A few nights ago, in these days before Christmas, I was driving through the downtown streets of the small city where I live, and I saw a woman looking into the window of a resale furniture shop. It was evening, and she was standing in a circle of light from a street lamp wearing a black coat and a long purple scarf. She was looking in the window as if she really wanted whatever was inside, leaning in towards the display with her face close to the glass. I watched her as I sat stopped at a red light, and then in my rear view mirror until I couldn’t see her anymore.
I can’t remember the last time I saw an adult look at something with such unashamed wanting. With young children, you get used to naked displays of desire. There’s never a moment when my kids don’t want something, desperately, and I don’t mean care or attention, I mean actual things. But as adults, you try to learn moderation, control. I once tried to explain to my oldest son, who is 10 and fierce with wanting, that it was “okay to want things, that everyone wants things, but most of the time, we have everything that we need.” I said this in a kindly, enlightened voice, and he, through gritted teeth, said, “But it’s never all in the same place at the same time!”
For adults, there’s a fair amount of shame associated with really, really wanting things. I think this is because most of the things we really, really want are things that we aren’t really supposed to have. A pack of Marlboros, a Kate Spade bag, sex with your neighbors, winning the lottery and never having to work again, whatever–open longing for whatever is outside of your norm is simply not seemly. Self-control in the form of dieting, exercise, work, outlet shopping, monogamy–this is what we do. I once watched my then year-old son lying on his stomach with his little butt up in the air licking the plastic ladybugs on his “One, Two, Three Ladybugs!” book for a good 5 minutes. Adults don’t behave this way.
Yet there are exceptions. There are little indulgences that we not only allow ourselves, but we micromanage down to the last molecule of pleasure. Coffee beverages, for example. There’s something like 10,000 possible drink combinations at Starbucks, so at least in this area of your life, you can get exactly what you want, exactly when you want it. I’m obviously not alone in believing that the day must start with the coffee beverage of my choice, and most mornings, I really, really want a latte. I lie awake the night before and imagine it. I worry that I don’t have enough cash in my wallet for it. I plan the first hour of my day around it. I tell myself I should really drink green tea. I feel guilty about the expense. And the calories, I think, the caffeine!
Then I got this Starbucks gift card from my boss for Christmas. I don’t usually go to Starbucks because it’s several blocks away from my office. But on one recent morning, when my husband offered to give me a ride to work after driving our kids off at school, I thought, “Great! He can drop me off at Starbucks and I can walk to my office instead of there and back. And maybe they have red holiday cups…” Then when he offered to wait for me and drive me to my office, I thought, “Even better!” But, standing in line waiting for my Cinnamon Dolce Latte, I saw something out the window that I did not wish to see.
“Um, I sort of need to hurry because that’s my husband sitting in that van out there and there’s a police car behind him,” I said to the barista.
“Oh, yeah, sure,” he said.
I walked quite quickly out of the store, latte in hand, and flashed the police officer what I thought was a cute “Sorry about that!” smile as I trotted across the sidewalk in my high heeled boots. I got into the van thinking, okay, let’s go.
“We can’t go,” my husband said. “I don’t have my license with me so we have to sit here while he looks up my name and address.”
“But why did you stop right here on the street?”
“I told him you had sprained your ankle and couldn’t really walk so I was waiting here for you.”
I looked down at my boots. Several minutes went by. I thought about how no one would believe that Martin lied to a policeman. I sipped my latte and wished that I could tell myself that it wasn’t worth the trouble.
“I have to get to work,” I said finally.
“Well, can you just limp away?”
As it was a good quarter of a mile of straight road, and the police officer would be able to see me the whole way, and as he had, obviously, already seen me skidding along in heels holding a tall beverage, limping seemed pointless.
A few minutes later, the officer came back and gave my husband a ticket for $75 for parking in a no-parking area. A $79 latte.
There’s a saying in German: “Die kleinen Suenden bestraft Gott sofort,” or “It’s the little sins God punishes right away.” I’m not saying that wanting the latte was wrong; I’m just pointing out the obvious: if I had gone straight to my office and made a cup of green tea, things would have turned out differently.
The thing about little sins, though, is that we need them. We need to be able indulge some of our desires. We need not to get stuck in a cycle of perennial wanting. It’s depressing and makes us mean. Life is full of crappy things, and we deserve pleasure wherever we can find it. It’s good for us. Something inside of me breathed a deep sigh when I saw that woman looking in that store window all those weeks ago. I hope she got what she wanted.