I’m worried about the writers I used to know.
Two decades ago, I was wildly envious. At 26 I lived a pinched and frugal life in a shabby first-ring suburb of Minneapolis. I shopped at big-box grocery stores, washed my own car and rarely went on trips. If our family did take a vacation it was to the Black Hills and in order to save money I made peanut butter sandwiches in our discount hotel. My mother and mother-in-law pitched in with clothes for our two, and then three, children. My now ex-husband and I went out—to dinner or a play, but never both—perhaps once a month.
But the literary people I knew, mostly 5-10 years older, enjoyed far more exotic and comfortable circumstances. Their lives looked like so much fun! To start, they had homes in the city: older houses with character and charm that required tons of maintenance and demanded huge tax payments. They shopped at the co-op with its beautiful, jewel-like vegetables and paid $100 for a small cloth bag of groceries. There was always good wine and fresh flowers. They’d all been to Paris and Prague and Nicaragua; I’d been to … South Dakota. Also Disneyland, once, when I was a kid.
I spent a lot of time in my late 20s and early 30s feeling self-conscious: avoiding talk of travel at parties and failing to reciprocate dinner invitations because I didn’t want anyone seeing our monster Cheerios boxes and garage sales dishes. When I was home with my husband and children, I was mostly content. But there were times when my envy turned into resentment and a striving for something better. We’d attend a dinner where the host wore flowing scarves she’d bought from a street market in Turkey and served succulent lamb on a sparkling buffet. And rather than appreciate the evening out, I’d stew on the way home. What were we doing wrong? I wondered. Sometimes, I would turn to my husband and ask.
There were other problems in our marriage, some of which I’ve disclosed before. But the fact is, my constant wanting didn’t help. I itched to see new places, to smell the spices of a Moroccan souk and hear the jangle of yak bells in Tibet. These were the stories my colleagues told while we sat in their classic Room & Board living rooms. And I hung on their every word. But my ex would be bored, thinking only of home and bed and maybe one more late-night beer.
When I wrote The Forever Marriage, about a young woman who marries into wealth, I thought nothing could be further from my experience. But that’s not true. Carmen yearns for more than her easy life. In her very kind review in the Star Tribune, Cindy Wolfe Boynton called Carmen “a woman who, like so many of us, has spent too much time wishing for what she doesn’t have, and not enough time appreciating what she does.” I’m glad this spoke to Boynton, and to other women. Because it certainly describes the younger me.
Interestingly, the woman I supposedly based Carmen on—my friend who was stuck in a loveless marriage—did none of this desperately wanting more. It’s one of the things I most admired about her, and love about her still. She lives stylishly but in very simple ways. A tiny, colorful house; secondhand clothes; weekend trips to Northern Minnesota with coolers full of homemade coleslaw and locally-brewed beer.
Eventually I made peace with reality and the craven want slowly dulled. It’s only in the last few years, with John, that I’ve had any of the things I so desired at 26. And yes, I admit, the wholesome food and occasional European vacation DO make life nicer. But all that time spent lusting after opulent houses? Totally wasted. Our “retirement” plan involves living cheaply so we can both save and travel. Today I entertain in a tiny apartment with no dining room, located right back in that shabby suburb where I started. And I do so with pride.
Many of my old friends are doing the same, cutting back on housing expenses or luxuries in order to make this new post-recession economy work. But others are not. They’re living as they did before—fresh-cut flowers and four-star hotels—because it’s the only way they know. They aren’t saving, because they can’t; every dime that comes in must immediately go out. And they appear to employ a collective magical thinking about the future: No matter how many times they’re told what they’ll need to survive their 60s, 70s, 80s and possibly 90s, they turn away.
A professor of economics, opining in yesterday’s New York Times, called our national approach to retirement “ridiculous,” saying most people are not capable of preparing for 30 years of living off their own savings. And I agree, but not only for the reasons she cited. There is also this:
The people I’m seeing have spent their entire adult lives collecting experiences and living for the moment. And for the most part, IT’S ALWAYS WORKED OUT. They’ve been conditioned to believe that no matter how dire things seem, something will save them. Unemployment, a government bailout, social security. They’re bewildered by how abrupt and cold the world has gotten. They blame politicians and bankers (both of whom, don’t get me wrong, deserve heaps of blame….) They do exactly the same things that have yielded positive results for the past 25 years.
I still, truth be told, feel envious of their young adult lives. Those carefree wandering years of backpacking and hiking and learning different languages. But I do not covet the situations they find themselves in now, relying on family to cover their bills, shuffling their credit card balances, and wondering in the quiet, ticking early morning hours how they’ll survive old age.