Pastoral Fantasy

I was talking to Physics Friend M. recently and she asked if I was still caught up in the question of whether or not to move to the country. For most of the time I lived in New York I always thought I was on my way somewhere else. Like almost everyone I liked the idea of living abroad, or maybe California. Alex always had in his head that he'd return to Brazil. But mostly my dreams of faraway places weren't grand, and the places themselves weren't that faraway. What I idealize--if you can't tell from all the previous entries of this blog--are small towns, something like the town where I grew up. I like the idea of a place Wally can play outside without adults around, the way my sister and I did at his age. A place where you can slip outside in your pajamas at dawn and the world is quiet, and you feel like you own it. A place where you just go to Kindergarten, and then on to First Grade, and then eventually middle school and high school. You just go. There's no discussion about it. No crazy testing for 4th graders, no preschool interviews, no toddlers wearing bow-ties and carrying around their resumes. 

A place where you can walk in the woods, if you feel like it, or play by a stream. Where you can read poetry by yourself on the back porch as the sun goes down, where you can dig in the garden and hear the thoughts in your head. Where you sit bored, staring out the window, wondering what you can do. And then use your imagination to figure something out.

Lately Wally's been saying he wants to live in a house, and to live with our dog Sky again. I swear I haven't put these things in his head, at least not directly. Maybe they are fragments of things I whisper in my sleep. 

He's also been asking when we can "jump into a book". Sadly, I think this is something he may have gotten from TV. But it's a lovely idea. I told him we can--anytime. Just by using our imagination. He's not completely sold on it.

Sometimes I wonder if it's lack of imagination that draws people to cities. If they don't have enough going on internally, so they need all the noise and commotion and stimulation around them. Or conversely, could it be lack of imagination that keeps me fantasizing about the country? Just now Physics Friend M. sent me this awesome article How to Be a Pioneer Woman Without Ever Leaving the Couch from the recent Times Magazine. I love how it exposes the trend of moving to the country, homeschooling, and homesteading, as a kind of separatism that gives up on the idea of community.

The author Heather Havrilesky talks about the wildly popular blog The Pioneer Woman, a somewhat sensationalized account of life as a wife and mom of four on an Oklahoma ranch. If you're looking for quiet and an escape from commercialism, you won't find it at that site where dates for her cookbook tour, TV appearances, youtube videos, commentary on Celebrity Fashion and Movie trivia abound. The quiet country life is a booming industry at this ranch. Heather indicates as much-- "The Pioneer Woman may not be a portal into a simpler, better life so much as a carefully art-directed, commercially sponsored fantasy" -- but that's not the point of Heather's piece. 

Few of us are really going to break out from our easy high rise/Whole Food lives and go try our hand at chopping wood and eating what we can manage to catch. Heather is more interested in what the idealization of life in the country implies, and how it could be put to better use. "...this pastoral fantasy understandably looms big and bright and beautiful in the face of our hunched, bleary-eyed, flickering-screen lives," she writes. 

Earlier in the article she quotes the British theorist Terry Eagleton who asserts "that the pastoral is 'largely the creation of town dwellers. It is the myth of those for whom the country is a place to look at rather than live in.'"

What can we learn from "the pastoral fantasy"--if Eagleton is right, primarily a construct of those who don't live there? Perhaps that it's a construct that veers away from optimism about the future.

Heather continues:

"...this dream of purity and separation also feeds a delusion: that isolation is the most honorable choice, that dropping out (with the help of your husband’s 20,000-acre ranch) is somehow more valiant than working slowly to reform, to collaborate, to hope for better."  

“Working slowly to reform, to collaborate, to hope for better” would be a great motto for a new movement on trying to live a country life (or idealized version) in the city. A commenter on the article ties it to what is in fact a new movement -- New Domesticity (she's got a book coming out on it) -- but I think that's more about canning jam and knitting mittens -- kind of hipster craft stuff, but still a neat cross-over.

After I told Physics Friend M. how I had finally given up the idea of moving to the country, at least for now, she sent along that article. Why did I give up the idea of moving? One, because the indecision was becoming paralyzing –can’t apply to grad school because we might move, etc. And two, because I was missing out on all the great chances for Anne Lamott’s quiet moments right here in the loudest place on earth. And three, because here, on this tiny island, I can live in a greener way than I could live almost anywhere else. For one, I don’t need a car. Moving out to the country, or a small town, in search of a simpler, more earth friendly lifestyle, and then buying a car would be ironic, wouldn’t it? (Real irony, not the Alanis Morisette kind. Hate how she ruined that word.) I mean that takes the image of bookshelves collapsing under the weight of books on decluttering to a new level.

