When Alan and I moved to the country, time reversed in many ways. While there are pockets of civilization about, much of life remains caught in an earlier era. The air is clearer, the sounds are quieter, and the pace of life relaxed, if not occasionally downright arthritic.
A few differences stood out almost immediately: there are no leaf blowers or car alarms, and sirens are the exception rather than the rule. And most notably, no one honks their horn. I suppose it’s considered brash or impolite in a land where nature routinely speaks louder than machine.
And speaking of driving, people come to a near complete stop before making a turn. I’m not sure why this is, but it is consistently true. In the city, drivers peel around corners as if they’re on a roller coaster, their bodies lurching to the opposite site. But not here. Even right turns with no traffic in sight are punctuated by a long pause in the middle, perhaps to reflect on the new direction one’s life is now taking.
Things are contemplative like that out here. You notice things you simply can’t see in the city. Nature surrounds you in a way that makes it impossible to disregard. You take in the tilt of the earth and the arc of the sky simply because there is so much sky to behold. When the storm clouds roll in, their full violence is on display. You can tell precisely how fast they are moving and see just how little is in their path to slow them down.
In the city, you can only see one small window of sky at a time, with houses and buildings blocking a larger view. It’s like a chess board with only one square visible. But in farm country, the fields sprawl for miles and expose a whole world above you. On a clear night, you can see the Milky Way floating across the darkness from one edge to the other. It’s hard not to reflect when confronted by the vastness of the Universe itself.
When I lived in the city, I paid little attention to the seasons. My heating bill went up or down, but my thermostat stayed the same. I knew intellectually that the days grew shorter or longer, but aside from morning drives in the dark just after the time change, I didn’t pay it any mind. When it got dark, I flipped a switch.
In the country, the seasons are unmistakable, regardless of the weather. In the summer, the sun sets on the north side of the outbuilding. In the winter, it shortens to the far southern end of the farm. In the summer, everything flourishes. Plants are lush, bees are busy, and everything bursts into color. In the winter, life becomes as stone cold hard as ice on pavement. The fields become a shifting landscape of sculpted snow blown about by icy winds. They smack hard against your face because there is simply nothing in their path to stop them. In the summer, the birds in the morning are full of song, and the frogs in the evening are nearly deafening. Nature is peaceful, sure; but don’t believe for a moment that she is quiet.
Most of the differences out here I welcomed, but one caught me by surprise: there is a deference to men which I find curious. I am Mrs. Block in these parts, no matter my last name. I am my husband’s wife, rather than simply a woman who happens to be married. Clerks hand my credit card back to Alan for reasons I will never comprehend. This has happened enough times that I rarely shop alone anymore, lest they give it to the nearest male stranger by mistake. Every interaction with a handyman has ended with a request to speak to my husband, and that’s if they regard me at all. Some days, I render the menfolk mute.
When we had a pond dug in our orchard last year, two men appeared on a sunny morning with a backhoe and a front loader. Alan had shown them roughly what he wanted, but told them I’d be there to guide them on digging day. On the morning they arrived they got straight to work, moving massive amounts of earth in short order. In the time it took to blink, there was a pile of dirt tractor-high mere inches away from Alan’s beloved garden, the front loader shoving it forward.
I ran outside with arms flailing, and breathlessly explained that the dirt was to go in front of the garden, not on it. I gestured to the massive empty space of grass. One man nodded silently, the other averted his eyes and stared at the sky until I stopped talking. I said my peace then walked back to my studio. I glanced back in time to see the front loader bury the asparagus patch. I flailed again. This time I explained in loud, monosyllabic tones what I thought should be obvious: DON’T PUT THE DIRT ON THE GARDEN. One man finally broke his silence: my husband had told him to put it there, he thought, so that was that.
It’s not often that I raise my voice; I suppose I consider it brash and impolite like a car horn in the country. But sometimes it’s simply the only way to be heard. By nature, I’m a peaceful sort – but don’t believe for a moment that I’m quiet.
An odd appetizer to this manly main course is the need to strike up a conversation with the womenfolk before getting down to business with the men. And not just the how are you / fine sort of prattle. Our mechanic will spend 20 minutes on the phone calling me darlin’ and chatting about family and farm animals before asking to speak to my husband about my car.
This same pattern has been true for nearly every plumber, electrician, or construction worker I’ve come across. It’s as if my husband needs to give the final seal of approval for any sort of work, even if I’m the one writing the check. Some chat more than others, but in the end, no matter how fluently I speak about the issue, the discussion ends with a whelp, have your husband get back to me.
