Casaubon's Book

Have I Completely Lost my Mind?

It might have been Serendipity – we happened to be driving by, just Eric and I on our brief solo trip. Or it might have been the survey ribbons that went up across the road a few weeks ago – the suggestion that our neighbors who have been building a 5000 square foot house with a special dog-washing bathroom (no, I’m not kidding) are going to help finance that by selling off the plot of open land right across the street. Or it might have been the fact that our property tax assessment went up by nearly 2000 dollars this year – to almost 6K! Or it could be the fact that despite the face we’re peripheral to a flood plain that hasn’t flooded in 100 years, when our bank sold our mortgage last time, they forced us to up our flood coverage by another thousand bucks. But me, Miss “Someone has to stay and make right the places that aren’t perfect” is having thoughts about moving.

I don’t move because I do think you actually have to stay in place, and because I love my home, but I also don’t move because Eric would rather chew his own arm off, frankly. But this time, Eric is actually making the call to the realtor to go see the place. I’m not sure whether the increasing bills for house expenses or those survey ribbons drove him over the edge, but something did.

We were meandering through a small town not to far from us – we have friends nearby that we’d stopped to visit. Because we visit friends there regularly, we’ve been watching the local economy in this town evolve for some years – New York has a growing Amish community, and this town now has about 60 Amish families and is still growing. We’ve always driven throught he town and loved it and talked about how much fun it would be to live there. And across from a beautiful farm, was a for sale sign on an old house, one that looks not totally unlike ours, with 11 acres. Unlike our place, though, it has an enormous old dairy barn and the land is flat and fairly fertile.

We stopped, just for a laugh. It wasn’t serious, but we got out and walked around (the house is empty) and looked in the windows and the barn. And we laughed and drove away. And then we came home and a few days later looked again at the survey ribbons and received the flood insurance bill, and we started talking about it.

Today we drove up with the three younger kids to walk around – Simon had overheard us talking about moving, and it was upsetting him to think of a change. We figured that he’d be less upset if he could see the property and imagine what we are talking about, if he knew how far it was from synagogue (actually about the same distance) and most of our friends. And it did – he’s calmed right down. Isaiah and Asher were ready to move in the minute they saw the hayloft of the barn and the climbable maple tree in the front yard. It is Eric and I who are freaking out. It turns out that I like to look at houses, and to speculate with no intention of actually doing things. I don’t, so much, like the actual work of doing all this, of figuring out what the best thing is.

I don’t want to move. I really, really don’t want to move. I don’t want to do the enormous work of sorting out and moving our stuff. I don’t want to give up the fruit trees that are finally producing and the garden beds that we’ve spent all summer building. I don’t want to give up this place we know and the neighbors and community here. I don’t want to spend time on offers and counteroffers, estimates and budgets, insulation and moving vans – I’ve done all that. I bought a house. I built an addition. I did that stuff, and I’m done now.

But – and there’s always a but – I’m also thinking about it seriously. There are those 6K in property taxes – and our worries about New York’s budget and the possibilities of furlough or job loss. That’s a lot of money in taxes every year, and it is likely to get worse as our district struggles to cover things. There’s the flood insurance – we’d be out of the flood plain on this property, even though there is a creek. The cost of living here would be substantively lower.

Then there’s the neighborhood – slowly, gradually, the tight ties our neighborhood had when all the younger mothers in the community were home with their kids have decayed a bit as parents went back to work full time. Our long history of bartering and sharing with our neighbors has fallen apart – not because we don’t want to offer, but because they feel they can’t pay us back anymore. We are still friends, still share things – but we’ve started to feel more scattered, less integrated into each other’s lives – once we might not have been able to leave, now I think we could.

There’s the land across the road – in the nine years we’ve been here, three more houses have gone up on our road, and many more in the development across. They are nice people, but the rural character of our town is changing into something more suburban. We can live with more neighbors – but the privacy that we’ve had here is more a part of what we long for than I knew. That can happen anywhere, of course, but it is happening where we are, and agricultural neighbors, the kind that are building up our neighborhood, are rather different than suburban McMansions with dog-washing bathrooms. Or maybe they aren’t – people are people. But it seems that way sometimes.

