In 1998, after about fifteen years of city living, I turned my back on vida urbana and moved to what many people would consider “the country.” This move was predicated on financial reasons: I couldn’t really afford to live in the city the way I wanted to anymore, a job in southern New Hampshire was offered to me, and my then-husband agreed that he also was ready for a drastically different environment. At first it seemed like a precipitous change; we were abandoning convenience, familiarity, and many old friendships to relocate in an exurban foreign land where we knew literally no one. But once we got here, it made perfect sense.
Like many of my peers, I’d spent my adolescence and young adulthood living in a variety of punk rock houses and shabby, overcrowded apartments in the sketchier parts of a few different cities. My late teens and early twenties are awash with fuzzy memories of months spent sleeping on a lonely couch in Jamaica Plain and trying to block out the sound of one of my roommates as she enjoyed noisy sexual congress with her new boyfriend; insane basement shows exploding under my feet as I fixed a bagel in the kitchen of a notorious DIY house in Philly; and the sick, sweet smell of toxic chemicals and marijuana when I “upgraded” and moved into an apartment in a different part of Philly that was located over a combination exterminator supply company and gypsy cab headquarters.
I had the classic love/hate relationship with every city I lived in, getting off on surviving the very real dangers of being a young lone wolf-bitch in various urban forests. I liked the stink and the noise and the chaos. In my unruly mohawk and engineer boots, I clomped through the “nice” areas of my cities, regarding the tidy rowhouses and wrought iron railings with the de rigueur sneer of my chosen social group, hoping no one would detect the small but undeniable sense of envy that hid beneath it. What was it like to be “comfortable”? Was it really that bad? Would I ever know?
I thought I did, a few times.
Contentment is a lot like love: there are different varieties of it that you experience as you age. Your conviction is as certain as iron until some tiny evolutionary gears switch in your consciousness and suddenly you look upon your once-beloved with horror: I thought that was great?! That shitty basement room that you did up with scarves and dead flowers may have seemed like The One when you were seventeen, but things change, you change, and today you look back and wonder if breathing in the mold and incense smoke that whole time has contributed to your current autoimmune disorder.
But it’s been eighteen years now. I’ve lived in this house for what seems to be a lifetime. This might be The One.
* * *
I’ve always called it The Farmhouse, this big ramshackle thing, even though there’s no farm attached to it. Its skeleton is a classic four room colonial, built by some Revolutionary officer in 1780. It sits three quarters of the way down a gentle hill, and is perched over the curve of a busy two lane road that was once the thoroughfare for carriages and wagons to go “downtown,” and which, in its current paved state, is the site of at least one annual single-car accident as a modern traveler overestimates their ability to negotiate the curve when it’s covered in snow.
Over the years, a succession of inhabitants added on rooms and expanded the Farmhouse until it became what it is today. The people who sold it to my ex and me had lived here for over thirty years. They were a classic eccentric New Hampshire couple who’d raised a bunch of kids here and inscribed their own identity on the house in ways visible (the little marks denoting the kids’ upward growth on the wall of the laundry closet) and hidden (the frightening method of the paterfamilias to insulate the ancient wiring with brittle newspapers dated from the late ‘60s…we fixed that as soon as our horrified electrician friend found it). The kitchen was painted mint green and each of the cabinets had a crude hand-painted illustration on it: a flower, a sailboat, some birds.
“Oh, those are from a ‘painting party’ my friends and I had a long time ago,” explained the woman when we first viewed the house, “You’ll want to get rid of all that.”
At the time, I politely said that they were charming and that I was in no hurry to do so, although I was already mentally choosing the dark magenta hue that I hoped would dominate my new culinary headquarters. But it never happened. I didn’t have the heart. Eighteen years later, I am greeted every morning by the improbably bright mint green cabinets, by the sailboat and the flowers and the birds flying in “V” formation across the doors that protect my coffee cups and pint glasses. They are evidence of someone’s happiness and sometimes I need that if I’m having trouble manufacturing my own.
* * *
The living room of the Farmhouse is probably the most authentic space here. The walls are a particularly crumbly type of plaster insulated with horsehair. Every time I drive a nail into one of them, it sinks with an unpleasant softness and there is often a puff of dust and fiber that may date to the time of Napoleon. The ceiling is supported by gigantic wooden beams, the largest of which was supposedly part of a ship’s mast that made it inland to the home of the colonel who built the house. The centerpiece of the room is the fireplace, one of four that form the spine of the original structure. Above it are two ancient nails meant to support a rifle. These days they cradle a weird cigar box guitar that might be considered just as dangerous if I try to play it. There is a bread oven with an iron door, a narrow gun closet, and a hook that hangs in the actual fireplace in case one wants to make a pot of soup from the squirrels one shoots with said rifle.
If all of this sounds too precious and Martha Stewart-esque, know that the floors have been rendered rough and dull by the generations of Dobermans who’ve shared my life, the furniture is random free stuff in shabby conflicting colors, the walls are hung with gig flyers, and everything is coated in the pervasive dust that gets brought in every time a dog enters the room from outside. I couldn’t have conventionally respectable company visit. It looks a lot like the punk rock houses I lived in as a teenager, only with more impressive instruments laying around and fewer beer cans.
