What makes us successful in Life? Is it the owning of a small, medium or large property, filled with one, two or ten cars? Does size matter? Location? Value of said property? Value of said assets? Does ownership of great wealth make us better people - at least in our own minds - or does it merely offer us a sense of superiority over our less-successful counterparts? Or does it make us feel more secure, less vulnerable, in the trials and tribulations of everyday life?
After all, we came into this world with nothing, and we most certainly will depart from it the same way.
I was pondering this as I visit with my daughter and her beau in their beautiful but bijou new home; and it reminds me so of my first little home way back when in my twenties when I, too, was starting out. Compact. Functional. Pretty. In a good neighbourhood. Surrounded by bigger and better houses just tempting enough to keep them striving onwards and upwards, like the rest of us. Seeing "SOLD!" signs and wishing for the day when they, too, can say they have successfully climbed onto the property ladder. Like the steps running alongside the Niesen Railway, it's a very long way to the top. 11,674 steps, to be precise.
We have all been there : starting small, but wanting more. Needing more room, more garden, more space. Working harder, ploughing our hard-earned cash month after month into a never-depleting mortgage for the next thirty years or more. But feeling a sense of achievement knowing that it is "ours", that no Landlord can evict us, and that, as long as we continue to pay Mr Bank, we can safely curl up inside our four walls at night and watch another repeat on TV.
And so the routine of living in our boxes begins, for most of us. Rising early each morning, shoving a hastily prepared breakfast down our throats only to dash out to the car to sit for an hour in traffic, to reach our destination of work so that we might earn the money we need to pay for the house we so proudly own, yet spend so little time enjoying. We will enjoy it. One day. But for now, it's nose to the grindstone, budgeting, paying all the bills, cooking, washing, sleeping, and repeating this cyclic rotation of time day in and day out.
Then lo, the big day arrives, you marry, you become a two-unit family that quickly multiplies into three, four, five... and days are filled with longer working hours, more work, exhaustion, only this time intermittently dotted with sunshine days in the garden, squealing children's parties, waiting patiently for the daffodils to bloom that you planted last Spring, barbecues with friends, good times roll.
And still, you strive for more. A better car, a designer couch, fancy tables that you cover with cloth, or that cannot take a cup without a matching coaster, lest it be marked. Saving like mad for one week away in Spain or Portugal because we are so exhausted and depleted that we need this, need it, to feel like all our work is paying off dividends. Preserve, preserve, preserve.
I know a man who has told me he is very wealthy. He has a stable block at the back of his house converted to home, I think, about ten or eleven vintage vehicles - which he has to polish and maintain, and perhaps take out three or four times a year on a rally. He has a plane. He has motorcycles. He has a watch so valuable he cannot take it out the safe for fear it will be stolen or lost. What? He has houses scattered all over the country. And no time to enjoy any of them, because, by his own admittance, he is a self-professed work-a-holic. In his own words, he told me, "If I take off half a day, I feel so guilty that I punish myself by working harder." "But why?" I asked him. "To make more money!" he replied. "For what?" I asked. "I don't bloody know." Ain't that the truth.
When there is family, when you are at the bottom row of Life looking forwards, it makes sense to drive yourself onwards and upwards. We are all guilty of it. But tonight I spent time with the other side of the spectrum, one I now find myself in, too. A beautiful house filled with memories of the past, photographs, happy days, a stunning kitchen with every device necessary to run a small restaurant, a comfortable sitting room with a huge television, bathrooms galore, bedrooms abundant, a lovely garden that once housed laughing children which is now empty and unnecessary, other than to give the dogs somewhere to shit. A house that had hopes and dreams and love and laughter, but which due to a cruel twist of fate, now is empty and echoes only of broken dreams and the ongoing passage of time.
Which makes me think of my own home back in Ireland - too big for one, pointless to sell due to the pothole of a recession we find ourselves in, but too dear to run it in the comfort to which I was once accustomed, and it makes me think. For all these young people starting out, their time, too, will come, when there are no more toys to pack away, or little children's games to play, when tiny folk have grown and flown, when you find yourself back on your own (could have made a poem there...). So what's it all about, Alfie?
It becomes even more apparent from the air, flying into countries and seeing the little and large boxes designed neatly in rows, or fenced plots, the only differences being in what lies within. Are they happy? Sad? Celebrating anniversaries? Discussing divorce? Is the pretty woman down the road hiding the bruises of a broken heart or worse still, a broken nose? Is the old lady alongside you in pain, lonely, and sad? Do we smile through our tears so as to protect our standing in society? It's a survival instinct, I know - in nature, the weakest animal in a pack will very often be ostracised by the rest, or killed, for fear of holding the rest of them back. In nature, too, baring of one's teeth denotes danger. In our world? We call it smiling, meaning, "Hey, all is right with my world." When very often, it is not.
And it is unbelievably sad, this urge we have to own, to possess, killing ourselves to meet the demands that modern-day living has imposed upon us, and losing sight of what is most important along the way. Suffering worry, depression, anxiety, fear.... of losing a job, of not being able to pay the bills, of not being able to let little Johnny go on the school trip.
So as I lay myself down in what is soon to be the nursery for my daughter and her man's new baby girl, it makes me realise how far we all walk in our lives, from beginning to end. But when you have raised your family, set them free, tidied the house one last time, and settled into your Autumn years, you realise it was all rather pointless worrying about the coffee stain, or complaining about the state of a bedroom, or moaning about another load of washing, or having to ask about homework, because it is these things you will miss the most when there is nothing left for you to do except find something to busy yourself with to fill another day.
The final little box we will all be investing in is one I'd rather not think about right now. I still have Winter to get through...