The house we own is too big – even with one housemate, it is simply too large for six people, two of whom don’t want to spend any more time cleaning than they have to. It was right when Eric’s grandparents were living with us, but they are gone. We could take in more housemates, but it is difficult enough to live happily with friends – we could do it with strangers, but we’re a little reluctant – we worry about the dynamics in our happy home. Phil has been a delight and a blessing – but it took us nearly two years to find him.

The place isn’t perfect – it would need work – and so does our house if we are going to sell it. I shudder at the thought. All of a sudden, my whole life would be selling and packing and moving and making things pretty – I don’t want to do that, I have other things to do And how can I leave my garden, the trees just starting to fruit, the pets buried in the front yard, the memories of Eric’s grandparents? How can my kids who have known no other place move? The very thought is depressing.

But the thing that draws us most is the fact that because of the large Amish community, there’s an emerging walkability and bikeability that my area lacks – by necessity, the community is being rebuilt to a horse scale. I chatted with a neighbor, out mowing his lawn across the road. He greeted me with a broad smile. I asked about the house – he told me he’d been born there, and that his father had lived there until his death. He told me about sliding down the banister, and about the inside, which we haven’t seen except through windows.

I asked about the community – was it friendly? Oh, yes, he said, and listed off activities and things they did. Were there children? Yes indeed. How are the neighbors – excellent, and his new Amish ones, he said, were the best and kindest neighbors he’d ever had. Everyone knows each other, and they all lend a hand when someone gets sick, as his neighbor down the road did. As I headed back to the car, he waved and said he hoped he’d be seeing me again.

The house is old and underinsulated. The barn needs work, and setting it up for the goats and making it safe for the kids to roam will take more than a little time and money. The place isn’t perfect. And it comes with the painful necessity of moving. But the mortgage would be even smaller than this one, and the property taxes and insurance halved. It is less land but more fertile land, flatter. Less wooded, but older woods, with more hardwood.

I do not want to move. Part of me wants to cry at the thought of devoting so much of my time and energy to that project, and even more of me wants to cry at the thought of leaving our creek, our land, our soil, my lovingly tended gardens – even if there is new soil and gardens and a creek where we go. This has been home, and that place is strange. And yet, there’s a tipping point, a point when new possibilities start to seem possible.

I’ve got shelves now in my kitchen for my jams and jellies and bulk foods – it took six years to get them. I’ve got shelves in my dining room for my enormous collection of gardening and cookbooks – they were a birthday present when I turned 35. I’ve got my garden beds – and they are fertile. We’ve got a fence around the yard so that Eli can run. We have a cistern and a well pump. We have our pastures and our barns. We even have a sign. The sign could go with us, and so could the pump, but it feels like losing ground – we are just, finally making this what we wanted. The only problem is that things we can’t build or repair or mend or improve seem not to be working around us. We’ve got our fingers on everything in our control – but what’s out of it has an increasingly large say. But maybe that’s how it always is, maybe that’s how it would become if we were to move.

Most of all, I want to be home. And I wonder – how much do I believe in staying if I allow the cost of living here and the limitations of a neighborhood I did choose to drive me away? Is this a moment for courage of convictions or to make a change? Is our home, our farm this place, its land and its building or can our home, our farm move with us, and our sense of comfort come too? How do we tell? I have, frankly, no clue.

I really don’t. We’re seeing the inside of the house on Thursday afternoon, and in the meantime, Eric and I have been snapping at each other. We’re both in a panic – because we’re sort of serious. And we both have no idea what that means.

Here’s a picture of the house we’re going to look at, btw – you can’t see the enormous dairy barn:

the house.jpg

Further updates as events warrant.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 KiwiRach
    July 27, 2010

    thing is now you know what you want and need in a house it wouldn’t take you as long to get them in a new house as it did in your current one. You do get to take your experience with you. Leaving is always easier if you find a perfect buyer who will love your current property like you have. Making decisions is a pita — good luck on your journey to a happy decision.

