In many ways, living in a small town is the best of both worlds: there's plenty of nature around, but it's still five minutes to the grocery store. And our town isn't so small as to limit what we can access very much. There might be fewer options, but we have doctors, dentists, restaurants, even a (rather minimal) hospital.
Despite that, though, we're moving 45 minutes closer to the big city, to a suburb I'm just going to call Bigger Town. Because what we don't have are jobs that pay a one-income living for a family of six. John's been commuting over 90 minutes a day for about two years now, and that's really sapped his spirit. He's tried and tried, but librarians in this area tend to make under $40,000 a year--it's a job for married ladies whose husbands also work, or perhaps older people who don't want to retire.
I'm sad about it, but I'm also trying to find the bright side in moving closer to the city. Tons of people would love to live near a city, and many would never dream of living anywhere else.
Cities are full of things to do. Museums, restaurants, concerts, big libraries, water parks, community theaters, classes for kids. The libraries have more books. The shopping district has more shops.
In the city, there are more people to hang out with. That means a better chance of finding people who share your interests. I could find a writing group near me. I hear there's even a children's Magic: The Gathering club.
Downside of all this is that there are people when you don't want to be with people. Your yard is small if you have any, and you might share walls with noisy people. The streets are never quiet. More people means less starlight and birdsong.
My relationships with humans have always been fraught. The worst thing nature has ever done to me has been a bee sting. So it's no wonder I tend to pick nature every time.
But, you know, I'm looking to relearn how to interact with people, so maybe having a lot of opportunities to do that will be Good For Me.
The tradeoff for more people is less nature. I live next to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River. It's absolutely gorgeous here, especially if you go two minutes or so out of town. Even from our upstairs windows we can see the Blue Ridge.
Seattle has a giant mountain and two large bodies of water going for it--you still get to look at some nature, even in the middle of the city. Bigger Town isn't like that. It has parks, but you have to go to them. It's flat, and I don't like flat.
Here, we have woods in our actual yard. Okay, a strip of trees, but you can climb them. We have lots of birds. We have redbuds and dogwoods and holly. When I'm feeling depressed, it's hard for me to get in the car and go somewhere. But I can sit at the window or go out in the yard and get some nature therapy. I really feel it feeds my soul.
High population density, I am told, is much better for the environment. Living closer to work means less energy use and emissions. Townhouses and apartments mean less land is taken up with housing and more can be left for animal habitats. Our yard is populated by deer and bears, but that's because their proper wild habitat is shrinking. As roads encroach into the forest, more animals are killed in road accidents. So love of nature should encourage me not to live smack in the middle of it.
And it does, but it's tough.
Small Town is more diverse than you'd think, but it's very segregated. The Justice Map shows our current neighborhood as 100% white. Just down the hill there's a little block that's allegedly 100% Black. I'm sure that's at least somewhat inaccurate, but not by a lot.
They say what you see growing up is what you expect, what you assume is normal and right. I grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood, and I think that was good for me. I knew racist garbage for racist garbage early on, because it wasn't accurate to what I'd experienced. I'd like the same for my kids.
Bigger towns and cities are almost always much more diverse. And the town we're moving to is much more shaded and speckly on the Justice Map. Feels . . . I dunno . . . more American. More representative of what this country is actually like.
Cities are more liberal. It's a reason I wanted out of the city to begin with, back when I was ten million times more conservative than I am now. Small Town is red as red can be. Trump and Thin Blue Line flags everywhere. Racist comments said openly. People lining the street to pray the rosary against gay marriage. Awkwardly, a lot of those people know me and don't know I think differently now, so I find myself constantly being assumed much more conservative than I am. I don't want to start fights, but I also don't want to smile and nod through a rant about how trans people are ruining society.
I find it ironic in the extreme that I was so conservative when I lived in Seattle and am so liberal now that I live here. Maybe I'm a little contrary. Maybe I just didn't understand just how much further right the right wing went.
Anyway, Bigger Town is about 60% Democrat, meaning it's liberal, but shouldn't be a bubble either. I would like to meet some more like-minded people.
A thing they don't tell you, when you're considering a life path, is that most college-track jobs are in cities. College specializes you, and the more specialized the thing you do, the less likely you'll be able to find an opening for it in a town of 10,000. Small towns have openings for doctors, lawyers, dentists, real estate agents, and optometrists. Teachers and librarians too, but the pay will be low. If you have student loans, you might not be able to pay them on a small-town salary.
Plumbers, cashiers, mechanics, barbers, and factory workers are needed everywhere. You can pick a town and live there; there will probably be a job for you. Though if you want to move from a small town to a larger city, you may find cost of living is a barrier.
You know all that fun stuff available in cities? The vast majority of it costs money. Whereas the entertainment available here in Small Town is largely cheap or free: hiking, wading, swimming in the creek. If we want to pay money, we can swim in the pool or rent a canoe. It's not terribly expensive.
In the city, everything costs so much more. The houses, the groceries, the activities. Making the switch is going to be tough. In Small Town, we've been living (relatively) like kings the past few years. Large house, large yard, cheap groceries. To move to Bigger Town, we will have to downsize by about 500 square feet of house and almost all the yard. We certainly can't keep up the suburban lifestyle some people manage close to the big city. Those houses are like a million dollars.
I never wanted to be rich, I just wanted to be surrounded by beauty. It took me years of adulthood to realize that beauty costs money.
The country is beautiful, right? My dream was something like this:
It turns out this costs a bundle. If you are poor and live in the country, what you can afford is more like this:
Likewise, there are beautiful, picturesque city neighborhoods, like this one:
But if you're of reasonable means, you're just as likely to live here:
So the short answer is, if you want beauty, try being upper-middle class. Or at least don't try to raise four kids on one income. The first street we lived on in this town wasn't aesthetic at all. Where we live now is much nicer, but it costs an amount that hardly anybody pays out here.
That said, there are more free beautiful things in the country. The spur of the mountains that sticks out over Small Town is one of my favorite things, and I see it any time I drive anywhere. There are lovely drives all over this area. Even just taking the kids to school means driving past people's beautifully landscaped yards, with tulips and flowering trees . . . and yes, some number of crumbling buildings and cars on cinderblocks.
I've had ten years of practice finding the beauty here. I know where it is, and I am familiar enough with the ugly bits that my eye skips over them. Whereas when I go to Bigger Town, I mostly see this:
The main drag is just one long soul-destroying succession of strip malls interspersed with used car lots. I hate it.
But, of course, there's more to the town than that. There are some lovely parks. There are cute, picturesque neighborhoods. The house we're hoping to buy is surrounded by some patches of trees, so I won't be starved for nature. And the art museum isn't very far.
And perhaps I can see beauty in some unexpected things. I always need to learn to do that more. People, for instance. That's a place beauty can always be found, but fear keeps me from looking.
* * *
I cried today, driving back from the grocery store. I will definitely miss living here. And it feels deeply unfair the way life conspires to push me away from things I want, the way none of the choices are simple and easy, the way decisions made long ago tie us down into consequences nobody wanted. I get so deeply attached to places. I'm sometimes struck with homesickness for a place I visited one time, for one week.
Small Town is going on the huge mantlepiece in my mind of Places I'll Miss Forever. And I'm going to a place that feels terrifying and strange, though I have lived there before. I worry my soul will be flattened out, stomped, suffocated.
But a line of a poem came to me, And for all this, nature is never spent. Flowers grow in crannied walls and sunsets happen everywhere. I need the Earth, but I won't be leaving her. So maybe that's going to be enough.