I have been reading a ton of books this past month. Small books, big books, light fare and heavy stuff. Much of the lighter books are romance novels and I seem to be drawn to ones that take place in idyllic small towns. I don’t always like the tone of many of these books that rely on getting married and having lots of kids and always a dog (not that that is a bad thing, but to presume that marriage and kids and dogs is required for happiness is a bit narrow for me. Cats get no respect ☺). However, I love that they are set in fantasy small towns where even if everyone gets in each other’s business, they do it out of caring and love for each other and the community. They all have picture-perfect downtowns with a coffee shop and bookstore and cute shops and hold plenty of small-town events.
I grew up in a small town, the wonderful town of Roosevelt, New Jersey. I do feel like my childhood was idyllic, even if we didn’t have a bookstore and coffee shop. In the 60s and 70s, the town was a generous community to grow up in with deep and important connections fostered between the kids and the families. Of course I can wax nostalgic about my childhood because it is easy to gloss over any of the bad stuff when reminiscing. Nonetheless, I loved my childhood, family, friends and community. And I know that there is a lot to be said for small towns and the community and connection that they provide.
Once again I live in a small town: Cold Spring, NY on the Hudson River. My experience now is quite different from my childhood for a number of reasons. Being an adult certainly changes the perspective. Yet there is most definitely a community aspect here that feels good and comforting and welcoming just like my childhood life in Roosevelt. The big difference is that not having grown up here and gone to school, I don’t know all the families like I did in Roosevelt. I just don’t have a long-term history here even though we have had this house for twenty-one years—much of that only for weekends. When you move to a town and don’t have roots there, it can take time to get to know folks. Because we don’t have any kids, we were not introduced to all the families like we would have had we had kids at the public schools. Community is essential and automatic through your kids (that is true in any size community).
So although I don’t have connections through kids, I am building my community in different ways. I am so grateful that I have a group of people who meditate and discuss readings about mindfulness and living fully present lives every week. I am fortunate that there is a lovely small library in my town and also the town next door with darling librarians who bring us together for various events. I love that I know everyone when I go to The Foundry on Saturday mornings for breakfast. I love sharing “oohs and aahs” with friends while watching fireworks at the town Fourth of July event (Roosevelt’s Fourth Of July celebration, however, wins the prize for best small town event ever!) I am putting down roots both literally in our garden and figuratively through our connections.
Lest you think I am only a small town advocate, I should say that I absolutely loved living in New York City and I did indeed create a community there during the twenty years I lived in Manhattan. It is true that community can be built in large towns and cities. It just has a different quality. I did run into people I knew while I lived in the city yet in a small town the likelihood that you will bump into someone you know is much greater. This is in part because the choices for what to do are more limited and confined to a smaller area. And there are fewer people.
I think a big part of why I love living where I live is the outdoors. I lived just a block from the Hudson River in the city and could escape the city sounds and energy to go to the water’s edge from time to time. Now I have ongoing quiet and peace of the woods that gives me such inspiration and comfort and calm everyday. I guess it is not too surprising given that romance novels are often idealized fantasies, that when I read about those picture perfect small towns I fantasize about what it would be like if I lived in one of those towns. Then I have to pinch myself and remind myself that I do live there! Of course real life is not as idealized as in the books I read, but it is pretty darn close.
What is very funny to me is that I could not wait to get out of Roosevelt while growing up. Of course that is in part because I needed to leap independently into a life of my own creation and staying at home was not the place to do that. But a big part was that I did not want to be in a small town. So I went to Boston and then to Berkeley for college. When I looked for jobs as a professor, most of the positions were in schools in small towns. So I ended up in a small town of Oberlin. Pretty quickly I found that work in a city was drawing me and not academia. When I think back I do remember that there were a lot of great things about the small town of Oberlin—I was creating a nice community. But it was not the right time for me. I was ambitious for fast paced and multitasking in work and life. I wanted the big city and all the energy that went along with it. So Andy and I went to New York for a large part of our adulthood, excelled in our careers and created a great life. And yet we needed a place to go to get away from the city here and there. So we got our place in Cold Spring for weekends.
My friend Nathalie reminded me a few weeks ago when she was visiting from the city that I had told her some years back that I could never imagine leaving the city for Cold Spring full-time. And I do remember feeling that way. We came up to Cold Spring only for weekends and holidays for about fifteen years. And then something shifted. Part of the shift was due to a conscious choice of changing our work lifestyle. Much of it was that the small town life is more appealing now that I am in my fifties and frankly less ambitious. And I think most of all the shift was towards greater inner peace and calm, greater introspection and stillness that I can find more easily in a small town. I am now happily settled in a small town and loving the peaceful energy of this life.
We do have a main street dotted with quaint shops. We used to have a bookstore but unfortunately that closed several years ago (it is hard for small bookstores to compete with the chains). There are a few nice coffee shops, cafes, restaurants and ice cream stands and of course those wonderful libraries. I have that idyllic small town life now even if I don’t have kids or know all the families yet and I have a cat not a dog. I continue to enjoy the hustle and bustle of the city every now and again. In a little over an hour train ride into Grand Central, I can re-engage with the energy of the city that I still respect and love. But for now at least, small town living is idyllic to me and not a fantasy.