  2. #2 Jill
    July 27, 2010

    I am also facing a change, and one that goes against much of what *I’ve* been preaching about. In this case, I’ve been offered an unbelievably great job that allows me to work at home and make decent money with tons of job security, which means a measure of financial security for me, my extended family, and our farm. But it also means putting my CSA on hiatus, and probably placing my happily homeschooled children into a private school (though the school is on a farm, run by a bunch of smart, peak-oil-aware folks, so that part is not so hard to swallow). But still. This opportunity has completely thrown me for a loop, and I’ve been walking around in a daze for a few weeks now.

    It has been helpful for me to make lists. I have pro-con lists for taking the job, and lists of life goals, and a plan for transforming the CSA into a community garden for my low-income/no-income friends and neighbors. I don’t know if you are going around and around in conversation with your family and friends (and with yourself in your head, oy!), but I was, and I found the whole process of list-making stressful but ultimately clarifying.

    Best of luck. Sometimes neither is a better decision. Just two happy choices, either of which would be fine, so it’s just a matter of which evils you can live with, and which would you like to avoid.

  3. #3 Christine Stone
    July 27, 2010

    Sharon,
    I’ve been reading your blog for years, and never commented before. I’d say go for it – move. What you have now is always going to be a work-in-progress, it is in the nature of the kind of life you lead. You will never live in a ‘finished’ home until you are in a tiny retirement flat :)
    So why not move the work-in-progress of your life to a new venue? The financial considerations are overwhelmingly important. I know you teach adapting-in-place, but I’m sure you would give anyone else the same advice – if you can move somewhere just as good in almost every way, with half the ongoing costs, its a no-brainer. As soon as you arrived in the new house, you would be so full of ideas for it that you wouldn’t mind at all having left behind a certain level of ‘achievement’ at the current house.

    wishing you peace and blessings
    Christine

  4. #4 aurorab
    July 27, 2010

    Things change, even in paradise.

    If you’ve spent a lot of time building up your soil, take some of it with you for your new set of raised beds! Transplant and thrive!

  5. #5 Keith
    July 27, 2010

    Sharon,
    I can sympathize with your attachments, but it seems, from here, that there are so many positives in the new possibility. I’m with Christine. Go for it.
    Much Love,
    Keith and Peter

  6. #6 Jolo5309
    July 27, 2010

    My wife and I just moved into our new place last weekend. We moved back to the city where we met because the the city we lived in didn’t feel like “home” after ten years.

    It is hard to give up what you have, but you have to stop looking back and start looking forward. Think about how great you can make the new house.

    John

  7. #7 Je
    July 27, 2010

    It’s likely now or never baby! The house looks gorgeous and until I started gardening I had o idea how much I loved flat land. I grew up in the FLAT parts of Indiana and always thought I wanted hills, etc. but now my heart swells at those flat properties. Keeping you in my thoughts during this tough decision.

  8. #8 (: Sunshine :)
    July 27, 2010

    Dear Sharon,

    Based on what you have told us, I also cast my vote for the new place.

    “…how much do I believe in staying if I allow the cost of living here and the limitations of a neighborhood I did choose to drive me away? ”

    Unless you have a billionaire relative that you neglected to mention sending you money every month, regardless of anything else, cost is a very real limiting factor. Where you are now could be paradise, but if you can’t afford to live there (or can see that happening in the not so distant future) you can’t stay. If that’s the case, better you choose that now, than be forced into it later.

    You have priceless experience that you have sweated for that you can take with you. You would be moving somewhere with the bones already in place; you don’t have to start over completely from scratch. You will have a culture/mindset/neighbours with whom you will have a great deal in common.

    Yes, the new place will need work, but with less taxes and overall operating costs, you will have extra money with which to do that – and once done (such as insulation) will be done forever.

    And you * would * be adapting in place in the new location – and perhaps better than you ever could where you are.

    The kids are getting older & can help – and if they are enthusiastic already, wonderful! You didn’t mention about Eli getting to school or Eric getting to work – would those things be equal to your present situation?

    And … this probably can’t be resolved in less than 90 days – you can still harvest your gardens, save your seeds, and take them with you. Take pictures with you. Take memories.

