City Mouse or Country Mouse?


Carolyn and I live in a small town in Indiana. It often feels like a plate of white beans: bland and unexciting. This weekend, however, finds us in the New York City area, and Indiana is beginning to have a certain attraction.

I love Manhattan, with the architecture, vibrant energy, and good restaurants. Wandering through Central Park up to the museum district is one of our life’s great joys. But driving around on the outskirts of the City is to be caught up in a frenetic maelstrom. People seem frantic to get to where they are going, and there is a general feeling of discourtesy and selfishness. Fear, aggression and scarcity seem to be the values that shape the highway environment. I could well be wrong about all this, but it does seem sad to me that people live with such fearful, self-centered urgency.

I feel an odd tension. I love to fly into New York, Paris, Rome, or Madrid, and to revel in the joie de vivre of these places. There is, however, a difference between being a pedestrian, and driving on the circumferentials with the locals, not to mention playing chicken with the city taxis. Garrison Keeler says that he loves to lumber through the streets of London, and this is what we love as well: simply to wander the streets and to breathe in the soul of a place, the genius loci. City living can be so gracious,and I agree with Karl Marx, that the artistic works of human hands can be seen as natural as a flower or a tree. I am afraid, however, that hyper-capitalism is infusing many lives with a desperate quest for more, always more, and often modern architecture reflects this need to acquire and show off.

So after a few days in the city, I begin to resonate with these famous words of Gerard Manly Hopkins:
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
But for all this, Nature is never spent…

And Lord Byron sings his continuous delight in nature:
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more…

And now it seems to be that the title of this post has it all wrong. I am again brought back to the almost universal insight that it is not the world I find myself in that brings me happiness and aliveness. It is rather my thinking and my attitudes that bring happiness and aliveness to the world in which I find myself. A rich human life is a yin/yang tapestry of the tranquility of the country and the excitement of the city. I want to love where I am and when I am at any given moment, trusting my heart to know when it is time to move on. So fie on either/or dichotomies that so often miss the mark–even when talking about mice.

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