Saturday, July 26, 2008

Why we moved, why here, and why now

My mother's best friend, Pat (she's great, kind of like an aunt, whom I've known since I was 14), asked me this when we were celebrating Mum's 80th. I've been meaning to put it all in one place, so indulge me here.

Mary Oliver.
I kept thinking of Mary Oliver, who writes such great poetry and lives on the Cape. Or E.B. and Katherine White, who lived in Maine. Or all the actors I've worked with or interviewed who live in the Hudson Valley. Or magazine writers and editors, or photographers. I realized that to be a poet, an artist, it helps to live in nature at least part of the time. That the people whose work I love the most have at the very least a country getaway. Maybe if we'd had a country getaway we'd have stayed, but that wasn't in the cards. My point is, I was out of balance; I needed more nature, more green, less concrete and steel. Fewer people. I needed to be waking up to birds and watch the woods fill up with snow while my little horse gives his harness bells a shake . . . sorry. . . I digress . . .

Mary Oliver, part 2: I wanted to grow spiritually. A lot of things went down for me in the early part of the 21st century. I examined and changed a great deal of how I lived and behaved and what I thought. I went through some pretty intense personal and spiritual growth, and I realized that if I wanted to continue to grow in those ways, I would be more successful -- and simply happier -- doing it outside of the city. I wanted some quiet. I wanted some quiet. I wanted some quiet.

I wanted more space. And I wanted to more outside. Ever since the city sprayed for West Nile, in 1999, the mosquitos have been fiercer than ever and we couldn't use our backyard. I wanted to be able to be outside occasionally.

I wasn't using the city. We tell ourselves we live here in order to partake of all its richness, museums and theater and art, but I just wasn't going, even to shows I was dying to see. It felt too overwhelming and expensive (tickets, babysitting, food, time) and too tiring to go all the way into the city. Odd, that last, but there it is. After Lily was born I spent almost all of my time in Brooklyn.

Whenever we were some place outside of the city I imagined living there. The Pioneer Valley is the only place that really stuck, and kept sticking. We visited Dave's friends several times, for a weekend, Thanksgiving, New Year's, lots of times, and always enjoyed ourselves. We had a perfect Sunday afternoon in August 2006 visiting Jay and Louise in Amherst. We had a late lunch at at really nice restaurant and we didn't have to wait. Then we strolled around town a bit, and later went swimming at a water hole in the Fort River just a mile from their house. One other family was there, the water was cold and delicious, and at one point a beaver swam by us, oblivious. It started to rain and we dashed for the car. Lovely!

Jenna's country house. A couple of years before we moved, our friends Jenna and Curtis bought an old one-room schoolhouse (it was later given has more rooms and a second story) out past the Poconos. They fixed it up really nicely and it's a great place to visit. I didn't want to live out past the Poconos, or even in the Poconos. Not Jersey, not upstate New York. I knew I wanted to be back in New England -- and Connecticut didn't count. But I was very envious of their lovely space, the quiet, the stars, the firepit out back, the stream across from their house. It's a lovely spot.

I missed the land where I was born, Oh, New England!

"People tend to move in their mid-forties, and they tend to move back to the place they grew up." Someone said this to me a couple of years before we moved, and I thought, god no, not Wellesley! And not Boston or Cambridge. But I really missed New England. When Lily was born we started taking vacations to a cabin on a lake in New Hampshire, and it made me so happy every time we crossed the border into Massachusetts. I knew I didn't want to live in New Hampshire, either, god forbid; Maine was too far. And Vermont was too far too. But western Mass. -- we'd spent time here visiting Dave's college roommates, and I remember visiting my sister Cate out here when she did a year as a visiting student at Smith. I liked it. We knew the area enough to know it was what we wanted.

The basketball arena. The huge arena and apartment/shopping complex the city -- our tax dollars -- is subsidizing five blocks from our condo depressed me on many levels. Living in the shadow of an arena would be awful, first of all. The light would be severely cut off. Traffic would get much worse. But more than the citification of our modest but friendly neighborhood, I was utterly depressed at the craven way the city, Bloomberg and Pataki, allowed Ratner to get away with it and forced the rest of the government and taxpayers to go along with it. I felt a real loss, a sense that, no matter how much I worked for my neighborhood -- and I was all about neighborhood those eight years after I had Lily and worked part-time and did a lot of volunteering -- a deus ex machina could still come in and wreck everything.

Cate's move to Connecticut. A few years ago my middle sister moved to Madison and I remember one time we were visiting and she said, want to go apple picking? Thirty minutes later we were at the orchard. We picked a bag or two and went home. All done, in about 2 hours. We did that with raspberries too once. We go to the beach, about two miles away. She could use the car to bring home her groceries, she didn't have to lug carry them herself. It's quiet.

Bondi's Brooklyn visit. The summer of 2006 my older sister paid us a visit for a few weeks, and more than anyone in my family, she understands the city's draw on me. She always says how much she loves it, and then she says how great life is away from it. How much easier, and calmer. This time I really heard her, and it stuck with me. It laid the seed.