    But for the long haul, for the future that’s coming, it seems the new place will be better.

    Best wishes as you (& your family) work through this! Whatever you choose – a, b, or other, may you have peace in your decision.

  9. #9 Bob Sonnenberg
    July 27, 2010

    Sounds like its time to move. Makes me think about my/our own situation.

  10. #10 Sarah
    July 27, 2010

    Well, I don’t know what your current place looks like, but I’d move into that house tomorrow.

    Moving is an almighty pain, but it’s transitory. And if you think your community is moving in directions you’re not happy with then there’s something to be said for moving to a community that seems as though it’s likely to remain positive – from what I understand of the Amish, they’re not about go mad building McMansions with dog-washing rooms any time soon.

    I suspect that if you don’t take this opportunity, you may live to regret it.

  11. I sympathize deeply. I abhor moving. Detest it with every fiber of my being. There is nothing worse on the face of the earth that we voluntarily do to ourselves. And I also know what it’s like to watch fruit trees and berry canes I’ve planted begin to come into production. It would be a terrible blow to leave what I’ve shed blood, sweat and tears over in the last few years. Frankly, I don’t think I could do it unless the need were truly dire.

    But on the other hand, Sharon, you’re a mother of four, a workforce in waiting. Yes, there will be an enormous amount to rebuild, replant, replace. But you have hands that can help now, and they will only become more competent hands over the coming years, powered by young muscles. And if you have Amish neighbors too, you’ll be able to trade work in kind, no doubt. That’s worth a great deal. I’m sure a great many of your herbs could be dug up and transplanted. Maybe even a few of your fruit trees if they’re still young enough.

    Good luck wrestling with the decision. You and Eric be nice to each other!

  12. #12 Anne M.
    July 27, 2010

    My heart aches for you as we have been in this situation too many times. This will feel like the HARDEST decision you’ve made in quite awhile – and if your not COMPLETELY honest with yourself you both will regret it for a long while. Good luck & you guys will be in my thoughts during all this. I wish I could help by giving you the answer. =(

  13. #13 Tami
    July 27, 2010

    I too can attest to the “hardest decision” statement… having done it twice in my life (cross country both times)

    But each time, we closed one chapter and opened another… and while I might have left the garden and all my blood sweat and tears behind…I gained so much in knowledge and understand that I have never regretted any of it… looking forward is always MUCH better than looking behind! :)

    Be completely honest with yourselves and you’ll find your answer… My thoughts and prayers are with you and Eric as you search for your answer…..

  14. #14 Raven
    July 27, 2010

    You’re not losing your mind. And it wouldn’t be a frivolous move. Conserving resources means conserving *money* as well, since atm money translates to time. I believe you’re not being paranoid when you worry about having enough income to pay taxes, and frankly property taxes aren’t going to go down any time in the forseeable future.

    Talk. Pray. Walk. Think. And then know that your decision is the right one.

    And it’s ok to mourn what you leave behind, if that’s what you decide. Leaving a house is a small dying, almost always. It’s leaving the walls with memories in them. But at least the memories go with you.

    Semper fi. ;)

    Raven

  15. #15 tom
    July 27, 2010

    Oh boy can I sympathize. For five years we’ve put blood, sweat and tears (and no small amount of money) into our place somewhat west of yours. So far nothing as drastic as a McMansion has appeared, though they just put hideous vinyl siding on the beautiful weathered-board-and-batten farmhouse down the hill. But we’re in the eastern part of the now-renowned ‘Marcellus Shale,’ and no one is more gung-ho for drilling than one of our direct neighbors. An uphill neighbor. And he’s not alone in the enthusiasm for drill, baby, drill. If/when the drilling comes it is going to devastate the area (and likely ruin our fantastic water). We forge ahead, spending more time and money on the old house then could ever be recovered in a sale, with the economically unsound attitude that this is where we will live forever and if something is worth doing, it is worth doing right. But if/when the drilling comes we’ll likely lose much of the value of our house/land and just as likely we’ll want out. The house that has practically been completely rebuilt, the raised bed gardens, the trees planted- all left behind to start over, older, less likely to realize our vision. I have to say though, if we had the option that you appear to, and the Amish factor being no small factor, we’d probably take the loss and make the move. Seems like you might not have to take a significant loss and instead realize significant gain. Go- create a new kind of American dream and ‘trade up!’

