Finding My Place: How We Got Here, Part I

Today is the first day of Aaron's and my new "Finding Your Place" Course (for anyone who would still like to join, we've got two remaining spots and since the class is asynchronously online, you won't miss anything by starting today or tomorrow - email me at I've been teaching Adapting-in-Place, for people who intend to stay where they are and want to lower their resource consumption and build greater resilience for several years now, but this is the first time Aaron and I have taught a similar class for people who are either considering relocation or definitely planning to relocate. We're going to explore how to choose a region, town, neighborhood and house, how to figure out whether you want to move, how to sort out the pros and cons, as well as what strategies make sense if you stay in place. We'll go into the walls of our houses and the soil around them, figure out how to get along with the neighbors and what local resources matter most.

But before we go into the "how to" I thought it would be useful to tell the story of how Eric and I came to live where we did - what our "finding our place" process looked like. There are some things about it that other people might want to mimic, and other things that people probably won't. But what might be useful about it is that it is *not* the story of the search for the perfect place, using all our perfect research skills. It is, instead, the story of balancing a lot of competing needs and interests - our own (which weren't always in harmony), family's, job's, plans and ambitions. That is, I think it is a lot like a lot of people's story, and maybe useful in that sense - that is, we didn't find the perfect place, but we found a functional place that we've come to make as close to perfect as we can. Since all my work on finding a place or adapting in place presumes not that we'll all find the perfect place, but that we have to work with the realities of our lives, in the net, I think this is good.

This is a bit of a long story, so I'm going to write it in two pieces, the first published here, the second over at ye olde blogge - so if you aren't bored to tears by the first bit, you might give me a couple of hours to write it and then check that spot out. I'll add a link here once it is done.

In the late summer of 2000, Eric and I were living in Lowell, MA, a small city in Massachusetts largely populated by southeast Asian immigrants. We'd moved the year before, while expecting our first child, Eli, and we loved the diversity, the culture, the funkiness (the city was gentrifying slowly, but was still cheap and interesting), and our apartment in an old mill building. The transition to parenthood had not been easy - Eli had colic and screamed 7 hours a day for four months - but we survived and were mostly having a good time, except that I was obsessed with farms.

Our original plan had been to buy a house with a good sized yard in Lowell, a duplex bought with my friend Jesse. But Jesse backed out due to personal considerations at the last minute, and we ended up in an apartment with no green space at all, and no access to a garden. I'd always had gardens, on apartment balconies and in backyards, and it was driving me crazy - I literally couldn't stop obsessing about the lack of green space. We looked into community gardens, but found nothing. If I had known then what I know now about urban agriculture, I might have stuck it out, but I didn't - all I could think about was getting to some place with my own dirt.

Meanwhile, Eric, who was working at Harvard with the Smithsonian designing educational exhibits on space for NASA didn't like his job much. He was bored and in a rut - working in the same building he'd done his Ph.d in, he had realized late that he wanted to teach, rather than do bench science, and this had seemed close enough - but he missed the classroom.

So we gradually hatched a plan to leave Lowell - me enthusiastically, change-hating Eric reluctantly. We were young, fairly free (I was still a graduate student, but ABD, Eric could teach anywhere), and we considered almost everything. There were three requirements. 1. I wanted land and a farm. 2. Eric wanted to teach, ideally a lower income population with lots of first generation college students. 3. It had to be really, really cheap, since we were poor. Still a grad student, my stipend wasn't much, and Eric was newly employed. Our kind MIL had helped us once, but we didn't want to ask again. So whereever we went had to have very inexpensive land and housing.

At first our thoughts ranged afield. We talked about Montana, where UM Bozeman had a job that was interested in Eric, but the prices were high. We looked at Maryland's Eastern Shore where a friend was teaching community college and knew of an opening, but at the last minute, the department couldn't get funding to hire. Eric almost took a job working for a luminary in physics who had written A BIG IMPORTANT BOOK and basically needed someone to explain it to reporters, but the job was in Champagne IL and even more importantly, with a BIG IMPORTANT ASSHOLE with an ego the size of India as the luminary in question. It didn't seem worth it, and one visit to Champagne convinced Eric that we, well, weren't from flat places. We talked a little about places we'd been before - we could both teach in other countries, and we talked about Jakarta or Kuala Lampur. There was a post-doc possibility in Germany.

We also were hesitant about leaving the area. My parents and sisters were all in the Greater MA/NH area. My MIL and Step-FIL were in CT. Taking the newly created grandchild/nephew away from family seemed unkind, and tough for us, since we were desperately dependent on their help as we made the transition to parenthood. While we researche far-away places, we toured Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine, checking out our options. Eli slept well only in the car, and we put a lot of miles on it that fall. Price wise, though, the real estate boom had started in most of the southerly areas, and we were effectively priced out of most of the state of MA, and the southern parts of Maine, VT and NH. We considered VT's northeast kingdom, but that would put us pretty far from family as well.

