Benedict Ambrose and I went for a walk along Edinburgh's Water of Leith yesterday afternoon, and at one stage we climbed back up into the city and toured a very elegant, wealthy neighbourhood. Elegant and wealthy in this context means three-storey (but not gross) houses built in the 1880s, which can be purchased today for a modest £900,000 or so.
As an aesthetic experience, it was very good. These were the kind of houses I always imagined I would live in one day. But as a psychological experience, it was very bad--for exactly the same reason. Although I argued with myself that it is better to live in a two-bedroom flat in a modest (ahem) but not terribly crime-plagued neighbourhood than to have a massive mortgage on a house in Coltbridge Terrace, my heart did not agree.
My heart is being dumb, though, for I have done the math, and even if I had begun working as a full-time journalist when I arrived in the UK and saved every penny for 12 years, we would be able to put down less than half of the starting price for the empty Coltbridge Terrace house we looked at yesterday.
B.A. loves architecture and is a first-generation homeowner, so he can look at beautiful houses and flats all day without wanting to own one. I, however, can't do this indefinitely. I tell myself that it is so much nicer to be on the outside of a beautiful house, looking at it and all the other beautiful houses, than to be inside one, having done heaven knows what to get there. However, one beautiful house too many--or fatally, hearing that a friend has bought a beautiful house--and I am back on the self-abdegnation treadmill. Why oh why did I not go to law school? Why did I spend so much time in graduate school? Why did I not try harder to find a job sooner? Why didn't I grasp when I was 11 that computers were the ticket to a high-earning profession? It's horrible to feel this way.
Fortunately we have a big private garden, the apple tree, the veggie trug and a row of pots on the windowsill. I don't know which forward-thinking town official decided that each of the modest flats along our street should have its own garden, but I am grateful to him or her. (It was probably a man, though, as the flats were built in 1930 and first sold to tenants in the Thatcher era. B.A. thinks all the gardens began as a communal field and then, one day, the fences went up.)
Usually only people in big, beautiful, expensive houses have as much private garden space as we do. In wealthy Edinburgh neighbourhoods, flat-dwellers have keys to private communal gardens maintained by gardeners. In less wealthy neighbourhoods, flat-dwellers have--if they are fortunate--drying greens decorated with cigarette butts and dog poop. Therefore, having a two-bedroom upper villa with a big private garden (and productive tree) thrown in for free is nothing to sneeze at.
Today I was feeling rather low about how far out of reach my Edinburgh Dream House is and probably always will be. Fortunately for my sanity, I had an Italian lesson a short green walk away and that took my mind off the issue. Then, when I got home, I discovered that some of the French beans on the window had sprouted while I was out. Seeing a new sprout has become, since the Corona-crisis began, one of my favourite things. That's really lucky, too, because seeds are about £3 a packet.
In short, Dream Houses can be very ruinous--indeed toxic--to your happiness whereas an unexpected garden in a modest (not very crime-plagued, if you're not a shopkeeper) neighbourhood is an amazing gift--as is the sprouting of four of my eight French beans, plus one of the rhubarb seeds.
Originally I was going to call this post "Planning versus Dreaming." My idea was that if you want a House of Dreams you have to have a plan sooner than later so as to Make Your Dream Reality. However, this led to a train of self-incriminating thought, so I decided just to warn against Houses of Dreams and to celebrate beautiful Gardens of Reality.
"Only the concrete is good," said Fr. Bernard Lonergan, SJ, who may have been quoting or interpreting St. Thomas Aquinas, OP. At any rate, I hope so, as Bernie was not (ahem) always terribly sound.