A few years ago our family went to the life store and picked a new one. We decided we wanted to live in Vermont. We had lived our whole lives in the Midwest. And they were good lives too. We loved our friends, we owned a successful business, and the kid’s progressive urban hip hop schools were wonderful. We volunteered and worked on interesting boards. We lived in a dynamic part of the city, in a glorious restored century old three story brick house we all relished. All three kids were on lots of teams and in wonderful plays, and were well and tightly connected to us, each other, and our community. Our days were full, and if the joy often came in the repetition, favorite restaurants, favorite theater, it was still joy.
But, we longed to live in a beautiful place. As our financials improved we traveled more and more. Three or four holidays every year was the rule. When we got home, one of us would inevitably feel let down, so we’d quick begin planning the next one. Wherever we were we played the ‘what if we lived here’ game. And it was on one of those trips, we were in Italy for a whole month, when we wondered what it would be like to live in those old hills. We imagined grocery shopping at the open markets, and trudging back and forth up the hill. We thought about the excitement of learning a whole new life, and worried over not being able to read a newspaper with any depth for a long time. Our daughter, then about twelve, pointed out that we always did this on every trip and wondered out loud if could we really live anywhere. It was a good question and after lots more talk we decided that in fact yes, the answer was yes. And then we considered whether St. Louis was the place any of us would choose if we lived somewhere with intention instead of habit. That answer came fast too. It was no. Some of us would choose mountains or a beach. We loved cities and country. San Francisco was a favorite as was the Cape and always Vermont. And then the inevitable
question came, if we could live anywhere, why didn’t we. Yes, why indeed. This was a question for the grown ups. Only, uh-oh, we were the grownups. My husband and I had some thinking to do. What after all did we value? Why did we continue to live in a place that we ran away from every time we had a bit of time or money?
Well, we valued each other and spending time creating thoughtful experiences together. We valued education, loved the independent schools we’d found. We coveted beauty and found the endless Meineke Muffler shops and the long dreary ride from the airport past strip malls and bus stops soul depleting. We valued living closer to the natural world and relying less on malls and cinema for fun. We enjoyed our friendships, but thought their stability would stay sound despite an absence of proximity. So we wanted fuller more creative time with one another in a prettier more soulful place.
Then we only had to decide the where. It was on our next trip to Vermont when we were wistfully saying how at home we felt here amongst these mountains where the breakfasts were hardy, and the politics liberal. Not only were there no malls, there were no billboards even. Shopping could hardly be a backstop pastime if there wasn’t any. And so we meandered through little towns looking for the ones that seemed prettiest and most livable. We decided that we needed proximity to skiing for those long winters with bored teenagers. And John and I required a good bookstore. The Internet has solved shopping, and books can be had overnight, but for browsing there is nothing like a friendly bookstore with cushy chairs, frothing lattes, and stacks and stacks of new books. We are fiction lovers, and nobody reviews the new authors much, or markets them either. They are bought in onesies and you have to study the shelves to find the ones you want to try. We found a town with one of the nation’s great independent bookstores, and an Italian grocery nearby with good pasta and a case full of cheese. Coffee, strong cheese, and a bookstore were required. Then it came time to look for schools, and we found one a short ride away with exciting teaching, and lots of choice. They even offered law starting in ninth grade which was the grade our daughter was entering. We romanticized the town’s public gradeschool, thinking, New England, small villages, and second grade would be a good fit. It wasn’t, and that was how we became first reluctant, then completely converted homeschoolers.
Then we bought the country store as a way to get by while we rode out
the noncompete from the sale of our business. That was a disaster of mythic proportion, and after finally selling it we come again to the questions of what we really value.
We live again in a house we love. We love this one even more than the last, surrounded by the mountains, set in a beautiful place, with protected woods and trails just behind our property. We renovated, to our very personal preference, everything from the chicken house, to the slate countertops mined from the local mountains, to the Viking range I have coveted just forever. Our library has a wonderful oak and marble fireplace, floor to ceiling bookshelves, and beautiful views out big sunny windows. Our kitchen has a window that opens out and looks for all the world like the place June would have called the Beaver and Wally into supper.
Still it is an expensive place to live. We bought it outright when we came, but have mortgaged twice as we struggled to get out from under our Alamo that was the country store. Our town looks like a postcard, except having owned its town center we know the intimate details of the people who live here. So many come here, to this high priced beautiful spot, after making their money somewhere else. There are the second home owners, the summer people who loved it here on a vacation and wanted to come back. They are mostly glad and relaxed when they are around, and you get their sense of gratitude and appreciation. And there are the happy tourists who mainly just fall in love, hold hands, and then go back home. There are the Vermonters, who generally cannot afford to live in our town, but come in to work every morning maintaining these big old houses and gardens with their keen understanding of the place and the land. They are the ones who teach us how to be here, where the best waterfalls are, that having a septic system means liquid detergent, and when to take down your birdfeeders so the bears stay out of your yard. Then there are the locals, people like us who make this place their home year round, and who usually came from away. Many of them seem to want to change that which brought them here in the first place. They want street lights even though they were once transfixed by the stars. They want the NYT at dawn, even though we are far away from the cities and it doesn’t even get here until 8 or 9 in the morning. They want it delivered, even though there are so few people, which once deeply appealed, and certainly not enough to drive trucks around to houses on the sides of mountains with a dollar newspaper on board. They want city service and country prices when they eat out. They seem perpetually dissatisfied, and bored without their big jobs and good tables, so they run for local office and stir up trouble in town. There are less of them than all the rest, but they make a lot of noise.
Now our youngest wants to go back to school and be where the action is, where the kids are. But the schools, even the good independent high school, is pretty traditional in its approach to middle school. At home he studies the exciting bits of the constitution
and the meaty cases of the Supreme Court that drove the amendments. We don’t want him to learn instead the order of the amendments or the dates they came to be. He reads with relish about ancient Rome and voraciously eats up adventure fiction, and To Kill A Mockingbird and Red Scarf Girl are limited second cousins as the total novel diet for seventh grade.
I am traveling a lot to make a living and support the financial costs of it all. That means fewer mornings with those chickens, and more time looking at Meineke Muffler shops in every city USA. John is homeschooling Eli, but for how long and then after the store for him what next? Our oldest son is a semester or two away from graduating from college and is thinking about cities and music and women. And our daughter is close at Mt Holyoke and loves weekends home, her little brother for overnight visits, and all of us able to run up for dinner on a random Tuesday night. Plus the weekends on the trails, or sharing a morning coffee at the waterfall with John remain perfect. And Eli still lives outside like a little Tom Sawyer practically all year long.
So who are we now? What do we value? Beauty, yes, yes… education, still huge, but the kid’s social life matters too, and this life in close proximity to the natural world has changed us in fundamental ways. The house is grand, but is it worth the travel? Is there any other way up here anyhow? I have always said that one of the reasons to live is not knowing what the next great passion will be. Five years ago, I sipped in trendy wine bars, and went to gallery openings, where no one could have predicted chickens and homeschooling. I think it may be time to ask the questions again. Living with intention demands the reflection. You choose a life and then something, (here the horrible quaint country store), throws you off track, so you peddle fast and do what you must. Only then the crisis passes and you are still peddling in that other, maybe not quite chosen, direction. Do our values still inform this life? Who are we now? What do we most deeply value? And what is just around the next corner anyway..?…