Living Life Well — Going East
by Jim Shere
It may not have been Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune, who first coined the admonition “Go west, young man,” but his voice was certainly among those that fed the heady, headlong drive of America’s Manifest Destiny, when we believed we owned the land awaiting us out west, and everything that it held.
Sonoma County is just about as far west as we can go without finding ourselves in the Far East, where my mother was born in Canton (now called Guangzhou in Mandarin) more than a hundred years ago. Her father, my grandfather, had brought her mother there when they were young, when China was opening to Western influences. His own grandfather had come Out West on a wagon train to the goldfields of California from Back East in Missouri. My father, on the other hand, came during the second great migration, this time from the Dust Bowl on a freight train, to find work and a place for himself in a quickly changing world.
Going east, however, heeds another call: to know and own not the land and its resources, but rather the inner landscapes of the Self. When I began attending high school in Sebastopol, some ten miles from our farm in the orchards and fields of Sonoma’s West County, I discovered the local library. Among the books there, I found Herman Hesse’s “ Journey to the East,” and the entrancing story of the mystical inward journey of the soul. The story clearly moved counter to Horace Greeley’s admonition.
It’s not often that I leave Sonoma County these days, and in the ten years I have written about living life well for the Kenwood Press I’ve never begun writing this column so many weeks in advance. By the time this appears in print, Maria and I will have returned from our own journey east to Maine, to visit the sweet farm where our daughter and her husband have horses, cows, dogs, and chickens — and a place to build our final home, deep within the woods above Sebago Lake.
Glen Ellen writer MFK Fisher had christened the home built in the Valley of the Moon for her final years “Last House.” It was a home that fit her needs perfectly, as a writer and as a person who enjoyed good companionship, and she considered her stay “the most creative time of my life.” I too plan to spend my last years writing and, with my friends and my wife and life partner Maria, to continue enjoying a life lived well.
There are several writings I have in mind — essays mostly, but some longer pieces as well. One, in particular, is a contemporary retelling of the Japanese classic poem “Hojoki,” written some 800 years ago about the devastations caused by a series of natural disasters — storms, wildfires, earthquakes, drought and famine, and a civil war that brought Japan’s golden age to an end. The poem concludes with how best to live during such immense upheaval, as applicable today as ever. The title of the poem cycle I’m working on is “Refuge.” I like that title.
It is morning as I am writing this. The sun is rising over the lake at some distance below, and a cup of coffee sits nearby; my daughter is across the room working on her process notes, with her coffee also nearby. The trees are just beginning to turn color outside, and Saint-Saëns can be heard in the background. Some of the children — no longer children — arrive from work and leave for work, exchanging cars and bantering. Others come in from their farm chores, wash up, join in the talk, and make another pot of coffee.
Dylan and her husband Keith have carved out unique lifestyles here at Shiloh Farm, where they have 180 acres of fields and woods, on the brow of a gently sloping mountainside with a commanding view of the lake in the distance. He manages a small factory in the nearby town of Limington, where they make mechanical components for equipment purchased by utilities across the country, and she has a private practice very much like my own, in an office twenty minutes away in a small village called Standish.
Maria and I have explored the farm and found where we want to build, in a clearing where the duff is soft, inches deep and thick underfoot, where wildflowers and wild strawberries flourish, and where small animals scurry and birds call from deep in the woods. The rich and fecund smell of earth and herbs, the sunlight filtering through the trees, and the sound of the wind bending the branches and lifting the leaves — all make up the landscape of a healthy, healing, natural world. The air is soft and fragrant, and the light sparkles. Nature here has been undisturbed it seems forever, and it’s a good place for our final home.
However, I’m quick to tell you that we’re not leaving Glen Ellen soon, nor forever. This is just the start of a new season for us, these next few years, as my work here begins to loosen, in my practice and in my community. Building a house there will take some deliberate time, as will leaving the home that I’ve built here. And please know that after I’ve left I’ll return again and again to where I’ve lived all these years, especially during the bitterly frigid winter months of subzero weather in Maine — and I will bring my California friendships back east with me.
When the British poet Rudyard Kipling famously wrote “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” he meant that East and West have different cultures, and different ways of doing the same things. And yet, as I’ve often told troubled couples, my two eyes may have different opinions about what they see, but when they look together, they find something no single eye can see: depth. Going east does not leave the west behind; I’ll bring it there with me. And, returning west, I’ll be bringing here what I found there.