time of life. Will I choose to continue on the path of ownership of more and more nice things, or on spending the last few decades of life experiencing much of what I have missed?
I hope I make the right choice.