Things I Have Seen

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When I was young and living in Saratoga with my parents, I used to go out for a walk most nights after dinner. I usually took the same route, from the neighborhood where my family lived in a modest house built in the 70s, into the heart of the city where there were sidewalks and big, very old houses. I loved catching glimpses of life inside those homes under the cover of night–the blue glow of a television, the shadow of a person standing in a room. I would imagine the lives of the people lucky enough to live in those Victorian mansions. I would imagine how perfect my life would be if only I lived in one of those houses, filled with lots of nice stuff and so many rooms that no one could find you and secret staircases and history–all of the things sorely lacking in my life. One house in particular was a favorite. It sat on a corner lot, so I could see through a window on the side of the house into a room filled with books, comfortable-looking furniture and warm, soft lighting. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves held what must have been hundreds, maybe thousands of books. It was the room of my dreams and I envisioned the wonderful life of the people living in a house that held its own private library. I pictured myself in that space, happy, at last.

Years later, when I was a second-grade teacher at the Children’s School at Emma Willard in Troy, NY, a young woman who was a student at the high school came to work with me in my classroom. Hilary, as it turned out, had grown up in Saratoga in the house on the corner with the library full of books. She was an angel–gentle and kind, and the kids and I loved having her come along with us on our educational adventures. But her tranquil demeanor concealed what must have been an inner torment, for after she graduated from Emma Willard, Hilary went to college in Oregon, where she took her own life in her sophomore year. I was in disbelief when I heard the news. Because she had seemed so happy, so at peace when we worked together with the children. And also, I’m ashamed to admit, because of her beautiful house on the corner–because of all the books.

Since that time I have lived in everything from a very small apartment to a very large house, filled with beautiful objects. I have done my due diligence and know now what I didn’t as a wide-eyed teenager wandering through the streets of my youth–that there is no link between real estate square footage and happiness. In fact, it was when I lived in the biggest house of all that I was my worst, most miserable self. It mattered not how fabulous the sheets nor how vast the silver collection, and not even how many books lined the custom-built shelves because in the end, no measure of things can save us from ourselves–only we can do that, for each other. Today, with less than I’ve had in a long time–less space, fewer possessions and far less desire for the ownership of things, I can honestly say I feel richer than I’ve ever been. A lifetime of taking on and casting off has taught me the true nature of wealth: it cannot be bought and it cannot be owned. Everything that is rich and worthwhile in our lives comes from our hearts. We are not here to fill buildings with things and more things, we are here to love one another and to believe in each other’s dreams, to be present and accounted for in our days, with honest appreciation for what is rather than perpetual longing for more. I absolutely guarantee that you will not, on your deathbed, be wishing you had owned more shoes or driven a Range Rover. You will be wishing for more time with the people you love.

I wish that Hilary had stuck around and gone on to become the fine teacher she seemed destined to be, but she chose not to, and so I am grateful, instead, for the stardust that is Hilary today, illuminating my nocturnal ramblings here in my little Vermont neighborhood.

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