Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Role Models

Why did I really really want to move to the country?  It was time for a change.

The idea to choose the kind of life that would allow me to avoid the pretentious rat race that exists in most cities is not a new one.  Everyone who has ever packed their bags and headed for parts less populated has more or less had the same idea.  I first started thinking about this type of life choice for myself when I picked up a copy of Cross Creek, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. [Links at the bottom of the page]  She wrote about her decision to buy, sight unseen, an orange grove in central Florida during the late 1920s.  The book is a long description of the changes that occur in her philosophy of life as a result of her decision to trade her upper-class New York lifestyle for the rigors of tending an orange grove scraping out a living in the wilds of Florida to give herself a chance to become the writer she has always wanted to be.  It is clear throughout the book that her new life is very difficult and that her troubles didn't magically go away just because she moved to the country.  However, it is also clear throughout the book that the experience allowed her to identify and develop untapped abilities and grow in unexpected ways, mostly as a result of having to depend on herself and her own judgment to survive.  I admired that.
I love books about the rural south and find myself rereading them often.  I have worn out a couple of copies of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, which is also about people who, due in part to the Great Depression and in part to personal philosophy and a regard for the hardships of others, have chosen a less pretentious, simpler way of life.  A Place Called Sweet Apple was written by a woman (Celestine Sibley) who also chose to escape the rat race and find a few quiet acres on which to plant a garden and listen to and nurture her inner self. 

There are many books that describe women's search for 'a bit of earth'.  Some of my other favorites are Out of Africa (Isaak Dinnsen), The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett), Thornyhold (Mary Stewart), Gone Away Lake (Elizabeth Enright), Laddie and Girl of the Limberlost (Gene Stratton Porter).  These were the books that reinforced my natural desire to live my life in a way that pleased me instead of depending on other people to tell me how to live it, and that encouraged me to find a quiet place to explore myself and develop my own hidden abilities.

Even though I was not raised on a farm, I often feel as if I have chosen to 'go back' to the country.  I think that this is the result of having parents who love the country and spent a lot of time and have good memories of being in the country when they were children. 

My father was from Arkansas and he grew up during the depression helping his family raise cotton when it didn't pay to raise cotton.  He learned to love the land and to work hard and though his family was forced to leave the farm and go to Michigan to find better work,  my father's love of the land never left him.  He spent the rest of his life working outside, caring for the land in one way or another.  I think a desk job would have killed him.  Through his life he demonstrated to me that money was a lot less important than choosing your own way and truly being happy with what you do. 

My mother was born in Ohio, but she lived from coast to coast because her father's job transferred them every year.  She went to thirteen schools in thirteen years, a feat she accomplished without becoming a juvenile delinquent or a sociopath.  Moving around so much made it difficult for her to set roots anywhere except one place,  Grandma Leisz' (rhymes with geese) farm.  The only stories my mother tells about her childhood have to do primarily with the farm in Seven Mile and the very close relationship she developed with my wonderful great-grandmother.  The visits to the farm affected my mother deeply for good and as she told us stories about visiting grandma, unconsciously she conveyed pictures of quiet and hard work and the calm assurance that she ‘belonged’.  These were things I, too, found myself searching for later in my life and so I turned naturally to the country to find them, where my parents seem to have found them.

My own experiences in real country were limited.  The house I spent most of my growing up years in was on the edge of a subdivision which had been developed on old farm fields.  We owned the old farmhouse and barn and a crumbling garage/outbuilding.  When we moved there, there were orchards and fields across the street, other farms down the road and the traffic was reasonable.  Within a few short years, the orchards and fields were turned into more subdivisions as were the other farms for miles down the road.  This is where our goal to find a piece of property big enough to stay private no matter whether everything around us is developed comes from.

Occasionally, we would go to Arkansas to visit my father's family, who had moved back there when the economy had improved.  I remember that the weather was always hot, there were a lot of fields to play in, the breakfasts were spectacular, riding the tractor was fun, and Grandma always had pigs.  Occasionally we would visit friends of my parents who lived on a farm outside of town.  We could play in the creeks, visit with the cows, get chased by the rooster, ride horses, and pick all the wildflowers we could lay our hands on.  Somehow, being in the country meant that we could have expanded options and a little more control over what we did. 

When we were children and there were fewer of us, we would get in the car and go for long drives through the country.  My father would pick a road, any road and drive.  He never ever got lost.  At the time I thought that it was because he knew everything (I think he was feeding us a little propaganda), but now I know that it was because we didn't care where we ended up.  Our only goal was to stay in the country.  As we passed small town after small town, farm after farm, old house after old house, my sister and I would spend hours listening to my parents dream about the property or the house they wanted to have someday:  "Oh, look at that.  We could..."  On these weekend trips, our parents taught us that we could dream, and in our dreams we could have anything that we wanted.  They taught us that having the dream was almost as much fun as achieving the dream.  Though we were a very young family, just starting out, they seemed to have no doubt that they would get what they wanted.  Someday.  So, we girls had no doubt that they would get what they wanted.  After all, didn't all grown-ups get what they want?  Wasn't that the point of being grown-up? 

I loved those drives, and when I grew up and got married, my husband and I also developed the habit of long country drives, looking and dreaming.  It is significant perhaps that once we found this place, our need to drive and look and dream diminished considerably.  We seem to have found something that satisfies a deep need in us and we no longer need to search.

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