Yesterday morning Bob and I went into NYC to meet with a couple of men he’s worked with in Harlem who would like to have him help spearhead a spiritual component to an outreach program they’ve developed (a very exciting opportunity for Bob, but right now, it’s all just at an “idea stage,” so we’ve got our feet stepping firmly on our hopes to keep them from soaring up where they ought not to be). In the afternoon, we met up with my friend Marie Ellen, whom I don’t get to see enough, at The Morgan Library and Museum. This museum has recently been renovated with a new, beautiful, all-glass-and-wood entrance and building that connects the various segments of what was Morgan’s home and library at Madison and 36th and 37th. This day perfectly encapsulates my struggle with my two warring factions when it comes to money, with the added bonus that Marie Ellen and I often talk about these two warring factions of ours.
Some years back, I read one of those “how to simplify your life” books (a tangent here: anyone ever look at Real Simple magazine? What a beautiful-looking publication, the kind that just begs you to pick it up and come inside. But then, have you ever bothered to read it? I was appalled to discover that the main way to simplify my life was to buy all kinds of expensive gadgets and organizational tools, as if ruining my budget with more house-cluttering things I’d never use properly, and that would probably need care, would help turn me into a Tibetan monk). One of the vignettes in this book that really stuck out in my mind was about a man who worked in construction whose tool shed had caught on fire and burned to the ground. He had initially been devastated, but eventually he concluded it was the best thing that had ever happened to him, as he realized how much junk he’d had in there that he never used. It was the beginning of the simplification of his life, as he began to focus on replacing only those things he knew he really needed, and soon discovered he really needed very little. I have a friend whose mother’s place in Florida was ruined in a hurricane last year, and he described to me how this past spring, when they began the construction to repair everything, they finally just made the decision that everything in the apartment had to go. Am I not the weirdest person in the world for sometimes finding myself green with envy when I hear such tales?
But I know it isn’t that I truly want everything I own to go up in smoke or to be washed away in a flood. What I’m longing for is a simple life. The problem is, the process for me to get to that simple life is not an easy one. I’d have to do things like wade through old school notebooks, letters and cards, knick knacks from around the world, books I know I’ll never read again, and make some very tough decisions. Then, I’d have to encourage a very reluctant husband to do the same thing. Finally, I’d have to decide that I just don’t like buying and being given fine things (books, of course, falling into the category of “fine things”). I’m fully aware that owning lots of things means taking care of lots of things, and I’d rather spend my time reading and having interesting conversations with friends. So, when I find myself thinking, “wouldn’t it be nice to come home and find the house had burnt to the ground?” what I’m really thinking is, “oh wouldn’t it be nice to have someone take the simplification process out of my hands, and just plop me down in the middle of a two-page spread in Real Simple?” And, oh, how I often fantasize about making do in two rooms with a kitchen, with a public library next door (because who really needs anymore?), giving away almost all the money I make (because I’ll no longer need it to accumulate and take care of all my “things”) to help those wonderful kids in Harlem Bob and I know and love be the first ones in their families to attend college. Money? Who needs money?
But then I make the mistake of visiting The Morgan Library. I walk into this new, beautifully-designed, naturally-well-lit building, with its shiny glass elevators and think, “boy, I wish I could live in a house designed by Renzo Piano.” I comment to Bob, while looking at magnificently detailed Rembrandt etchings, “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any etchings of his before.” Then I read the blurb on the wall: Morgan owned almost all of Rembrandt's etchings, and this is the first time I’ve ever visited this museum. Would I like to have the kind of money in which I could own all of Rembrandt’s etchings? Well…yeah. What would it be like to be able to just decide you want three Gutenberg Bibles and to know you can afford them? Do you pop off to the auction houses for Near eastern carvings yourself, or do you send your staff for you? How do you get to be the person who owns the only few surviving pages of Milton’s draft of Paradise Lost? Is there some sort of collector’s duel you have to fight with all the other rich guys? And why couldn't I have had a father who was able to go out and buy the original drafts of Babar the Elephant for me when I was a kid?
I climb the short staircase that leads to Pierpont Morgan’s actual library and study, two rooms nestled in the old part of the museum, the part that was his house, and I think “Money. Give me money. I want this kind of money.” I can’t even begin to do justice to these rooms with words. I’ll try to simplify it for you. English castle. Warm reds. Artwork everywhere. Huge fireplace. Ceiling paintings and carvings. Walls lined floor to ceiling with books. Books. Books. Books. Leather-bound. Gold-trimmed. Wooden built-in bookshelves. Glass doors. Iron work. Austen. Dickens. Goethe. Shakespeare. Thackeray. Unlock the glass doors. Lock me in here. Sit me down on that couch. Build a fire. Bring me some tea and chocolate. For the rest of my life.
Well, I’m back to living in my two rooms, with nothing but books, tea, and chocolate. That’s pretty simple, isn’t it?