  16. #16 Texas Reader
    July 27, 2010

    The dairy farm part was sad to read. All your reader may not be aware that the cost of producing milk is greater than dairies can sell it for, except for the really large milk producers. Many family dairies have gone out of business.

    I hear you about the property taxes. I have a 2/1 house with 1300 sf (on an 80 x 120 foot lot) in a city and pay $6,600 a year in property taxes. I sometimes think I should sell and move to the suburbs where I’d have a lot more house for the money and lower property taxes. But I love living in the city with so many great places nearby and a short commute to work.

  17. #17 Lauren
    July 27, 2010

    Yup. Go for it.

  18. #18 Roy
    July 28, 2010

    Cons: The sale of your old house in today’s market may take some time. Do you believe that the future house can be purchased on a conditional contract or are you prepared to be paying for two houses until the old one sells? That might consume a lot of the property tax savings.

    Timing of things in your life – you did not mention affect on the current book timing if you have to move before it is completed.

    Pros: Your post reads as if you already have made the decision so your heart is telling you Go For It.

  19. #19 Sue
    July 28, 2010

    One way to think about it, if you do decide to move, is to realize what a beautiful gift the current garden will be to whoever buys your current place.

    I’ve just bought and moved into a small house “in town” in a tiny town that I love (though I’m not yet used to the “in town” part of having neighbors and hearing other households’ noises…) But my future garden site is the vacant lot I bought next door. Starting from scratch (pre-scratch, even, as my first task is to remove the garbage, ack). How lovely it would have been, instead, to move somewhere and have the garden be “ready to go”, having been lovingly built up over the years by someone like you…

    Sue on the edge of the Great Basin (who has read for years, and commented before, but not for a really long time now)

  20. #20 curiousalexa
    July 28, 2010

    and just think – you have a blogs worth of people who would love to help! granted only a small fraction are within reasonable distance of you, which might help with keeping events from going totally chaotic [grin].

    Seriously, we could likely put together some pretty good work parties. And maybe even have enough energy left over to make music after!

    (The mud room in the main house where I’m at has a dog-washing shower. It’s a darn handy place for butchering rabbits!)

  21. #21 Sharon Astyk
    July 28, 2010

    Part of the difficulty is that our old place is pretty wonderful too. And the one downside is that it is a somewhat longer commute for Eric – or rather, more miles – the time may actually be about the same, but the mileage is longer (we’d be right near a major highway). Right now, about half of our mileage is local, and we’re trying to figure out how much we could cut that by living there – what the local farm and food resources are (big factor for the first year especially, when gardens won’t be as productive). If we can start really living in a much more walkable culture (not only are things closer but the land is much flatter – the very steep hills in our area make it tough for the kids to bike, for example) we might be able to make the difference almost negligible.

    Re: Eli – that’s a factor, although there is one child in his district coming from this area. I don’t think we’d get too much hassle, although his bus ride would be longer too (ironically, it would have been shorter, since the new place is closer to his current school, but they are moving in September to a new building, closer to the old house).

    Sharon

  22. #22 Eric Lund
    July 28, 2010

    If your current neighborhood is turning into a McMansion ghetto, then yes, it’s time to think about moving. I see two possible futures for your neighborhood, neither of them good. One is that your high-living city-slicker neighbors start noticing the noise and smells that go hand-in-hand with farming, decide they don’t want to put up with it, and band together to put you out of business. The other, particularly in this economy, is that the McMansions start rotting and you end up in a neighborhood where only desperate people live.

    Whether you stay or go, you should look into whether New York has any provisions similar to our “current use” laws in New Hampshire. The deal here is that, if you have ten acres or more of open space (farmed, fallow, or forested), you can get a reduction in your assessed value in exchange for a promise to keep your open space open (to take property out of current use you would have to pay several years worth of back property taxes on the difference in valuation). In a tight (for you) money environment that can help prevent Family Farm from becoming Family Farm Estates. (Yes, we have several suburban-style subdivisions around here with names containing “Farm”.)

