February 11, 2019
Our next-door neighbors, who we don’t know well, put their house on the market a couple of weeks ago. We saw the agent planting “for sale” signs in the lawn. She said they were asking $390,000, to me a crazy figure for this neighborhood, which in recent years has gotten a little sketchy. But early this week I saw a family walk up the driveway to inspect the place. The signs were gone a couple of days later.
Sandy and I went for a walk. We don’t know what the house actually sold for, but we wondered what we could get for our place, which we think is nicer, at least on the outside. We lurched into that familiar conversation: if we sold our house now, after 31-plus years, what would we do? Where would we go?
She long has wanted to say goodbye to the stress, costs, and gridlock of northern Virginia. Her priorities now are one-level, two bedrooms, large kitchen, within an hour of a major airport. I say we could find that almost anywhere—narrow it down. Our daughter and son-in-law, with the two grandsons, lobby for South Carolina. The older boy, now five, saw a house for sale on their street and reserved it for us. We didn’t bite.
Where you live is a clue of sorts to who you are. It might show that you like beaches more than mountains, snorkeling instead of skiing, cities over small towns, chic cafes more than barbeque joints. But every place has a culture created by the people who live there, their histories, livelihoods, and priorities, which form their political attitudes. Their politics creates either today’s bitter national divisions, or relative equanimity of—some other time. What’s our contribution?
This isn’t very original, millions of oldsters and not-so-oldsters do something about it every day. We look at those “best cities/states to retire to” infomercials that pop up on the internet. We’ve gone to a couple “Living South” trade shows where you pick up brochures weighing up to a pound and business cards of people selling golf, beaches, lakes, mountains, more golf (not much snorkeling or skiing).
The old formula is that when you’re young you figure out the job/career you find satisfying or at least tolerable and settle where it’s achievable. We did that when we landed here. The opposite approach works for some: move to the place you dream of living and make do, teach mountaineering or surfing, wait tables, write your novel. But either way, it seems eventually you think about moving.
You make mental lists of places you know. Then remember what you care about in life, and try to assign those things to a city, town, village. When you’re in a place for years, it grows on you, I guess. I grew up in northern Jersey, as a kid it was my whole world, and my parents’ and siblings’. Parents and one brother are buried there, none of the other siblings stayed. Sandy and I lived in Nashville for 12 years, the first three kids were born there. We still visit family and friends. Nashville, once a friendly place proud of its music, hospitals, and colleges, now is an overpriced, traffic-choked tourist trap.
I went to school in New Hampshire, a lovely place, still visit St. Anselm when I can, and stay in touch with friends, Benedictine monks whom I’ve known since the late sixties. But January mountain runs here in Virginia have taught me to dread winter. We won’t be going to New England.
A few years ago, for three straight summers, we visited Montana for trail runs. Sandy developed a crush on Ennis, a cute, tiny place 70 miles or so southwest of Bozeman, on the trout-rich Madison River, and 80 miles from Yellowstone. Spectacular, but remote—long plane rides with layovers to go almost anywhere. In winter it’s routinely single digits or below zero. The kids would visit once, maybe.
Lots of places are “interesting”—a nearly useless word for getting to a decision. Texas is interesting, no—fascinating. North Carolina is interesting to lots of Virginians, we have friends in Wilmington, another in Asheville. Florida is warm and pretty half the year but unbearable the other half, and flat year-round (like much of Texas). Readers may recall we visited Greeneville, Tenn., in October. I couldn’t stomach the local worship of native son, second-worst (formerly worst) President Andrew Johnson. Chattanooga, though, is interesting, and about sixty miles east of Sandy’s hometown. She nearly moved there after college. Maybe we’ll take a look.
So we’ve been paralyzed by this conversation. The one-level, big kitchen, two-bedroom concept is OK with me. But when you’re hitting 70 and a little sick, when each day is defined by memories of family, in this place, even as our kids pursue their own challenges far from here—change is a scary, almost violent thought.
I’m making this complicated. I’m probably paranoid as well as old. It’s just the two of us. Friends are always friends, at any distance. But can we replicate the vague sense of mundane comfort, of tolerance of this place, someplace else? When we’re strangers to strangers around us? Where is that magic place? If home is no longer here, where is it? And for us, what is it?