No Place Like

How are you supposed to build a life?

“Noroton Heights. Darien. Rowayton.”

My son brought a birch branch back on the train to New York.

“Westport. Green’s Farms.”

We took Metro North to Connecticut to our friends’ new house. Tired of the tightness of New York and the effort of life it requires, they sold their apartment and had a house built about an hour north.

New York is a hard place to come to and an even harder place to leave. Soon after you arrive here, the city recalibrates your tolerances in your sleep. You soon find yourself fine with reheating takeout noodles in a kitchen where the oven and refrigerator doors can’t be open at the same time. Eighty-plus percent of your money goes to rent those overlapping doors, but you tell yourself that it’s where you live, after all, where you sometimes sleep. Everything is staggeringly expensive yet you somehow find yourself in line for all of it. Desires lose touch with needs, but you’re too busy letting the city teach you how to desire.

If (like us) you’re not from New York, having kids here can remind you of a healthier needs/desires ratio that informed your own childhood, but you can just as easily find reasons for yourself to stay. Okay, sure, if you and your spouse don’t sleep in the living room so that your kids can have the one bedroom near a good school, you know someone who does. But you can walk them to that good school, you say to others so you yourself can hear, and the neighborhood bagels are outstanding. Yes, day camps and swim lessons and tennis-court time cost more per hour than a veteran attorney (and fill months in advance), but how many languages can the kids hear on the subway? And don’t forget all the museums — the crowded, expensive museums.

My wife and I have talked about leaving New York for years, either for some valence of suburb or for a different state altogether. We’ve gotten close, too — almost houses in Dobbs Ferry and Ardsley, then almost in a couple of San Diego neighborhoods — but the job didn’t come through, or when it did, it wasn’t firm enough to support the weight of our Leave New York wishes. We have stood in so many for-sale living rooms, the ghosts of other people’s couches in old carpets and older wood floors, agreeing with each other that if we’re going to move here, we might as well go to California, or to the moon. And so we stack the suitcases back in the hall bathtub on top of the un-shelved books and reserve rolls of toilet tissue, and mark more time in our apartment.

Our friends’ house somehow feels both new and comfortable, and more window than wall. We come in through the garage into a mudroom designed to decontaminate kids, and we abandon our shoes and jackets in built-in cubbies. We get the tour. The main floor runs open and airy from mudroom to kitchen/dining to living room, ending in a sun room that shares the fireplace with the main space. The kitchen appliances, all high-end and familiar from our own desires, form a pleasing and utilitarian work triangle. Up the stairs off the double-height center hall we see that each of the three daughters has her own room decorated similarly but inflected with sufficient difference to reflect early individuality. The generous master suite accommodates non-bedroom furniture, including a couch and chairs for just sitting or whatever. The parents each have their own closet that approaches the size of our apartment’s living room. Outside we see where pavers will go to make a patio, anchored by the grill fed from a natural-gas line that our friend uses to smoke his own beef jerky.

We eat some jerky. It’s delicious. They seem happy.

Anxious to show the superiority of life beyond New York, their two oldest kids pull our kids away to the finished basement and to air hockey on one of those heavy tables like something from an arcade and to the stand-up video-game cabinet that plays all the PacMans, then out to the garage to take turns running a small-but-fast electric go-kart up and down the driveway.

The adults hang around the kitchen island working through Bloody Marys and beers, looking every now and then out the window toward the kids. We start a fire in the fireplace with an outdated New York Times, not so much against the cold but because we can. My wife and I remember how to be in a house; we let the edge of our inattention expand out to the property line, wherever that is.

Their acre plot abuts a nature preserve. The ground in back slopes down to a creek that divides yard from preserve, then rises up further than it began into white birch trees. Without their leaves the trees look wan but still dignified, as birches do. When the weather warms, the leaves will come back thick enough to keep the ground in shade. Unlike New York, which has been plowed and shoveled and commuted through, they still have snow when we visit, and the covered ground makes the whole area look more forest than yard, like a place no one has yet gone.

Our kids have grown up in New York, where the edges of things have been set by others in right angles, and they know nothing of creeks. They borrow boots that fit well enough and head out with the others to see what they can pick up and poke, which turns out to be a lot. Take your time, we say. We watch them out the window as they disappear down into the horizon like ships off to find the edge of the world.

Frost claimed that one could do worse than be a swinger of birches. He was, like always, talking about poetry as much as anything. But what he got right in the telling, where he and I agree, is the preference to believe that trees lean because of some boy or girl, “whose only play was what he found himself.” And like Frost, I find it hard not to come back to the truth.

The Edison bulbs glowing in a neat line over the kitchen-island counter top made of some material I can’t identify, the whole-house integrated sound system obeying an iOS remote, the walk-in pantry not even full. They found new schools, new stores to sell them milks and meats in various percentages of fats, new doctors and hair stylists to help them worry about their bodies. They have new favorite restaurants, favorite chunks of beach along the sound (just a five-minute drive), a mom-and-pop place with quirky serving trays and matching bowls to slide into their capacious cabinets. They have someone coming on Monday to lay the last lines of glass tile in a half bath. I arrive at the feeling I have now and then, the one where I’m convinced that I have no idea how to build a proper life, one involving the right amount of human flourishing for those involved, with reasonable needs being routinely met, and with desires that aim at the appropriate amount of unreasonable. I remain unclear as to how we got to where we are and how anyone could go about making it otherwise. I just want to retreat to the edge of a creek, find a tree to climb, get away from the earth a while.

But as I was going to say when truth broke in, my son found a birch branch across the creek, white and smooth as a bone, and wanted to bring it home. I have enough boy left in me to honor the want. Almost tall as he, he kept it close in the crowded train car, leaning it on end and cradled in the crook of his arm while he worked apps on my phone. The up end shows not just how old the branch was, but how the tree lived until something broke it into a stick.

At home, he takes his knife to it right away and strips off the last bit of bark from the end that was the tree, carefully, so as not to leave a cut in the wood. The underneath is darker than the rest. He finds a corner and tries some angles until it stands and stays. He seems to know what he’s doing.

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