The Purple of Life

She told me to hold on to the purple in my life.

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Location: Chicago, United States

I'm a 37-year-old editor and city dweller, wife and mother, moderately liberal and radically optimistic. I would fill my perfect day with a cup of coffee and the Op Ed section, a flea market and the playground, a run along Lake Michigan, a walk through the neighborhood with my son and my greyhound, a Cuban dinner and a bottle of red with my husband, and an evening flight to some European city. I wouldn't be picky about which one.

December 12, 2007

Enough space

I’m not a person who would move to a far-flung suburb in order to buy a huge house. If the choice is between having four bedrooms and being able to walk to the corner store, I’ll take the latter every time. It’s just personal preference, I know, and it isn’t a black-and-white issue: when we bought our condo, we gave up our “hot” neighborhood for a lukewarm one a mile north, simply because we could get more space for our money.

Our home is around 900 square feet. We have one bathroom, two bedrooms (one is a study with a pull-out couch), a living room, and an eat-in kitchen. We have a small deck area that fits our grill and (snugly) two chairs.

But I don’t measure our living space purely by those dimensions. Our building has a laundry room, a party room, and a terrific gym, plus a beautiful common outdoor space. Lake Michigan and sprawling Lincoln Park are a stone’s throw away, with their trees, beaches, bike paths, playgrounds, and open green space. We take advantage of that area regularly, and it feels like our backyard, in a way—one that doesn’t require any maintenance on our part, other than picking up Moose’s deposits with a plastic bag.

I love my neighborhood—the people, their dogs, the architecture, the history, the restaurants and stores. My neighborhood can be friendly and it can be menacing: it’s $450,000 condos alongside boarded-up Section 8 homes; it’s ornately planted public gardens dotted with a cheap vodka bottle or two. It’s people of every color, hailing from the Ukraine and Mexico and Pakistan and Somalia and Vietnam and Wisconsin. Sometimes I feel nervous walking around at night. Sometimes I want to throw my arms wide and embrace my entire block in a huge (albeit awkward) hug. I love city life. I am a city person, and it’s hard to imagine living anywhere else.

Of course, I could segue here into the whole Children Topic—raising kids in the city, the school question, the safety question, the “but they won’t have any place to ride their bikes” question—but I want to talk about space, space for two people and their dog. Because sometimes, yes, our home feels a little too cozy. Our single-girl neighbor talks about how she’s desperate to move to a bigger place; her condo’s the same size as ours. I visit my sister out in the Michigan countryside and find myself lusting after her basement storage room (all those built-in wooden shelves!). John wants to come in the bathroom; I want to be left alone to examine my pores. I want to listen to my Harry Connick Jr. Christmas CD; he wants to play the guitar, loudly. The idea of a dining room—a separate dining room!—makes me swoon, just a little.

It’s easy to wish for more space, especially when we could easily have it (although the current housing market may have something to say about that). But do we need it? We have dear neighbors, a successful couple who own a four-bedroom, two-floor townhouse. It’s beautiful, but do they need it? I think of maintaining and furnishing and paying to heat and cool all that space, and it starts to seem a little wasteful.

In August, two Dutch friends of ours spent a few days with us during their three-week travels around the States. Kemal and Andrea are in their late 20s. They both have master’s degrees, they’re well traveled, and they live in Amsterdam, in a tiny studio in a great part of the city. And they simply could not get over the size of our place. “It’s huge!!” they exclaimed when they walked in. “You could raise children here!” When we protested that we could do no such thing, they laughed—kindly—and made a little comment about Americans and their space.

For some reason, that exchange has stuck with me. I think about those old New York tenements with two families crammed into one apartment. I think of middle-class European couples happily sharing a studio. I walk from room to room in our home, I stop to talk with a random neighbor while strolling with Moose, I fill my eyes with the big blue expanse of Lake Michigan whenever I want. It’s enough.