Home again

I’ve lived in this circa-1910 Victorian house in Phoenicia – population 309 – longer than I’ve lived anywhere. As of this September, that’s 18 years. Hard to grasp, but these days notions of time are slipperier than usual.

Stranger still, this most solid of factors, this constancy – this house – came into my life via a legal battle my wife and I lost. We actually fought hard not to be here, marshaling significant energy trying to remain in a beloved St. Mark’s Place tenement. We arrived in 2002 licking our wounds.

When folks do the math, they often say, “Oh, you moved here to raise your kid after 9/11, so you must be 9/11 exiles.” We’re not. Although Phoenicia life has been rich indeed, leaving New York City was one of the hardest things I’ve done. The memory of standing in the doorway of a ramshackle, nineteenth-century railroad apartment as my three-year-old and his mom cried bitter tears in the car will always elicit a tug on my heart. I loved the place. It was home.


Until a couple of years ago, that tenement had housed me the longest: 16 years. My first 18 years – 1965 to 1983 – I mostly lived in three Atlanta, Georgia homes I can recall. In 1984, I took a room in an antebellum house in Athens, Georgia. In 1985, I couch surfed in Manhattan and Brooklyn for a few months, then sublet an apartment on Avenue B until 1987, at which time I shacked up with my girlfriend – now wife of 31 years – on St Mark’s. That was where we brought a kid into the world.

As much as we loved St. Mark’s, our relationship with the landlord was textbook adversarial. Don’t get me started. Very long story short: he successfully used the “I need your apartment for my son” tactic to refuse to renew our rent-stabilized lease. My wife had been there 23 years. We had a toddler. Other apartments were vacant. None of that mattered.

For a decade, we’d been weekenders in a Chichester cabin, and we’d thought we might someday move upstate full-time, send our son to stellar Phoenicia Elementary rather than poorly rated PS 34. But we’d keep a place in the city, of course.

There was no solid plan until we lost our apartment. In April 2002, moments upon entering the Phoenicia house we would buy, we locked eyes and said, “We’re home.” This remains a scene we both recall with piercing clarity and wonderment, details inarguable.

Nevertheless, because I’ve dealt with depression most of my adult life, I expected a crushing episode to follow what at first seemed an epic setback, cool house or no. I fancied myself an urban guy to the bone, a city mouse. But the combination of the Shandaken community – mostly fellow families – the lush terrain, and, I think, the spirit of this house disarmed and embraced me. My mental-health struggles did not vanish, but even as my first Phoenicia years brought excruciating loss and heartbreak, my actual change of address was not the struggle I’d anticipated. In fact, the house and the land were – and remain – balms in hard times.

It helped that our son almost immediately loved it here, and was deeply loved in return. The value of that is incalculable. As a 22-year-old, they love it still. Our son’s colorful crew would see their friend’s home as a place of acceptance, refuge, love, and strength, all of which gives me pride.

Within months of moving in, we became “the house in the country,” a destination point. Our Brooklyn friends and my Georgia mom christened the house “Big Blue.” They count the days ’til they can escape to here, and fill this place to the capacity for which it was designed.

To this day, when locals learn our address, they routinely remark, “Oh I went to some amazing parties there back in the day.” We’ve thrown some great shindigs, too, and fully intend to do so again.

In the early Phoenicia years, when enthusing to my kid about some backyard flora I was getting to know, they opined that I was destined to become a 21st-century John Burroughs type, writing about the wonders of the natural world, which, in their estimation, had touched my soul. This struck me as unlikely. But soon thereafter, seeking solace and unable to engage a human, I impulsively walked to that same backyard on a moonless night. Among the maples, spruce, and uncultivated apple trees, Romer Mountain before me, Big Blue alight behind me, I breathed the word “please” into the chill. Over and over. Please. An infidel’s prayer.

Something was there. I can only describe it as a presence. Perhaps one needs to be broken, as I was, for whatever is there to penetrate. I cannot say with conviction if it knew, or cared, I was supplicating myself.

I can only say I felt part of it, and thus connected to life beyond myself, beyond my own losses, both physical and psychological. It gave me no advice. And yet I returned to Big Blue, and to my Phoenicia, with the certainty that this place would allow the full spectrum of what life throws at me, gifts I may or may not desire, losses imaginable and otherwise. I was home.

Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.