The last time I took my car in for a repair, I mentioned that the calipers might be sticking. I could hear squealing when I stepped on the brakes, but it would continue even after I resumed driving. The pattern rang familiar as I’d been down this road before. The mechanic looked it over, but told my husband my brakes were fine – maybe it was just a rodent I heard? The squealing turned to grinding, and the car went in again – this time perhaps a bit of metal was caught in the wheel? By the time it was so loud you could hear me coming a mile away, the mechanic chatted with me about the weather and whatnot before pulling my husband aside and asking discretely if I had mentioned any loud noises. Her calipers are rusted through, he said; I’m surprised she never noticed.
When I was building out my studio, I hired a carpenter to make the trusses. I described the sort of supports I wanted: a steep pitch with a high cross brace and enough depth to insulate. I’d seen this style before, but didn’t know the name. I tried to convey this over the phone without the aid of pen and paper, and we talked in contractor circles for a moment. Then at one point I slipped and said “joist” instead of “truss”. The conversation dropped like a rock and my facade came crashing down like a house of cards. I knew the difference, but it was too late. My inner girl had been revealed. After a long pregnant pause, the discussion ended with a have your husband call me.
I think what I find most confusing is that this deference to men doesn’t mesh with the rest of my impressions of country life. Women are not on the sidelines fanning themselves and languishing about. They work strenuously, own their own businesses, and are often the pillar of strength in a relationship. They don’t shy away from hard labor, either. They are at least as likely to take on physical work, swinging around 50 pound bags of feed, hauling firewood, or tending livestock. These aren’t for the faint of heart – I’ve tried lifting feed bags and I can’t go over 40 pounds, and even then only once, after which I collapse like a spent rubber band.
Perhaps I should just accept this manful life. Let my husband run interference and kick up my feet now and again. But this goes against every fiber of my being, and against the self-sufficiency that people out here – and I – deeply value.
I suppose my challenge at its core is an identity crisis. I was a single mom for much of my adult life. Self-sufficiency was my mantra. Not because it came naturally, but because I had to be. Raising a daughter on my own meant finding ways to make it work. Part of it was sheer necessity, part was a desire to show her she was capable as well. I learned you can move pretty much any piece of furniture with a bath towel and a bit of leverage. You can open a stubborn jar if you pop the suction first with a spoon. And you can tackle most any project regardless of size if you just chip away at it long enough.
A bit of naivety helps as well, I suppose. If you don’t know how hard something is, you’re more likely to see it as possible. I certainly made my life more interesting by not having a clue what I was getting myself into. I once gutted my kitchen down to the studs thinking I’d just remodel it myself. It started as a simple repair, until I realized that the cabinets were crumbling and the plumbing was leaking and I should probably deal with the electrical while I was there. By the time I was staring down a gaping hole of a room, I realized the enormity of the situation. It took two full years of dogged persistence, but in the end, that kitchen was glorious.
When the recession hit and I was downsized out of a job, I remember feeling oddly calm about the situation. People who’d had their hours pinched back were in hysterics, but I felt like I was solving a puzzle. It’s not as if life had suddenly become difficult – it hadn’t been a cakewalk in the first place. I had been supplementing my income for a while by selling artwork; maybe I’d just do more. I’d give it a try, at least. I put my head down and got to work.
As I dove into my new self-employed status, I made it work because I had to. There weren’t any other options. I had a child to feed and a mortgage to pay. If necessity is the mother of invention, it is the grandmother of empowerment. There wasn’t any time for self-doubt – there was simply too much to do.
As I was greeted by pockets of success, I faced an attitude I hadn’t encountered before: people assumed I was married because I was successful. I was called an “artist wife”. I was told how lucky I was that my husband let me do what I did. But I wasn’t even dating at the time, let alone married.
These were not unenlightened people – they were more often than not women, and those on the front line of a feminist fight. I suppose they felt they were applauding my freedom to choose my own path, even if that meant being supported by a man – never asking whether or not that was even the case. I tried not to take offense, to squelch the thought that they might think I hadn’t worked hard enough to earn my own success. I clenched my teeth and worked harder.
By the time I met Alan several years later, my “I got this” had calcified into a knee-jerk response to prove myself. Self-sufficiency was no longer about survival; it had tapped into my self worth like the roots of a weed wrapping tightly around my identity. It took a lot of gentle unwinding to loosen its grip.
