Country Life for the Mildly Unwilling -The Toast

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Samantha told me the secret of her country life while we lay sprawled on a picnic blanket at sundown. We were at an outdoor concert in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. The band weaved their way past picnickers on their way to the concert stage. Strands from a bamboo flute drifted by, snatches of drums, a man playing a moon-shaped lute. We’d both had some wine.

“Since I moved here,” Samantha whispered, looking sneaky, “I’ve come a lot closer to death.”

“Me too,” I said, beaming over at her. Finally someone had said it.

“It’s the mountains, I think.”

“They’re so big,” I said. “And we’re so small.”

“And it’s so quiet, all of the time.”

We watched our friends divvy up a wedge of Brie a few feet away. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that I might have to stay in the Berkshires for the rest of my life. This was a scary thought, but I was getting super-used to those. I scooted forward, reached for some cheese.

I moved to the Berkshires when I was 28. Living in the country had never been my personal dream, but I was trying to pursue a career in journalism and I’d gotten a job offer I felt I couldn’t refuse. So what if the Berkshires was the Bermuda Triangle of cell phone reception and all the coffee shops closed by 6 pm? Print media was croaking, the economy was still hacking up blood, and a girl had to take what she could get.

imagesMy first few months in the country were ablaze with positive thinking. I finally taught myself how to ride a bike, wobbling in loops around an empty parking lot before braving the roads. I took up a lot of complicated DIY T-shirt projects. I got a regular gig doing features for the local paper and drove around interviewing townspeople about their various occupations–a three-generation family that sold silk-screened calendars, a woman who’d written a cookbook about how to make your own pantry items like pop tarts and pickles.

The area wasn’t overflowing with young people, but I hit it off with Samantha, a whip-smart librarian with a collection of perilously high heels, and her genial, sarcastic husband Jim. We split orders of fried pickles at the local pub and forged our way to a Halloween party at a historic tavern in the midst of an early-fall snowstorm.

Was this the life I’d imagined for myself in my late twenties? It was not. But I was doing fine, reinventing my bearings, right up until winter came along.

People love the country because it gives them plenty of space to think and move around. But all that space does you no good when you’re shut up indoors, hiding from frostbite. Sure, the Berkshires had ski resorts and cozy fireplaces around which to gather–but those things seemed to work best if you were married with kids, or if you’d grown up there and had a built-in network of childhood pals with whom to hit the slopes. Suddenly I noticed that I was super-lonely. And while I’d imagined that the ruminative beauty of a New England winter might get my creative writing juices flowing, in practice I found that being alone with my thoughts was mostly conducive to anxiety spirals.

hot-fuzzCooped up with my computer and endless cups of coffee, I thought about how isolated I’d become and how it was all my own fault. I’d taken people and lucky breaks for granted, walked away from good things just because the possibility of something even greater was always waggling in my peripheral vision. I composed lists of all the things I wished that I’d done differently on spare scraps of paper throughout the day, the way normal people jotted down groceries and errands. Mistakes came to mind so frequently that I couldn’t keep just one running tally.

“Not standing up for myself enough,” I scribbled on the back of a pharmacy receipt. “Caring too much about other people’s opinions,” I wrote in the margins of my notebook during a meeting. “Leaving New York. Grad school, of course.”

It was a pretty cool hobby. The problem was, I couldn’t locate any kind of roadmap for people who were convinced they’d ruined their lives by being too dumb to understand what they wanted. Why weren’t more humans talking about this? There were some novels and movies and TV shows about regret, but they didn’t tend to be very solutions-oriented. Walter White regretted losing his chance to be a successful millionaire so he became a meth kingpin. Mr. Rochester regretted marrying his first wife so he locked her in an attic and thumped around shouting at governesses unexpectedly. These were not helpful role models.

The most practical advice I could find on regret came from a TED talk (ugh, but true) by a woman who wished she hadn’t gotten her tattoo of a compass rose. Her words of wisdom boiled down to “give it time.” This made me feel desperate and impatient, so I went in the other direction. I decided to make myself so busy that time would disappear.


images-1The Berkshires really did have a lot going for it, once you managed to stop mooning around like a depressed wild turkey. Samantha, Jim and I began going to trivia night at a bar near their house. Each Wednesday we’d gather to sip pints of PBR and hiss the names of dead presidents and early rap songs under our breath.

We got to know the other regular players: a solitary man rumored to have swept Jeopardy twice back in the 1990s; the local mycologist, who smuggled in flasks of black-truffle vodka that he passed around under the table. After a few months we added a fourth to our team–Jim’s friend Colleen, a nursing student who worked part-time at one of the Berkshires’ many farm-to-table restaurants.

Colleen was in her early 30s and had three daughters, ages 14, 10, and 7. The four of them were a tight-knit crew, quick-witted and tough like characters out of a feminist fairy tale. We began holding game nights and movie marathons at their house, which had a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto a thicket of woods. Colleen’s youngest, Zoe, had the comedic timing of a tiny Lucille Ball.

“Once I tried to fly off the jungle gym at school,” she told me over Passover dinner. “How’d it go?” I asked. She paused to think it over. “Not well,” she said. Then she tried to snatch the egg off the seder plate.

