Saturday, November 14, 2015

Urban, Suburban, Exurban

Every now and then, I fall into this daydream: I'm a few years older, sitting in the kitchen of a farmhouse, looking over the fall fields as the sun rises in the distance. I'm sipping a cup of tea. There's a dog curled around me somewhere. An open New Yorker lays on the table in front of me, but I'm not reading; instead, I'm thinking about the farm, my family, and what I need to do that day.

As the sun rises over the crest of the autumn-dried haygrass, I might pick up some knitting, or turn on the oven for muffins. My husband appears in the doorway and rumbles through the kitchen cabinets, hauling out the frying pan for bacon. Our kids are somewhere—maybe outside in a treehouse, maybe upstairs, still under the covers, reading, maybe hollering at each other, or the dog, or us.

Don't get me wrong—I love living in Toronto. Over the last decade, it's become my home: I've fallen in love here, made several homes here, started a family here. Nearly all of my friends live within the city limits, and my parents live close enough that I can see them many times each year. The city has lots going on: its density means that we can live without a car and still buy groceries. We can hop on our bikes and within a half-hour, be down at the waterfront, or in a historic/rapidly-gentrifying neighbourhood that has a 1:1 ratio of brunch places to young families, or in a park. Toronto has so many parks! Big-ass parks like Trinity Bellwoods or High Park, plus all these little parkettes, scattered through the city like dropped freshwater pearls.

But I was raised in other places—cities, small towns, and also out in the country. After four years in Calgary, we moved to Manotick, Ontario when I was in elementary school. Actually, not even Manotick proper, which, in the early 1990s, could best be described as a village; no, we lived outside of Manotick, on a rural road that faced an empty lot near the Rideau River. In a lot of ways, Manotick was terrible for me: I hit puberty there, I was bullied there, I was devastatingly lonely there. But—and this is a big, reluctant but—there was also great things about growing up in a place where I could be outside four seasons of the year, where we could play on a rope swing or have a big garden, where the neighbours had a stream in their backyard and we could go sledding in their ravine.

I don't know if I would choose to raise my kids out in the suburban countryside (and we lived a short car ride from both Ottawa and Nepean, so it wasn't like we lived in isolation). The social pool is so small, for both adults and for their kids. The amenities are few and far between—a YMCA class here, an arts camp there—and getting anywhere requires a car. Trips into the city were always glamorous, but that was because my folks planned them as outings. We'd eat McDonalds hotcakes and then skate on the Rideau Canal. There were museums trips. Compared to Manotick, life in Ottawa seemed great.

Toronto offers those same chances for us. There's just wads of culture: museums, festivals, restaurants, live shows. It doesn't have to crunch our wallets, either: we can buy an eight-dollar roti,  check out the Swedish Christmas festival, and then hit a second-hand bookstore. Factor in the price of a TTC day pass and that's still less than the cost of a movie. We get lazy, and complacent, and forget that these things are available to us, but they are, and they're a vital part of urban family life. But we miss the other half: the nature, the freedom to chuck your kids outside into the yard and say, "For god's sake, go blow off some steam," and the semi-enforced boredom that, I think, allows kids to sharpen their imaginations.The suburbs, which were supposed to offer proximity to the city's cultural gifts while still allowing for a yard, no longer provides either. When's the last time you drove around on a suburban cul-de-sac and saw a gang of kids playing outside? Most suburbs don't even bother building sidewalks. Who would use them? Let's face it: nobody walks out there.

But I still crave that rural pace. I want to be able to have a garden, a big dog, and a gang of kids that aren't tucked into a two-bedroom condo. I want to be able to walk on the beach, or stand around the firepit, or make a cardboard fort with my kids in the driveway. And I still crave that urban place, too. I want to be able to hop on the streetcar to the swap meet, to walk to the library, to see the latest Indonesian action movie on the big screen. And I'm here, already, and so it feels like that choice is to be here too. But I wonder: what am I giving up? What would another place, another pace, do to my life? To my family?

My parents have a farm now. It's not a working farm, although it does have a barn and occasionally, a local farmer will offer them cash to take their hay. My folks use it as a rental property through the summer, and then they settle in for the winter. It sleeps eight in proper beds and another four on various couches, and there's a sun porch, a huge kitchen, an enormous bathtub, and poppies ringing the front porch. There is a cozy kitchen woodstove, a massive fireplace in the living room, and a firepit outside. In the summer, a hot wind comes up and shakes the trees and makes the cicadas sing their buzzy song. In the winter, the snow drifts slowly—so lazily, in fact, that if you're not careful, you'll fail to cotton to the fact that you're getting snowed in.

There, in the mornings, all year round, it's possible to look out over the fields and watch the sun come up.

Image via Alessio Albi