From outside, the Farmhouse looks downright decrepit. A shutter that had somehow survived dozens of harsh winters finally gave up its tenuous hold and jumped to its death from the second floor. Christmas tree corpses, empty propane tanks, and a rotting two-wheeled horse cart that sprouts opportunistic weeds from its shafts are right out in front for all to see. A velvety green mold coats many of the roof shingles and I haven’t raked leaves in at least three years. When friends ask what it’s like to live where we do, I joke and say that it’s kind of like a combination of Sanford and Son, Grey Gardens, and The Shining but I’m not really kidding.
Between my prior and current marriages, I lived here on my own—and for a few years—with a friend and housemate who helped me care for the dogs. My friend is very dialed into the woo-woo. Of course, I refer to it as such but I also harbor a little pocket of credibility for it, you know, just in case. When you spend a lot of time alone in a creaking, ancient house with a bottle of wine and an active imagination, it only seems natural. I’ve often wondered if this old building had any invisible residents.
There have been many nights when I sat in the living room with the lights out and a fire in the hearth, mesmerized by the flames, wondering who else had done the same over the years. I conjured up images of lonely wives on freezing New Hampshire nights, worrying about their menfolk. Did someone nurse her sick child in front of this very fireplace? Did someone cry to get word of a fallen son or a shipwrecked friend? I’d try to get quiet and feel any lingering vibes from the spirit world but never had a sense of it. My meditative silence was only filled by the hissing of the radiators and the scurrying of the various rodents that live in the walls. I asked my paranormally inclined housemate if she ever got the spooks here and she said she never felt anything. It was as if the house was empty.
“What do you think happened to all the ghosts?”
“I think you scared them away.”
* * *
Perhaps the best part of the Farmhouse is the land around it. Four acres isn’t really that much when you’re talking about old houses in quasi-rural New England, but to me it’s a vast estate. Over the years, generations of my dogs have kicked up relics of older occupants—mostly apothecary bottles and big pieces of blue and white china plate. I used to save them but there are so many now that I callously throw all but the most pristine examples away. On the mantel of our practice room (which was meant to be the dining room), a whole collection of these little bottles stands guard. There is something satisfying about seeing them back here in their house. Two hundred years ago they were trash to be buried in the back yard but now they’re in a place of honor. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.
Back behind the property line stretches a hundred or so acres of town land that no one seems to care about. This is my haven. Depression, boredom, anxiety, restlessness—I have the temporary cure for all of it right through the kitchen sliders. A walk up the hill, most often in the company of my old Dobe, Gretsch, erases the bad stuff.
At first, the bad stuff is like the rocket fuel that powers me up above reality’s merciless gravity. But once the breathing becomes a bit more difficult, once I have to think about my feet to keep them from getting caught up in roots and rocks, my mind becomes light. It smells good up there, always. Sometimes like earth and decaying leaves, sometimes like smoke from nearby houses, sometimes the strange dry whiff of snow that hasn’t arrived yet.
Ancient stone walls erected by people who’ve been dead for centuries meander through the woods, demarcating forgotten landholds. If I go far enough, I’ll pass a large slab of granite with a single hole bored through, abandoned on the ground as if a long-dead stonecutter got pissed off and walked off the job. There’s another smaller slab that looks like the state of New Hampshire. These are my landmarks, along with the massive fallen maple tree that blocks the deer run I use for my path and the sad pile of beer cans left a decade ago by some kids who once lived next door to me.
Halfway up, a spatula hangs incongruously from the side of a young oak tree. It’s been there since the first time I ascended the hill and I have no idea how it survives every storm we see. I’ve gotten a little bit lost up there once or twice, but close listening will always reveal the hiss of tires on the roads that run beneath the hill and I can always find the way back down. If the sun is just down and the grainy grey of dusk is settling on the forest, I watch the warm glow from the kitchen as if it’s a lighthouse guiding me back. As I get closer, I usually have forgotten what troubles drove me up there in the first place.
I have lived a life of great privilege even though most of it has been in a state of financial duress. My punk rock pupal stage allowed me to be a cell in the bloodstream of urban life the way no sheltered suburban kid ever could. Frankly, I’m lucky to be alive. Later, my young adulthood found me drinking deep from everything my home city had to offer. Today, my travels with the band have allowed me to stumble drunkenly through Beijing, to stand slack-jawed in the center of Shinjuku, to walk around Helsinki like I own the place, to feel at home in the intimidating grey mass of Chicago every time we pass through. And at least a few times a month I venture back to the glittery Boston skyline to see friends or to play a favorite bar. I will always love vida urbana. But when we pull into the driveway here at the Farmhouse, whether it’s after a gig in Providence or a month overseas, there is a sense of relief I get nowhere else on earth.
* * *
Paul and I try to be quiet as we unload the guitars and the merch bag. We close the car doors in a way that hopefully doesn’t get the dogs barking. If it’s spring, we hear peepers in the creek across the road. In summer, crickets from the pile of firewood. In autumn, the creepy distant territorial calls of owls and foxes. We have just come from loud noises, bright lights; our ears are buzzing, our eyes are tired. We are probably a little bit drunk. We are eager to go inside, to get into our bed. But on the way in, I always stop for a moment to breathe in the unpolluted air and look up at the stars.
What is it like to be comfortable?
I think I have the answer.
J.V McDonough is old enough to be your favorite aunt. She played bass in some Boston bands you never heard of, then joined The River City Rebels (now defunct) in 2010. She now plays fulltime for M.O.T.O. with her husband Paul Caporino. Between November 2012 and the present, they have played dates in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Finland, Estonia, Berlin, and dozens of U.S. cities. Click this link to learn more about M.O.T.O. and this one to hear some tracks. Feel free to connect with J.V. via Facebook.