Then something else intervened and changed the terms of the discussion. Before we were even married, Eric had told me that he expected that when the time came, we would be the ones to take care of his beloved paternal grandparents. His father and step-mother were not close to them and had health concerns of their own. His aunt and cousins were devoted to his grandparents, but lived in California, and Inge and Cyril (Eric's grandparents) had said they didn't want to move there. He had warned me early on that we would need to be prepared to help care for them - which was fine with me. They had instantly adopted me as their own grandchild, and I adored them.

For Eric, this was somewhat nebulous and abstract, but once things began to deteriorate, I had something of an idea what this might entail. My own paternal grandmother had lived with her sister for many years, and the last years were filled with crises, most of them handled by my nearby aunt and uncle, but with rushes down to see them, hospitalizations and finally, a fall that left my grandmother on the floor for 24 hours and ended with her in a nursing home. I did not want to see that happen with Eric's grandparents, who had long expressed that they did not want to end up in a nursing home.

That fall, Eric's grandfather had a series of small strokes that left him partly disabled and in decline. Eric's grandmother had to nearly carry him at one point to the car, and drive them to the hospital. When we heard that, everyone panicked, but moreover, I became worried that as the closest relatives, we'd be rushing back and forth all the time, trying to balance a new baby and their needs, commuting to New Jersey and waiting for terrible phone calls to come - guilty if we couldn't be there, exhausted by trying to keep up with jobs and family and a distance dependency. I just didn't want to do that either to them or to us - the whole thing seemed much easier if we could be hands on.

The problem was that they lived in Paramus New Jersey, a place that appealed to me and Eric not at all. I knew we needed to be closer to them to be able to help them, but I really didn't want to give up the farm dream to move to suburban New Jersey. So first to Eric and then, in a letter to Eric's grandparents that fall, we proposed an alternative. The alternative was that we would buy a farm together, either one with two houses or two uits already in place or we would build an additional house or an addition, and they would live with us for the remainder of their lives. We would provide whatever help was needed physically and they would be with their great-grandkids and us. There was some hemming and hawing back and forth, but eventually, everyone agreed.

This eliminated Malaysia, Montana, and basically all places that were not New Jersey, New York or PA. We tried really hard to add Massachusetts to the list - we had fallen in love with the little rural town of Ashby, MA, one of the few undeveloped and not high-priced areas. Eric could teach at the State University in neighboring Fitchburg, and we'd even seen a couple of houses that might do. But Inge and Cyril flatly refused to consider Massachusetts, because of the cold.

Now if that sounds strange ot you, given that they ended up living in upstate New York, it did to us too. Later on we realized what the issue was - both were immigrants who had come to the US after the war and lived their entire post-war lives in NYC/Northern New Jersey. And they had a European view of American geography (Inge, who was making most of the decisions can't really be faulted here - she escaped the Nazis at 12 and her regular education effectively ended there until adulthood) - of course, Boston is very much north of the only part of New York they knew well - the city. That New York state goes all the way to Canada, they knew intellectually, but their gut reaction was that New
York was warmer than Massachusetts, and they flatly refused to consider anything in the state.

They were voting for Southern New Jersey and its warmer climate and proximity to their son. I was reluctant to go so far from my family, but fortunately the issue was decided by the fact that there were no jobs in reasonable commuting distance for Eric or me. Eastern PA was an option that we considered, but we quickly settled on New York State in two possible regions, due to their low land prices, proximity to Universities enough to be likely Eric could get a job and acceptability to Eric's grandparents. The first was the Catskills, the second, one of two areas roughly around Albany/Schenectady/Saratoga - either southern Washington County, north and east of Saratoga or the area around Schoharie County, about 35 minutes west of Albany. Both places had possible jobs for Eric, but there happened to be many more in the Albany area, so that quickly become our leading contender. Most importantly, both had extremely cheap real estate - astonishingly so compared to the areas I'd grown up around. And there were lots of farms - serious farms.

Our goals for the farm were nebulous - we wanted to live the self-sufficient life, and figured we'd do everything and have all the animals. But most of all, I wanted gardens. The animals attracted me. The gardens drew me like a magnet. The words "high lime soil" were a siren song.

All of the research we did was on the internet up to this point - we'd made scouting trips to other areas, and even attempted one out this way during a family reunion in the Berkshires, but we got lost and the baby woke up, so that put a stop that. At this point, the internet didn't have the same kind of available resources for real estate - some people were on the web, some weren't. Moreover, in rural areas like ours, most of the realtors did not list their stock on the MLS - so finding out what was available was a big job. I spent a lot of time researching, looking at pictures, reading extension information on soils and water and what to look for, contacting people who lived in the area, etc... But we banged up against the limits of that in the winter of 2001. We'd committed to finding a house this year, and Eric had given notice that he'd be leaving his job in May. Come hell or high water, we were finding our place.

