It’s 8:00 p.m. on a Saturday night. Five minutes ago, I put on a headset to corral the exuberant strains of Antonín Dvořák string quartets into my ears while I write. My day began with a sunrise walk in the Gulf coast Florida pine woods near Pensacola. It’s a different world from the powdered sugar beaches some twenty-five miles south of where I sit. And a cultural universe away from the live music, theater, galleries, and clever restaurants sprouting up all over the downtown corridor. Buck and I aren’t completely off the grid, although you would have a hard time convincing friends and family of that. But everyone who comes through the old farm gate seems to like the Hardy Boys secret tree-house club feeling of closing the gate behind them and leaving the world as they know it for a few hours.
Buck’s ears work best in an atmosphere of quiet and minimal distraction, at least when a visit with conversation is in the offing. I don’t notice it anymore, or if I do, it’s part of the lovely spell here, a time out of time feeling. Maybe it’s like cooking with a light hand when it comes to salt. It may be clear to guests, but has been part of our routine for so long it’s part of the ground of our being. Besides, in our noise-polluted world, isn’t it a relief to find an island of quiet?
Earlier this year, maybe last year, too, Buck and I began what we called a “period of discernment” about whether we want to stay here and “age in place,” or to move to a more urban scene, one with a nice climate, outdoor restaurants, places to walk, access to good medical care in the event it’s needed, some place with a high “walkable” score. And a smaller house. We began to wonder if a change of scene would stimulate creativity, especially now that we’re both writing fiction; whether we might find it helpful to get ourselves out of the woods and among people more often to study their faces, body language and conversations. Whether it might surprise us and be fun.
I began to meditate upon whether it was enough to have access to “the world” via high-speed internet and occasional travel, whether walking the same paths in the same woods day after day and year after year could weave its own unique creative longevity that held value beyond interactions with peripatetic waves of people in cities, towns and planned communities.
We thought of favorite haunts we have visited over the years, from Western North Carolina and the coast of Maine, to the marvelous California coast, even southwest and central Florida. We talked about how it might be enjoyable to live in a community where you either walk, bike, or drive an electric golf cart to the book store and grocery. And so, off we went in search of what are called +55 Active Retirement Communities. There’s a ton of them in Florida. Most are easy to reject out of hand. The most impressive one had stunning landscaping, fitness centers on every corner, shopping, medical facilities of all sorts, and nice people, but it was, um, I’m reaching for just the right word here. Is it “odd?” “Suffocating?” I haven’t processed all of our visits completely yet. One place we visited, not too far from Jacksonville, we planned to stay four nights. We left after two and drove straight home without stopping, and locked the gate behind us.
We learned that Florida developers are indeed still selling alligator-infested swampland to Yankees (and everybody else). In one development, you could buy a small interior lot for $5,000, while just across the street, a lot that backed up to a
swamp, a slough, a preserve, sold for $180,000. Same size lot, by the way. The driver is whether a lot for sale is “waterfront” or “water view” vs. “interior.” The nature and quality of the water is where things get a little fuzzy. One realtor chuckled uncomfortably when I enthused about how great it was that every “waterfront” lot came with its own mud hole, alligator and community of water moccasins.
We’ve lived this rather extraordinary, solitary life out of sight of another house for so long, doing just what we please, that we’re unwilling to make trade-offs for convenience or even entertainment that we perceive would constrict our freedom and force us into social interactions that would lay claim to precious time. As age encroaches, our thinking on this may be forced to evolve, but we’re not there yet. As we walk and talk here at home, Buck reflects that he has had many wonderful friends over his lifetime, but most of them are now dead. He doesn’t believe he has enough years left to form new deep friendships, and would rather not go there. I’ve always been a loner (of the non-psychopathic variety), except for the instant and bone-deep bond I formed with Buck well over thirty years ago, so I’m good with our Edenic lives, too. We still have several treasured friends who use Pensacola as home base when they’re not living on their boats or in their land yacht RVs, and close and precious family ties. The circle of writing friends I’ve developed over the last decade is every bit as important to my sense of contentment as is walking the woods — and can be nurtured no matter where I live. That’s one of the good things about the Internet. But Buck’s parents, grandparents, a son, and a former wife are all buried in Pensacola, as are our beloved dogs. Yes, we understand they are not “here.” And yet. There is something that pulls us to stay, something that has more to do with the living, with family, and with the look of a big-eyed fawn, the music of the bold spring, and the feel of connection when a hawk flies low and waggles its wings. Leaving the woods for some shiny place elsewhere feels like it might be an unmooring we would regret, one that couldn’t easily be put back together.
And so, we’ve come to a decision, at least in a loose, general sense. It is this: we’ll sell this wonderful, way too big house sometime in the next year or so, and then build what we’re calling a tree-house deeper in our own hundred-acre wood. The house we’re in now is set in an open area, a clearing. The site we’re looking at is closer to the natural spring, and the small house we would design and build there will slip right in to hide among the big hardwoods and pines. The lawn will be the leaves which have been softly layering for centuries. We’ll make a path to the spring and build a tiny sitting deck overhanging it, a place for talk, writing, coffee or cocktails. Or simply listening to the music of the stream. Not a bad way to melt back into the earth when that time comes.