ACCORD, NY – I noticed when the 9:30am Trailways bus out of Port Authority exited the Lincoln Tunnel and began rumbling through the New Jersey side of metropolitan sprawl. But then I got engrossed in The Times.
Next thing I knew, we were cruising serenely up the New York Thruway and closing in on exits 16-19, gateways to the Catskills. We took the New Paltz exit and drove down the Main Street of a lively college town.
Our bus stopped at a charming little station, where better-than-Starbucks coffee is $1.39, and the air is quiet.
And that, my friends, is another side of the New York urban experience: leaving the city, “getting out,” as many put it, “escaping” to the country, to a home you own, a house you rent, an inn or a motel – any place that isn't 24/7 sirens and subway rides.
Whether that escape is a grand 65,000-square foot “cottage” in Newport, RI, a “little place” costing $4 million in “the Hamptons,” a house like the charming property here that my oldest son just acquired, or a B&B in a town trying to be hospitable to “city folks,” the point is to sit quietly, take slow walks, and awaken to absolute silence.
If that means less-than-perfect coffee, so be it. Awakening to a vista of lawn, lilacs, forsythia, pine trees and not another dwelling in sight is worth the trip, the time and the odd brew.
I had wondered how long it would take me to change gears. It took about five minutes. By 3:00pm, I was sitting in a swing beside a brook. By 9:00pm, I was dozing in front of the fire. I slept two hours longer than my usual six hours.
Now come buttermilk pancakes and the return trip. Country stays seem to be short. But that's okay. We can come again and again for family meals on a screened porch and wondering what creature is making that odd chirping sound.
I dream of taking a week here this summer. My wife will garden, and I will work on my next book. But who knows? Sloth might be the victor and sleep the prize.
It might be that New York City is exactly what I thought it would be: a high-energy place that stirs my blood and draws the best out of me. It might be that my writing requires the din and diversity of Manhattan. But I also know that the price is high. And even if a weekend in the country doesn't yield a single comprehensible sentence, there is virtue in doing nothing.
Accord, NY, is a hamlet whose 622 residents pronounce it “ack-chord.” Once served by the long-abandoned New York, Ontario & Western Railway, Accord was a self-sufficient town that made room for visitors. Even now, as such towns die from lack of jobs, summer folks don't yet set the tone. As far as I can tell, only one home on Main Street has been turned into a museum, and it's only open two hours a week.
Coming here, for me at least, will stir some curiosity about life in the 1868-1957 railroad era. But the deeper draw is the screened porch, the fireplace, the country kitchen, the quiet, and slow dinners with my family.
The back-and-forth between here and not-here is an ancient Biblical and spiritual theme. In ancient times, Jews made pilgrimages to Jerusalem but lived elsewhere, far from the worldly life of city. Modern Jews still make pilgrimages to Zion, but often to escape the worldly life.
Christians don't have a single destination that represents not-here. They go to Rome, Lourdes, Guadalupe, the Pyrenees, and countless retreat and conference centers where the atmosphere feels “thin,” that is, closer to God, less insulated by work and worry.
In a sense, even Sunday church is an escape to another realm. I have come to believe that focusing on Sunday is killing the Christian enterprise, and we need to be seeking the sacred in many places, not just the one. And yet I find myself awakening on Sunday and thinking about my walk across Central Park to church.
This tension between here and not-here is part of an even larger tension between already and not-yet – the culmination has come but is yet to come. And between God and not-God – all things are of God, and yet God is separate from all things.
Living in that tension is essential and yet difficult. When we get too literal about God, we lose the mystery. When we get too spiritual, we lose the tangible and the call to action now.
The bus goes back and forth, and if we choose to seek a faithful life, we have no choice but to be on it.