Forty-six-and-one-half years ago, when I was a student in Lebanon, I fell in love with a beautiful sundress in a shop window on Hamra Street in Beirut. I was 19 that summer, surviving on a budget. The dress was a deep rose-pink with a scooped neck and a ruffled hem, and it looked perfect on me. I couldn't afford it, but I couldn't make myself stop craving it, either.
I debated that dress every time I passed the store, until finally I gave up. Or gave in. I decided it would be worth its price just to stop my torment. But when I finally went back to buy it, the dress - of course - was gone. I have missed it ever since.
In this season of giving and - let's face it - getting, that pink dress was back on my mind again this week when I opened an email from a good friend. The message field read, "Need support here."
She explained that she has fallen in love with an unusual floor tile for her sun-porch, now on the verge of a long-saved-for renovation. It is - of course - too expensive. Should she buy it anyway, she wondered, or be sensible and get her second choice?
I opened the attached jpg and saw that the rectangular tile was lovely -- a warm, deep blue - and also familiar. It was the exact shade of something I'd loved in childhood, thanks to an old archaeology book my parents had: The Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon, now preserved in an antiquities museum in Berlin. When I finally saw the real thing, as an adult, it felt like a homecoming. If the choice were up to me, I told my friend, I'd regard this coincidence of color was a cosmic sign.
The same day she queried, I got a Christmas letter from another old friend, an antiques buff whose passion is 19th century American glass. Retired now, he still goes antiquing with a companion, he wrote, but "since we're both on limited budgets, we have to be very selective about our purchases. If you don't suffer from the 'collecting bug,' you may not realize what a challenge this is!''
Actually, I do. My own passion has been Victorian walnut furniture. Antiques prices were dropping even before the economy crashed, and they've dropped so far since then that pieces I bought in the 1970s are cheaper now than they were then. But reality is reality, and the retirements so many of us saved for no longer have the same wiggle room we expected.
Too bad, I think, each time I pass up one of those old wooden treasures. I'm being sensible, but it still makes me feel like Bob Cratchit, before the conversion of Scrooge. (I even pull my coat closer around my shoulders as I walk away, as befits genteel Victorian poverty.)
This is the season when we Americans are acutely aware that we shouldn't crave so many material goods, even as we elbow through our annual spending frenzy. Mostly, I agree. But too much frugality, however wise, can eventually wear down the brightest of spirits.
Sometimes, I think, a material good really IS good - as long as it brings you joy and doesn't hurt anyone. I thought back to that pink dress I left behind in Lebanon, a lifetime ago, and wrote this to my tile-troubled friend:
"If you have found the perfect material - PERFECT is the operative word - then that is the right thing for the floor. You will never be happy with second-choice. It will nag at you every time you go into that room. At best, you'll get used to it. You may even forget what could have been. But you won't love it. And what you want - what we all want - is something that makes you go "Ahhhhh!'' every time you see it.
"This isn't about money,'' I told her. "It's about contentment.''