In the summer I joined a community garden and spent eight hours a week crouched over rows of purple string beans that grew long and bumpy as witches’ fingers. I was intimidated by the graphic designers and jewelry-makers who worked in the garden with me, all of whom were casually beautiful in an Oil Method way and knowledgeable enough to realize that dead-heading was an action unrelated to Jerry Garcia. But after a while I felt comfortable enough to swap pickling techniques and calendula skin treatments. Sometimes I’d head to a date afterward, pausing at home to shower but not nearly long enough to scrub all the soil from under my nails.

article-2462025-0E93484E00000578-242_634x434Dating! I was doing that too. Pickings were slim in the Berkshires, owing to a general dearth of single people under 40, but I gave it my sporting best. I went out with a painter, a political aide, a teacher, a lawyer, a couple of journalists. My favorite was an adorably discombobulated reporter who swore a lot, loved The X-Files, and was launching a deep-dive investigation into the recent surge of bobcat sightings in Western Massachusetts.

Nothing worked out in the long run, but the area was so small that people you’d gone out with never really disappeared. Once, driving past a campaign sign, I had an end-of-The-Usual-Suspects moment in which I realized that my current roommate had the same last name as the man who was now running for local office. The candidate was the same person I’d dated for a month or two the year before, and clearly he was my roommate’s cousin. I decided not to mention anything.

But mostly I filled my time by working. I had a pop culture blog with a few friends and was freelancing for more than one paper. And after a while, I took on a recurring gig that transformed my social life: I started taking party pictures.

images-3Party pictures were a regular feature in a regional online magazine, the brainchild of two former New York Times writers who’d envisioned the publication as a country branch of the Style section. The job was pretty straightforward. Once or twice a week, I’d drive out to a hospital fundraising gala or a retro-space-themed dance party. Then I’d march up to strangers, brandishing a camera and a notebook, and ask if they minded if I took their picture. Most of the time–much to my surprise, at first–they didn’t.

I learned picture protocol fast. Shoot from the waist up, no more than four people at a time. In group shots, get everybody’s arms inside the frame, or else they’ll look like sock puppets. When a party guest gives a goofy fake name, laugh obligingly as if it doesn’t happen at least once a night. (This last rule sometimes backfired. Early on, a smiling man in a suit told me his name was Smitty Pignatelli. I chuckled and asked what his real name was. Smitty Pignatelli was his real name, and he was our state representative.)

Taking photos gave me an excuse to slip inside the worlds people had made for themselves in the Berkshires. So this was what everyone had been up to that first isolated winter, while I padded around writing myself recriminating notes! There were artist’s retreats in converted barns that culminated in raucous dance parties and buffet dinners spread out on the terrace of Edith Wharton’s gabled home in Lenox. I snapped pictures of farmers’ brunches and bluegrass concerts, art openings and Halloween parties in tents stacked high with local gin and bales of hay.

I loved talking to Berkshires natives and transplants at these parties, learning how they’d started their own nonprofits and breweries and theater companies. Of course, a lot of people had had money to begin with, which played an important part in determining whether they could make a go of becoming a handbag designer or green juice guru. But some of them hadn’t had much, and still didn’t. This was a place where people could try to reinvent themselves. And the longer I stayed, the more I could feel myself becoming lighter, steadier, less worried I’d die alone and unfulfilled in the middle of an ice storm, more like someone else.

The party pictures and freelance jobs were all part of a scheme to become a better, more experienced journalist, so that I could get a good new job in a city. But I was so busy that I was too overwhelmed to actually apply anywhere new. This meant that the plan was counter-productive, but I also found myself becoming pretty much happy.

Part of the reason I’d been so miserable in the Berkshires that first winter was that I’d worried my loneliness there would be permanent. It was an easy thing to believe, trundling down picture-postcard streets that looked like they hadn’t altered a brick since Norman Rockwell painted them in 1967. But the longer I lived there, learning new names, accepting and extending invitations, erasing one set of photographs of strangers from my memory card in order to make room for the next, the more I understood: I didn’t have to worry that I’d messed up my life forever. I couldn’t even stop change from coming if I wanted to.

Almost two years after I’d moved to Western Massachusetts, I began looking for a new job in earnest, and I caught a break. Within a month I was in New York, a city I’d left once before and missed ever since.

The day I moved back to the city, I stood on the deck of my new apartment listening to the roar of the BQE. I thought about that old Sinatra chestnut: If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. But the truth is, making it–building a big, messy life for yourself that you can be proud of–is a plenty hard job any place you might go.

After years in the mountains, I felt small but not scared. The path that had led me to the Berkshires and then back to Brooklyn seemed meandering but nothing shameful. I was ready to start over. I already missed trivia night and wading down rivers and sun-warmed tomatoes and all my old friends. I felt the way I imagined a woman carrying her first box of books into a farmhouse perched on a hill might feel, roughly 150 miles away: just lucky to be there, lucky to choose.


Sarah Todd writes about feminism and popular culture at Girls Like Giants.

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