The time has come for the grand confession. I’ve been putting it off, embarrassed into silence. But the silence weighs on me as heavily as an untruth. And so here it is: I am the owner (okay, co-owner) of three homes. Yup. Three.
Of course, there’s the home I am currently agonizing about, this solid brick farmhouse house on the Echo River, where we’ve lived since our late twenties, where our children grew up, where we’ve moved through our own growth stages from idealistic “back-to-the-landers” through Old Macdonald farmers with a herd of beef cattle, to rural residents living on too much land.
Then, there’s our camp (aka cottage) on Lake Superior, acquired twenty years ago on a whim—a small but comfortable place that replaced our annual family camping trips to nearby Lake Superior Provincial Park, and that has become a magnet for our grown children and their families. Not a home, really, but everything a family cottage should be.
And finally, ten years ago, a house in central Mexico—the house that has turned us into snowbirds, a lifestyle I never admired but find pretty agreeable at this point. (See my earlier blog, http://www.triptalkblog.wordpress.com.)
Why, you might ask—of course you would ask—can’t we manage with just TWO houses? It’s a question we’ve asked ourselves repeatedly.
Our camp is a delightful place, but it’s more than an hour from town and with very few people living nearby. I’m not a social gadfly, but I need more human contact than that on an ongoing basis. It would be uninhabitable in the winter if for any reason we couldn’t go to Mexico, or at such point as we simply decide that’s no longer what we want to do. Also, it’s a place that’s become an important holiday spot for the whole family—our kids and their kids as well—and there’s not room there for all of us!
I look forward to our Mexican winters, but Mexico is not home for me, and that has to do with much more than a house. I love the yearly escape to another culture, another language, a new group of friends. But it’s not my culture, not my language, not my personal history; and the wonderful people there are not the ones I want to grow old with. Those things are all here, and I value them too much to abandon them. I changed countries once, when we left the U.S. in 1968; I’ve spent most of my adult life consciously happy to be a Canadian. That’s not changing.
We are going to take a pass on the house I described in my last post. We liked it, it had possibilities, the location was great, but we didn’t love it. We are increasingly aware of what we are giving up here and unwilling to settle for something we don’t love. Not yet, anyway.
For those of you who didn’t hear my essay about wintering in Mexico, on CBC radio’s The Sunday Edition—if you’re interested—I’m including it here
Confessions of a Snowbird
I’m a snowbird. There. I’ve said it.
It’s not what I set out to be. My earlier migratory pattern pointed in only one direction: north. From middle America to southern Ontario, from there north, to the district of Algoma, where toughing out winter is seen as a sign of character, pluck, and perseverance. My husband and I came here forty years ago to combine farming with his day job. The farming lasted about a decade and a half. By then, we’d set down roots—or, since it’s birds we’re talking about, built ourselves a pretty comfy nest.
Snowbirds, of course, are those grey, sparrow-like birds with white breasts that hop around in the underbrush and flash their white tails in flight. Like most migratory birds, the snowbird—whose real name is dark-eyed junco—flies south for the winter—though south is a relative term. Dark-eyed juncos breed as far north as the Arctic Circle, and winter from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Here at the very northern tip of their winter range, it’s hard to tell who’s coming and who’s going. The snowbirds I see bobbing their heads and pecking at the ground outside my window in November may be summer residents preparing to leave, or they may be among the few hardier souls, preparing to stay.
I don’t stick around long enough to find out. Not anymore. Because I have become one of them. Reluctantly, almost shamefully.
Reluctantly, because there are so many things I like about winter in the north: wood fires in the kitchen stove; snow swirling against the window in blizzard-winds; the tightening of cheeks and chin against the cold; the quality of light and shadow created by a sun, low on the horizon, reflecting on a white world. And perhaps best of all, the sense of suspended animation—a stretch of months when a blanket of snow conceals all of summer’s unkept promises, a time of connection and contemplation, a season of short days asking little and long evenings asking less. I am not an idle woman, but I am one of those fortunate people whose work—after barn chores came to an end—allowed me to choose whether or not to venture out.
I’m not a Pollyanna, either. I haven’t forgotten the frozen water pipes, the endless shovelling, the cars refusing to start, the painful cold of wet feet and wind-propelled snow pellets, the winter days that invade the April calendar. But poking through the discomfort, always, a proud sense of entitlement: When spring came, I had earned it.
“What?” says my hedonistic spouse. “You need to earn spring? Can’t it just be a gift?”
He speaks as the primary breadwinner who scraped the windshield and shovelled the end of the driveway before driving half an hour every day on winter roads. As the primary fix-it guy in the partnership, who thawed frozen pipes and fussed with reluctant motors. And as a man who—it seems incontestable—has a biological thermostat with a set-point quite different from my own; he suffers dreadfully from the cold. While I am opening my jacket and pulling off my mittens on a sunny winter afternoon, he is shivering under his many layers. And when I take his hand in mine, it is ice against my warm palm.
And so, nearly twenty years ago, we began spending winters in a warmer place. At first, just occasionally, when my husband could arrange for a free winter. Just tourists, I assured myself. Not snowbirds. Over the span of ten years, we spent three winters in Guanajuato—a colonial city clinging to the edge of the mountains in central Mexico. When we were close to retirement age, we bought a small house there, and it has now been nearly a decade since I’ve earned spring.
I still miss my winter days, braving the elements or cocooned beside the fire. My husband, trying to understand, says “Let’s stay home for a few weeks in January so you can have your fix. I just don’t want to put up with months of it.” And sometimes we do. But he misses the point. It’s the “putting up with months of it” that delivers the prize.
Sometimes, I worry that I have allowed myself to be co-opted, that I have been unable to override his unequivocal preference for avoiding winter, that this is proof of my weak will and subservient nature. I also fret about the unconscionable extravagance of owning a home in Mexico—a violation of the same puritanical streak that requires me to earn delight in spring. That’s the shameful part. I’m not sure it’s right to be a snowbird. I fear my second nest will condemn me to Dante’s fourth circle of hell, dedicated to the greedy.
But here’s another take. While I do miss my seasonal cocoon, I can’t help noticing that—as later years eclipse middle age—cocoons can become straitjackets, seducing us with their promise of comfort and familiarity, holding us back from new experiences and late-life adventures. I hear the voice of my yoga teacher, saying, “Stretch as far as you can. Relax there for a moment. Then go a little farther.”
She reminds us that the older we get, the harder it is to extend our limits, and the more likely we are to stop short out of habit or fear, gradually shortening our reach until we find ourselves unwilling to move. She’s not just talking about The Cobra.
I will migrate south again this year. I will leave the quiet, white countryside for the chaotic, colourful city. I will struggle to master a language and to understand the nuances of another culture. I will experience being the outsider. I may see my breath once or twice, but I will not shovel snow. And when I return. I will still wonder if moving directly from bougainvilleas to daffodils doesn’t make me something of a freeloader when it comes to the joy of spring.
But perhaps it’s time, at this late age, to accept some pleasures—the first crocus poking through still-frozen ground, the scent of an April morning, the fresh green of a May hillside—as gifts, pure and simple. No price to pay. No guilt. No strings attached.