  23. #23 Greenpa
    July 28, 2010

    Wow. Very serious stuff. My head is aching , so I’d guess yours is too.

    The chimney looks too small, to me. And check the water.

    Big barns are seductive as all get out.

    Good luck! :-)

  24. #24 Carlitos
    July 28, 2010

    Don’t stop moving until you’re in the right place.

  25. #25 Mitzi Giles
    July 28, 2010

    Home is not “things”. Home is “things tempered by people”. It’s important to control costs, it’s also important for family to feel they have a place in the new place.
    My lake cabin is more “home” than the city house, even tho the city house is coming up on 30 years and the lake cabin only 7. Increasing taxes, increasing taxes and neighborhood changes are all reasons to consider a move. If the kids don’t retch when you discuss the new place it would be a go-for-it in my mind.
    And what’s with Eric suddenly being open to moving. It’s a sign, believe me.

  26. #26 Stacy C.
    July 29, 2010

    Four of the families in my daughter’s class (including us) have moved this summer. Some of us managed to buy their dream farm (sadly, not us), some of us managed to sell over-leveraged houses (whew! and thanks Stoneleigh), and some of us just needed more/less house. Several more families in this same class are seriously contemplating a move. It sometimes feels to me like the last desperate search for a seat when you played Musical Chairs, and you just know Mom is not going to drop the needle on the recordplayer one more time, even if you ask nicely.

  27. #27 Ed Straker
    July 29, 2010

    The problem I see with moving is more ideological. Since I support the Transition Town effort, I realize that a population that is highly mobile and opportunistic will approach the problem of grinding collapse by playing a game of musical chairs. They will just keep trying to run away to greener pastures, which, if everyone does that, will just lead to those green pastures turning into deserts. At some point you have to dig in your heels and fight to the bitter end.

    But there are also more pragmatic issues. For one thing, it’s a problem because the process of soil/land restoration is interrupted. Unless Sharon tries to find someone who vows to maintain her gardens, then it will all be torn up and replaced with a lawn and ornamentals and a carport and a 2-car garage. It means wherever she goes starts from ground zero. So the whole notion of permaculture greening the world into a paradise of food forests is rendered impossible. It takes a decade or more to build a food forest and only a couple of days to tear it back down to the subsoil.

    In fact, David Jacke of Edible Forest Gardens fame already had to move at least once and never see his own personal food forest reach maturity. After Robert Hart’s death, the people who bought his place are letting his food forest revert back into nothing.

    If moving from place to place is going to be inevitable due to shifts in demographics and property taxes, then we should all just WRITE OFF the fantasy of perennial polycultures, period. When we have a nation of farmers, they will be growing all their calories the hard way, via double-digging biointensive raised beds. Not from fruit and nut trees.

    Socially speaking, all this talk about relocalization is predicated on actually staying somewhere long enough to feel like you’re a stakeholder, that you belong, that the town matters, not just your own personal welfare. If you feel you always have an escape hatch, then why would you feel motivated to do the hard work of trying to steer the titanic away from the icebergs? Nobody said it would be easy. The entire world is moving in the wrong direction and this cancer of conspicuous consumption and short-term thinking manifests itself everywhere to some degree, including areas that you may have thought were pristine little Currier and Ives time-capsules. To keep running away is to ignore the fact that these cultural issues will just creep up on you again as sprawl reaches out further and further into the hinterlands.

    I’m not saying cost issues can be ignored, but at some point you have to draw a line in the sand.

    I was ultra-critical when Carolyn Baker dumped Vermont for Colorado because back when she moved to Vermont she gave a long essay rationalizing her thoughts as to why it was the right place for her, only for her to reverse herself in a short period of time. People in the peak oil movement put themselves forward as role models and when they flip-flop like this it calls into question how good their judgment may be. Obviously there is a difference between moving a few towns over and moving to a whole different region of the country, but still. As Walt Kelly said: “We’ve met the enemy and he is us.”

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