I walk Wally to school every day. Sure, in the pastoral fantasy, that’s what you do. But how many people out there in the country actually do that? We stop and see the violet flowers on the way. We hear seagulls overhead. He tells me “the sun is following us”, and it is, through the giant buildings, that to him appear like castles. (See? You can jump inside a book, any time.)

It’s another version, I suppose, of the zen you bring to the mountaintop. Physics Friend M. was telling me about a meditation teacher who forces you to learn to meditate surrounded by people. At first students resist – the whole point is you need peace and quiet and need to be centered and bladdy blah blah. No, the teacher says, you have to still the voices in your head even when real voices are all around you.

What a great lesson. Anyone can be still out by the bumbling brook. How about walking through a construction site at Herald Square in rush hour in the rain? Try being still then.

Quiet and peaceful out by yourself in the middle of Yosemite? That's too easy. Makes me think of that line from City Slickers about what ice cream to pair with what main course. Hah – I’d always remembered it as “Challenge me”. But here it is, from the Internet Movie Database:

Ira Shalowitz: Barry can pick out the exact right flavor of ice cream to follow any meal. Go ahead. Challenge him.
Mitch Robbins: Challenge him?
Barry Shalowitz: Go on.
Mitch Robbins: [shrugs] Franks and beans.
Barry Shalowitz: Scoop of chocolate, scoop of vanilla. Don't waste my time.

So, for now. Challenge me. Let’s live a simple, quiet life here in the city. With greenmarkets, stargazing on the High Line, finding friends outside—no scheduled playdates!—planting seeds in little pots and watering them every day.

When I think about staying in the city, and trying to live like we inhabit the landscape of our pastoral fantasies, I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s lines in Questions of Travel. In it, the traveler writes:

"’Is it lack of imagination
that makes us come 
to imagined places,
not just stay at home? 

Or could Pascal have been not entirely right 

about just sitting quietly in one's room?’”

Which of course begs the question, what did Pascal say about sitting quietly in one’s room? Here it is. “All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”

I don’t know if I’d agree all of our miseries stem from that inability, but certainly a lot of them. And I can’t help it, even with this decision to stay in the city and try to be green and not consume too much and keep the days and nights wide open with space, the one thing that always seems to be lacking – I still long for the quiet room. But the meditation teacher would scoff at staying quiet in a quiet room. Bring on the sirens, barreling trucks, intolerable itsy-bitsy storytimes and droning helicopter parents. Challenge yourself. Collaborate with others who are likeminded. Don’t leave in a huff because kindergarteners don’t have recess anymore. Start writing letters. Band together. Join a community garden. Make things better.

Heather ends her piece this way (the sky as described in the profile of Pioneer Woman’s world): “And we can still see that Maxfield Parrish sky from town; we just have to remember to step outside and look up at it a little more often.”

We even saw Mars the other night. Mars! From our window, with the naked eye. Wally said, “There’s something glowing in the sky.” He remembers to look up at it. Kids almost always do.

Gardeners at work on the High Line
Hudson River Park, Sunset 


  1. there's a lottery for our local school and we live in the boondocks. plus testing goes on everywhere.

  2. As always, you give me life, and reason enough to stay--

  3. i wrote a blog entry about the school ridiculousness in NYC once...and someone from kentucky commented how people camp out outside the nursery school to get a place (first come, first serve in the morning). Also in my small town, kids are getting aba. i really do love nyc for all i grumble sometimes.

  4. Maggie -- guess that's just another part of the grass-is-always-greener fantasy that would pop the minute I settled down into Anytown, USA. Maybe The Grass is Greener in New York should be a post soon. all the ways that it is. (realize I'm mixing topics now - one is the craziness of schools/achievement and the other is the earth friendly/green stuff

    k.b.e. - amazing...i wish you would.

    Bearette: applied-behavioral-analysis therapy- you mean kids with special needs, or just in general, parents secure the therapy for them to advance them along in a small town, as well as in NYC

    hilarious about the kentucky nursery school camp. i do like hearing stories like that. reminds me about just how widespread this stuff is. and how much control we have over how we spend our days. can't have the excuse that - if I were out in kentucky, i wouldn't be worrying about getting into kindergarten. (even saying it sounds so dumb...."getting into kindergarten")

    i'll never forget an email from a friend living in the NH boondocks that outlined the crazy, hectic, minute-to-minute breakneck speed schedule they have. i had just assumed they had the endless, quiet days watching butterflies hatch (speaking of, got to see that last week at the Natural History museum -- never saw it for all the time I spent out in real fields)

  5. scheduling playdates is the only way they happen for us


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