We married a few months before moving to the farm, and I adjusted to country life and marriage side by side. I insisted on keeping my last name lest I lose my hard-earned identity, but I quickly felt it slip through my grasp. No one knew me out here. There was a strong sense of community, but it wasn’t mine. No one had any real sense of who I was or what I did. After having been married only a handful of months, I was suddenly relegated to the secondary role of Alan’s wife. It was a shock to the system, and complicated to navigate. Four years in, I’m still finding my way.
In the city, your identity is wrapped up in your profession. Go to any social event and you will first be asked what you do. In the country, it’s about community. Conversations with strangers invariably revolve around who you know and how they’re doing. No one bats an eye if you don’t hold a traditional job, and I’m sure there are many people who think I don’t. It wouldn’t matter to them if I kept house or reared children or tended animals all day – it’s just the way it is. But it makes me ache to my core. I am my accomplishments. For better or worse, this is how I’ve always valued myself.
Alan is aware of the dynamic out here, though he thankfully doesn’t participate in it. He tells me stories of his childhood, when his family rented a farmhouse from a Lithuanian woman who worked the land well into her 100’s. She would bake him fruit pies and bring him dinner. Not his sisters, him. He was the only boy, so thus the patriarch of the family. He was also the youngest, which meant he ate it up – both figuratively and literally. He had a rude awakening in college when he was called out on his male-full behavior, and has been an enlightened gentleman ever since.
When he and I first met, I owned more power tools than he did. Actually, I still do. Instead of feeling threatened by this, he thought it was great – who wouldn’t want a wife with lots of tools? He has never thought me incapable of something just because of my chromosomes. He has always viewed me as a peer. But he also gets the menfolk thing in that “just the way it is” kind of way, as he quietly hands me back my credit card.
When I built my studio, I initially insisted on building it entirely myself, if only for the bragging rights. Alan assured me this was utterly ridiculous, for any number of good reasons. Sheer stubbornness does not a good decision make. Besides, we were married. What was he supposed to do, just watch? We were a team. He insisted that I could call the shots, he’d just play a supporting role. It was the first time I’d experienced a relationship like this. As we found our cadence, we developed a rhythm akin to dancing, both moving in a coordinated direction but never losing our autonomy.
The project was massive, and the learning curves were huge. We pored over how-to guides for everything from insulation to installing windows to how many cap staples to put in a sheet of house wrap. There was no expert here; we learned together, on the fly. But for better or worse, he deferred to me. It’s your space, he said. You have the say.
Slowly but surely, the structure neared its completion. When a neighbor admired it one day, he asked if we’d had it built, or did my husband do it for me? I froze, waiting for the third option – that I might have somehow been involved.
Alan and I sat together by the pond one day, after the rains filled in the hole the men had dug. A female mallard splashed in for a gentle landing, then hobbled up the bank. She must have a nest nearby, I mused. Her limp gave her away. Sitting on eggs for long periods of time will do that to you. The male was nowhere to be found. I imagined him off squawking with the ladies somewhere about family and farm animals, then asking to speak to the menfolk. I wondered how she might feel about it.
On the farm, the male animals are purely ornamental – colorful, but not terribly practical except to make more of their kind. We have a rooster named Fandango with bright copper feathers and a long green tail – he spends his days doing utterly nothing of use. He defers to Alan, but puffs up his feathers with bravado and crows loudly whenever I walk by as if to yell at me. I suppose you could say he’s being protective, but mostly he’s just an angry ball of testosterone, showing his worth through his pretentiousness. It’s the hens who lay the eggs, tend their chicks, and go quietly about their business.
I glanced back toward the mallard to find her camouflaged among the grasses, invisible to anyone who didn’t know precisely where to look. Perhaps it’s not that the men are in charge, but that the women blend in. They do their work and raise their young and go about their business. It’s not that they’re incapable of boasting; it’s the female ducks who can quack the loudest, after all. It’s that they choose not to, and prefer instead to recede into the background without any fanfare.
As for me, I’ve long preferred to live under the radar, eschewing a quiet proficiency heard only by those willing to listen. But these days I wonder if you recede too far, will anyone know you’re there? Lately I’ve taken to showing myself, one tiny bit at a time. Sharing my identity and my accomplishments with my new community, then going about my business. It isn’t easy to navigate, and I’m still finding my way. But I can feel the conversation gradually shifting, like a slow right turn punctuated by long pauses of reflection. I’m not looking for fanfare; I just try speak loud enough to be heard. You simply don’t honk your horn around here.