City-dwelling was never my thing. Where I grew up in Pittsburgh, we were technically within the city limits, but just barely. I spent a good portion of my youth hanging out with friends who lived on a little farm just a few blocks away from our house on Midland Street. Toner’s Woods was nearby, where I spent many long hours playing. I loved to go fishing, and went every chance I got. I’ve always liked, and needed, to have nature nearby – trees, green grass, some woods to wander around in. I think it was that affinity with nature that caused me to resonate so immediately with Henry David Thoreau, when I was first introduced to him in that Senior English class. He was a kindred soul in that regard.
When I had moved in with Kathy, in her apartment in Northeast Philly, there was a park a couple blocks away that fed my need to be in nature. I went jogging there regularly, and that helped a lot. But, when we moved down to South Philly, it wasn’t long before I just felt surrounded by concrete. Jogging on the streets of South Philly, which I did a lot, just didn’t really cut it. I needed trees – I needed green.
There were many things I liked about living there. We had all these little Italian family run bakeries nearby, with great bread, rolls and pastries, the best of those that you will find anywhere in the world. The restaurants were great, too. Little out of the way joints, some without even any signage outside, people just knew where they were, and you would go in to a bustling establishment, with the best Italian food around. We had the Italian Market just a few blocks away. In terms of food, living there was heaven. We had all our friends from the South Philly group living within a few blocks of us. I could walk to work in Center City if I wanted to, and I often opted to do that, instead of riding the Subway there and back. (The only problem with that was, you might get propositioned by a prostitute on the way, but other than that, it was a nice walk!) There were many cool things about it – but I craved the country, and whenever we went somewhere out of the city, I found myself dreading our return to the concrete jungle. I got the distinct sensation that it was all closing in on me, kind of like a claustrophobia.
We began making regular trips up to Kathy’s sister’s place in upstate New York, in the Catskills. They’d just recently bought a hundred year old farmhouse up there, nestled in a little dale in the hills near Woodstock, and it needed a lot of work. We’d spend long weekends helping them with all kinds of construction projects on the house; but for me, just being out of the city and out in the country was paradise. I loved the 5 hour drives up and back, and loved being there in the mountains, with trees and nature all around. I didn’t know the first thing about home repair, but my brother-in-law, Jerry, was a very skilled and resourceful individual, and I learned a lot just helping him, although I always felt like I wasn’t really of that much help.
Visiting them inspired us to start looking for a place of our own, over in South Jersey. I really didn’t think we could afford to buy our own place just yet, but I was desperate to get out of the city, so I was willing to try to make it work. I just couldn’t believe that we’d find anything we could afford. I hadn’t gotten to know Kathy well enough, yet, to know that when she sets out to do something, she usually gets it done. We found a house that they said we could afford, on a lovely ¾ acre lot, right on a lake, seemingly miles from nowhere. I immediately fell in love with the place. I had no idea how we were going to be able to afford the mortgage. All I knew was, there was green, there were trees, there was a lake, and I was in heaven. I could breathe!
This changed my commute to work from 10 minutes to nearly an hour, but I was perfectly fine with that. It was a relatively small dwelling – not really that much bigger than our 2 bedroom apartment in South Philly had been, although the kitchen and living rooms were much larger than that had been – and there was the big yard, and the lake! Our friend Polly, who lived on a farm about 20 minutes away, gave us a canoe as a housewarming gift. Our first week in the house, I went out in the canoe every night when I got home following the long day at work, made 2 hours longer with the drives to and from. We were situated down at one end of the lake, right near where a good sized stream fed into the lake. You could take the canoe about a mile upstream, through a densely wooded area. This became my favorite morning meditation spot on weekends.
We would soon discover that a lot of our friends in South Philly also loved to get out of the city, and we had plenty of company on the weekends. It wouldn’t take long before we were putting them to work when they showed up to play, as that old dwelling needed lots and lots of work. But, that didn’t deter our friends. They continued to come out every weekend, and we had lots of extra hands to help get the job done. Well, the job was never done, but we would make progress each weekend.
All our friends asked for in return was a decent meal, a rented movie to watch, and some good games to play late in the evening. We wore out Risk, Axis and Allies, and a number of games we made up. We would have games that lasted the entire weekend, in between the building and knocking down of walls, re-laying the foundation, installing insulation, replacing well pumps, evicting squirrels from the attic, and completely replacing all the plumbing, among many other projects required to keep the place standing and liveable.
Being out of the city and in the country made it all worthwhile to me. But, without adequate heating, that first winter would be rough!