I was born in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge in 1957 (that’s what the cars looked like back then) and I spent the first eight years of my life within a stone’s throw of New York City.
Then I think my father’s business began to take off and our family moved 50 miles south to a town on the New Jersey coast. It was still suburbia and it was close enough to NYC to see the skyline on a clear day but it wasn’t really part of the concrete jungle.
Even then I think I was aware that this was an improvement – we actually had a lawn and a back yard – and I’ve spent most of my life trying to avoid the spirit-numbing experiences of city living.
I’m giving you this little autobiography now because it occurs to me it is probably the opposite of what most people here have experienced. I mean the much more common experience seems to be to grow up in the countryside or in a village and then to move to more and more built up areas because that’s where the schools and jobs are located.
Oh yeah, the other reason I’ve been thinking about urban living is that I’m about to base myself 12 kilometres south of Birmingham, England’s second largest city, so that our family can be together while my girls complete their secondary education and possibly move on to attend university in the UK.
Anyway, the prospect of being surrounded by bricks, concrete, asphalt, cars and exhaust fumes for the next few years is less than attractive, but I have to say I’m not nearly as worried about my sanity as I was a few months ago.
That’s because the house I bought in Solihull is less than a kilometre from one of the nation’s major canal systems and I’ve discovered the sounds of the city disappear when I descend the five or so metres to the dirt (mud?) footpath that runs along the waterway and it only takes about 30 minutes to get to a path that heads off into a tree surrounded pasture.
Okay, so the pasture is also tucked between the M42 and Birmingham International Airport, but there really aren’t that many planes and if you use your imagination the muffled motorway noise can almost sound like a rushing river.
City living can be very attractive – schools, jobs, lots of shops and other conveniences – but it can also be very bad for our souls. When I first contemplated moving to England I referred to a Taoist meditation book to see if that eastern religion had any useful advice on how I could deal with city living. Here’s what I found in an entry entitled Environment:
“There are some metropolitan areas famous for their power, their sophistication, their history, their places in civilization…Some people who live in these places become interested in spirituality. They want to know if it is possible to reach high levels in deeply urban areas. The answer is no.”
That really cheered me up; but then I read another one called Leisure that said:
“Out in the woods (bush), in the mountains or even in small villages where the times are slow paced and the people sensitive to nature there is the possibility of knowing the profound.” Anyway, that gives me hope that with a bit of planning I might be able to cope with the environmental change.
My point, I guess, is that we would all be wise to organise our lives so we can spend a bit of time each day with ourselves and with nature – even if that just means getting up before dawn to gaze at the stars and watch the sunrise – and we should get out of the city and spend time at our personal cattle posts whenever possible.