Friday, December 23, 2011

City Mouse, Country Mouse

by Sheila Connolly

I've always lived in the suburbs.

That sounds like the first line of a bad novel, doesn't it? But it's true—for most of my life I have lived somewhere on the outskirts of a city—New York, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco. I sometimes joke that I can't sleep without the sound of a commuter train rumbling by, because there has been one close enough to hear as far back as I can remember.

One of Aesop's fables tells the tale of the City Mouse and his cousin the Country Mouse. City Mouse of course thinks his lifestyle is the better one, but Country Mouse disagrees (after being confronted by two large and angry dogs at City Mouse's residence) and goes home to his less opulent but more peaceful place.

But what do you do if both sides appeal to you? Every time I visit New York or Boston or Philadelphia, I remember the excitement of a city—the richness of the cultural assets available all the time (if you can afford them); the ease of getting around, whether you prefer broad sidewalks, buses, trains or even taxis; the wealth of restaurants; and even the interesting food from street vendors (roasting chestnuts in New York, hot pretzels with mustard in Philadelphia). There's an almost physical boost that you feel from all that energy around you.

But then, I love the country. I've never been sure why, since I had little experience with it in my early life. My mother spent her high school years on a farm in Maine and hated it, so much so that she never went back. We were once driving together somewhere—Massachusetts? New Jersey?—and I was admiring the landscape, and she said "I hate the country." But I was always in love with rolling hills and open fields and…maybe it was the absence of people. Being alone has never frightened me.

The first time I visited Ireland, it felt like coming home. I likened it to putting on an old shoe—it was familiar and comforting, and I just slid into it like I belonged. Is there such a thing as an inherited memory? I found myself standing on the land where my Connolly ancestors lived for centuries—which still looks much like it would have when they were there—and saying to myself, how could they have left? Okay, maybe they were too busy trying to eke a living out of raising sheep and cattle on too-small fields to admire the view, but it had to have been imprinted on them from birth.

So here I sit, on the outermost reaches of a Boston suburb, with a commuter line that runs at the top of my street. If I could go anywhere I wanted, where would it be? Luckily for me I do it in my head, because I'm writing three series. The Orchard Mysteries are set in one of my favorite areas of western Massachusetts (where I had many generations of ancestors), where streets still bear the names of the farmers who settled there first, where small towns cluster around a green where the settlers' livestock grazed, and later the militia mustered for the Revolution. And I write the Museum Mysteries, set in the heart of Philadelphia, where I can revisit any number of the interesting museums, both large and small, as well as historic sites such as Independence Hall. And I'm going to be writing a series set in Ireland, where the past and the present collide in interesting ways: people who live in a stone cottage built in the 18th century have a satellite dish on the roof. They may work in a high-tech industry, but they still know when your great-grandfather emigrated. I get to enjoy each vicariously (with a few real visits thrown in—research, you know).

So which do you prefer? City or country? And may you find yourself where you want to be this holiday season!


Leslie Budewitz said...

I believe I live just where the Universe intended me to be: in a modern house strongly reminiscent of an old farmhouse, on eight acres in the woods at the base of the Swan Mountains. Definitely country! But I wouldn't trade my small-city childhood in Billings, Montana or my young adult years in Seattle -- both the perfect places for those times in my life!

And yes, it's white outside, but not at all frightful!


Julia Buckley said...

I love visiting the country, but I couldn't live long away from all my modern conveniences. I'm in a perfect location, which is close to downtown Chicago, but still far enough into the suburbs that I can drive just as far in the opposite direction and see farmland.