The Joy of Wanting Less

When she finally stops striving for a bigger 
and better life, one woman relaxes into a 
new kind of paradise

by Sandy Hingston
Photograph: Illustrated by Brian Cronin

I was down in the basement a couple of weeks ago, doing laundry. And though we had the dryer vented to the outside 10 years ago, the basement still always seems to be coated in a fine mist of lint. It clings to the electrical wires, dusts the tops of the water pipes and forms billowy cobwebs in corners. Except for our family—my husband, Doug, me and our two adult kids—nobody but Larry the appliance-repair guy ever enters our basement, so I’ve been content to live with the lint. It’s hard enough tidying the parts of the house that other people see; why should I clean the basement rafters and pipes?

But for some reason, as I schlepped a wet load from the washer to the dryer on this particular day, the ropes of lint looping (just) above my head began to bother me. I grabbed a brush and broom and went into a whirlwind of cleaning that left me breathless and the pipes and rafters . . . well, if not sparkling, then considerably sprucer.

Afterward, while I sneezed and had a cup of coffee, I wondered, Why? Why did I allow lint dust to accumulate for (blush) 20 years and then abruptly decide to do something about it? The accretion had been notable for its gradualness; what made that day the tipping point? I wasn’t sure, exactly.

But I thought about the lint dust again a few days later when I was searching for poppy seeds among the jars of herbs and spices in my kitchen cabinet. There were so many jars, and some had been there since we moved in 20 years ago. That Lawry’s Seasoned Salt—how the hell did that get there? I’ve never used seasoned salt in my life. Yet there it sat, cluttering up the cabinet, patiently waiting for me to move it aside for the thousandth time while I searched for something I do use, like chili powder or paprika or poppy seeds.

Not this time. I picked up the salt, emptied it into the trash can and put the jar in the recycling bin.

Whoa. Something big, something cosmic, was going on here.

It was the spice jars that helped me make the Proustian connection. My mother’s kitchen, too, had been littered with dozens of little pry-top tins half full of turmeric and curry powder, or with just a shake or two left of allspice or dried thyme. She died when I was 23. My dad lived on in our house for another quarter-century, and the spice tins lived on there, too. Dad never cooked with them—his repertoire ran more to BLTs and frozen potpies. We kids never used the spices when we visited; who would? They were so freaking old. But none of us were heartless or ruthless enough to throw out Mom’s sad little spice crypt, until the house was sold.

My getting rid of that Lawry’s, I realized, sprang from the same source as my mad bout of lint removal: I’d admitted to myself, finally, that this house is it. That my husband and I aren’t ever going to be moving into one that’s bigger, or newer, or nicer, or that has more than one full bath. This house is my house, the one I’m going to grow old in, entertain grandchildren in, live in until I can no longer make it up and down the stairs.

And, by extension, this life is my life. It’s looking less and less likely that I’ll write the Great American Novel. (Hell, I can barely read an entire novel anymore.) Doug’s never going to become the Great American Trombonist. In fact, he returned to school and got a degree in physical therapy. (Big bands aren’t coming back, no matter what you hear.) We won’t be moving onward and upward, getting that place in the country or the condo in the city or—oh, it hurts to let this one go—the house at the seashore. If anything, we’re slipping. Backsliding. We’re still paying college tuition for one kid while also paying off Doug’s college loans. Instead of rising in value, our house has barely held even. Retirement savings? Get real. We’ll be working till we’re 95.

There’s something grim about coming face to face with brick-wall reality—about setting aside for good your dream of constant forward motion, of an arrow always rising, speeding endlessly into a brilliant future. Eventually that arrow has to come down. And mine has landed smack-dab in small-town America, in a 150-year-old brick twin house, where I live with a husband of three decades and a garden whose perennials are starting to give out.

First published in the July/August 2014 issue

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