So in early February, we took our first scouting trip. We made appointments to talk to local realtors, but didn't actually plan to see houses. We'd be going first to Schoharie County and the surrounding area, going as far north as the Mohawk and its river plains, and then on the way back, to Washington County. We mostly planned to drive around, talk to people and check it out.

Now February is a terrible time to arrive in my area - it was sleeting the day we got here and to people for whom "rural" meant "small preserved areas in a state largely developed (ie, eastern MA rural), this was kind of shocking. This was really, really rural. In winter it looked dead. We met people, talked to them, explored and agreed it was pretty, but seemed isolated. Still, we were hopeful. There was a job at SUNY Cobleskill, in a large town, a job at Albany, and one at a private college north of the city. This looked promising, although the whole thing was a little nerve-wracking. It was hard to tell anything about sun or soil in the winter. The houses were pretty but people we met seemed surprised we'd want to move out there.

We clicked more in Cambridge, NY - there we met a warm and friendly realtor who showed us a couple of houses, and people seemed more welcoming. The landscape also was a bit more New Englandish, which was attractive to us. We saw one house that might even have been suitable - although now I'm grateful we didn't buy it. It was a 200 year old beauty, with a small additional house on the side that had been lived in by the owner's parents and was very cute. The problem was that the 10 acres were extremely steep - even I realized that there wouldn't be enough flat places for a garden. I tried to talk myself into it, that this could be dealt with, but Eric's observation that his grandparents wouldn't be able to walk the land at all clinched it.

The one thing that worried us about the area was the commute - if Eric got a job at the college in question, he'd have a 45 minute drive each way - a long trip for people worried about resource use. Moreover, the nearest synagogue was in Saratoga, a like distance. Again, we tried to convince ourselves that it would work, that we could carpool or that we might be able to form a rural minyan, although almost no one seemed to know if there were any other Jews around, so it didn't look promising. The Schoharie valley area did have some Jews (among other things, until recently a religious Jewish family had run the big farm in Schoharie), and there were synagogues much closer in Amsterdam, Schenectady and Albany. The commute would be shorter there as well, and there was even a bus that ran daily from Schoharie to Albany, right past the University.

Still, I had fallen for Washington county, so I convinced myself that the obstacles were surmountable. We came home with the plan of moving to the Washington County area, and began to make a list of our requirements for a house. I still have that list:

1. Either existing space for Grandma and Grandpa or room to build (at this point we were envisioning that they would want their own seperate residence).

2. At least 10 acres. Good space for 1+ acre garden, some pasture, fencing a plus. At least 2-3 acres of woods. More is better.

3. Barn or other outbuildings.

4. No split levels or really modern architecture (we were somewhat flexible on this, but both of us preferred older houses).

5. A big kitchen

6. We want to be outside, so the house has to be in good shape, rather than requiring endless renovations.

7. Ideally a pond, stream or creek on the land.

8. At least 2 bedrooms, at least 1 full bath (we figured we could always add on).

It wasn't a very long or comprehensive list, and we were flexible on almost everything except aesthetics and land size. We didn't worry much about schools - we figured we could homeschool if they were bad (we didn't yet realize Eli was autistic). In many ways it was a naive list - we didn't know what we wanted. We would eventually get more than we expected in several ways. Among others, we got more out of the trip than an idea of where to live - we came home having conceived Simon.

Ok, To be continued....Ok, second part is up at The Chatelaine's Key


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Maybe you will mention in Part II, Sharon, but after many moves in my life it seems to me that neighbors can make or break your love affair with place. For me, it hasn't been a question of how close or far away the houses are but what kind of people the neighbors have been. We have been very fortunate in that regard, especially now in our country home (old farmhouse) neighborhood among the orchards of northern Michigan.

I think part of my reluctance to get to know the neighbors had been what do I do if I *don't* like them? Especially when I lived in town. Out here in the country, the annoying ones are much easier to avoid. [wry grin]

By curiousalexa (not verified) on 05 Jan 2010 #permalink

This story - both parts - is a great example for those of us thinking about ideal places to 'end up'. So much real life, complexity, rationality and irrationality, settling and serendipity. In the end you made everything work well enough for everyone - no small feat.

I'm still puzzling over your earlier post about considering a move to a homestead-able corner of suburbia. So hard to picture you there, partly because we've come to know you on your farm and partly because the story you've just related doesn't fit either -- more acres = better, woods, pasture, barn, etc.

Given: our needs and wants, priorities and situations change. What we don't have calls so much louder than what we do have. It's going to be interesting to keep watching your search for rightness of place. And so helpful to learn from it along the way.