Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. you must let it find you.
Don’t we all long for the sense of place that David Wagoner’s poem describes? A place where you belong, that reinforces your sense of being “right sized” and in tune with your surroundings?
That is what I do not have….
Last December, I discovered that my friend Jane was leaving her condo overlooking a small lake just outside Minneapolis. She sold all the carefully curated furniture (including a fireplace that she had recently installed) and moved to a house in Florida with her new-ish partner Dave. Boom. A Minnesota native, Jane was not much of a traveler and had season tickets to every theater, orchestra, chamber music or other event in the arts-rich community in the Twin Cities. In other words, this was not an expected next chapter in her retirement story. At least I didn’t expect it.
Then yesterday, I chatted with Susan, who confided that the 9 weeks she and Bob spend in Puerto Vallarta were just too long – ‘I feel so disconnected – Bob loves it, and would stay longer. We compromised so that next year we will stay for 6 weeks and come back for a few. Maybe go away again for a couple of weeks on a road trip with the dog to see the kids.’ Disconnected in Mexico…..but looking forward to long summer weeks in their remote and rather primitive cabin in Northern Minnesota – Susan’s “happy place”.
Another couple, long-time Minnesotans, recently moved back into their house, remodeled to suit the vision they had when buying it decades ago. It sits on a large city corner lot, where they are responsible for shoveling two long stretches of sidewalk. Even when we visit them in the glory of early fall, the house’s steep front entry invokes fears of slipping – and I fast forward to hospitals stuffed with elderly people with pneumonia and broken hips. But for our friends, an adventuresome trip or two a year in a warmer continent (including lots of hiking), is enough. They never seriously discussed any other options than the major remodel….
What about Sue, who lives in a spectacular three-story mountain home in Colorado, but whose husband is tired of plowing the driveway and dreams of a tripped out Mercedes Sprinter and a couple of years on the road while they are still in great health? (Wait! Even though they have no children, the dogs are still young…and where will they all live when life on the road gets old?)
As Joe Strummer and Mick Jones put it in The Clash’s famous lyrics:
Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go, there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know…
We and our friends are all vigorous in our mid-60s to mid-70s. Not wealthy, but also not strapped. We can do almost anything we want to — but not everything (and long ago redefined our fantasies to fit our budgets). Blessed with the freedom to move or be “snowbirds” who fly away in the winter, we all have different stories that dance around the question of where and how to live once we are not tied to a job.
Although I still have a year to work part-time, Dan and I have off-and-on been grappling where we want to be forever (or what seems that way). The dilemma of moving-or-staying may seem particularly acute for Minnesotans who, although a tough bunch, are mostly willing to admit that winter is challenging. We love Minneapolis – the arts, friends, lakes within walking distance, good government, and fun restaurants on every corner – it is truly glorious seven or eight months of each year. But, as we say, there are two seasons: winter and road repair. (A local ice cream, Nicollet Pot Hole, memorializes the tire-busting crevasses that emerge every year after the incessant freeze-thaw of hard winters.)
The question of staying or going is only partially a byproduct of weather. We are living out the consequences of the tendency of better educated and more affluent Americans to wander. Like many of our friends, Dan and I lack real roots. Our parents lived far from where they were born; we moved away from our parents. My daughters and grandchildren live in Massachusetts and Colorado; Dan’s closest relatives are in Nebraska and New York. Easy enough to get to for planned visits, but not for Sunday brunch or occasional babysitting. We have no role models (except Dan’s mother, who lived by herself and bought a new car at 92) and worry about creating mid-life drama for our loved ones if we age-in-place. We have vicariously experienced how frequent plane flights to deal with emergencies take an emotional and financial toll on friends in their 60s who are caring for parents in their 80s who live far away. There is always an independent retirement community with affiliated health care. I AM NOT READY FOR THAT – I don’t want to live in an age-ghetto. We will think about it again when I am 80!
That leaves us with the explicit or implied dilemmas faced by my friends. Move to New Mexico, which is cheap-ish and has all four seasons, but requires starting over with friendships and community? Split time between Boston-Denver-Minneapolis (none of which is a winter paradise), but feel a bit disconnected everywhere? Spend a few weeks away from deep winter (while postponing the issue)? We have been through all of the options and none fits perfectly.
Dreaming about alternative life styles is a playful “imagine a different future” activity when you are 25-35-45. Now, we want to live each day to its fullest, and evaluating the many patterns of staying-going feels like a waste of time. Why can’t a place just speak to me and tell me where to get off? Like a merry-go-round, the scenery changes and then I realize that I have been here before….