The brown-outs of 2006. We had lots of black-outs in Park Slope that summer because the system was so overloaded, but poor Astoria had it worse so they got all the news coverage. Still, it was a miserable hot summer, with lots of brown-outs that made me feel like I was living in Managua. The a/c that we hardly ever used but really wanted this summer didn't work, fridge didn't keep things cold, the microwave hummed but didn't cook, the lights were frequently dim and the TV would go on and off spontaneously. The poor ConEd guys working below the streets at this horrible time told us it was because there was so much construction in the Slope and the old wiring wasn't up to all the new demands.

Farm and Wilderness Family Camp. After Bondi went home, we went there for a week and had a wonderful time. I first heard about F&W in a classified ad in the back of a very early issue , maybe the second, of Ms. Magazine in 1974. It talked about living in teepees with 40 girls. I was there. I couldn't wait. And I went, and I loved it. And for years I dreamed about going back. But we couldn't afford it -- Mum said, private school or F&W, I can't do both. I had a big scholarship at school, and that's how I could go there at all. I chose school. But F&W meant something to me and I longed for it in a visceral way.

I managed to get back there in January 1980 when I dropped out of Johns Hopkins after one semester and went to F&W to be a part of their winter crew. I loved it. I loved taking care of the cows and cleaning out the chicken coop. I loved the food and became a vegetarian. I loved the mountains, and the quiet. I got to explore parts of myself I wasn't aware of.

When we went to Family Camp that summer it was the first time for me in 15 years, when I gone to interview the co-founder. I loved being back. Some things had changed but the basic ethos hasn't. Camp is a way of life that I aspire to, a community full of fun, cooperation, hard work, strong women, kind men, lots of laughter, farm animals, and wilderness adventures. Family Camp isn't perfect but it's sure fun. I loved square dancing again, I loved being useful, and working hard. I remember walking in the woods seeing the light on the leaves, and thinking, I want this in my life.

September 11. We were driving home from camp after that first week, a few months before we moved, and it was pouring rain. A lot of folks at camp had talked about living in the Amherst area, and as we drove past the exit, I thought, "if you lived here you'd be home by now." I didn't want to go back to Brooklyn, another three hours in good traffic. I used to see that skyline and get so excited and happy. Now the closer we got, the more my heart sank.

We had a terrible trip. It rained all the way home and we had bad traffic. So we finally pulled over for dinner. Later, around 7 pm, as we zoomed down 684, we saw this weird flashing neon white light. It was really odd. We both knew it must be the Westchester airport, but it freaked both of us out. I kept thinking, we're being bombed. We're being bombed. I knew we weren't. I knew all the other cars wouldn't be speeding in the same direction. But I could not get that thought out of my brain. I realized that I was always waiting for the next shoe to drop, and the massive black-out of 2003, and the brown-outs of that summer, just made me tenser and more anxious.

More testing in schools. When we got back from Family Camp I saw an e-mail from the Department of Education gleefully announcing testing every six weeks. The terrible way the DOE is treating education, and how little they know about teaching and how little they support teachers -- they are trying to run it like a business -- along with knowing that I would soon have to navigate the middle school morass was a good reason to split town.

Chris and Elizabeth moved to Vermont. Late that summer a family we knew casually moved to Montpelier, which made me sad because their daughter and Lily had been in camp together for a couple of weeks and liked each other a lot. But more than that, their move put a big bug in my ear. People did that! New Yorkers I liked and respected left the city. I wanted to do that too.

I grew up. I moved to New York City to be an adult, and to be a journalist. I loved my life there. I loved working for LIFE, and I was very excited to be a stage manager when that opportunity came. For many years I was a perfect NYC snob -- why would you want to live anywhere else, if you can live here? I also thought, "If you can make it here you'll make it anywhere," which is true, in a certain way, and I wanted to see if I could make it here. I can, I did, and now it was time to leave.

I am spontaneous. Those of you around me at that time will remember this: The idea that had been stewing for years in the recesses of my mind started moving into my consciousness that summer, in July with Bondi, then at Family Camp, and then solidified when we spent Labor Day weekend at Jenna and Curtis's place. I was ready to go right then. As school started I began to tell people we were thinking about it, floating the idea and watching their reactions. My friend Sylvia said, if it's meant to be, the universe will align (and then she told me about a friend who wanted to move and then all these obstacles came up and they decided to stay).

But once I'd allowed the idea into my brain the rightness of it knocked out all doubt and left me with a sense of urgency. We had to go now. And then once I slowed down and included Dave, well, the rest is history: In late September we had agreed to go and were discussing the move date (he wanted to wait until the end of school in June), when his company closed unexpectedly. In about 10 days we had sold the condo for more money than God. And by Thanksgiving we were in Amherst, Lily was enrolled in a new school, and I was on the job market. Did I mention I started at Wondertime the day Dave's unemployment ran out? We are supposed to be here, and I just paid attention to the signals, and honored them.

PS -- One of the first times I walked in the woods behind my house I was reminded of walking in the woods at Family Camp. It's the same woods, the same feel, the same light. I knew I'd made the right choice. And even Lily had a good day today.

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