Living

I Ditched The City For Country Living—And I Finally Feel Free

Single for the first time since her 20s, Zoe Whittall left the city for a quaint storey-and-a-half house in Prince Edward County, Ont. It was not the perfect life she dreamed of—but it was her own

Zoe Whittall poses in front of her new home in Prince Edward County, Ont.

Zoe Whittall poses in front of her new home in Prince Edward County, Ont. (Photo: Christie Vuong)

I’m in the middle of a job interview on Zoom when it starts pouring, the kind of rain that falls as fast as a five-star hotel shower head and sounds like a drum circle reaching its frantic peak. I’m speaking in a confident lilt to the producers I hope will hire me, a TV writer, but my inner monologue is a slew of swear words, because I know my basement is slowly filling with water.

It is my basement because I own this house, something I never thought would be possible unless I married someone of means. But last year, I sweet-talked a mortgage broker into thinking I wasn’t the risky type of artist and left my $2,300-a-month one-bedroom rental in Toronto for a little storey-and-a-half house in a small town in picturesque Prince Edward County, Ont. By myself. It’s the plot of either a horror movie or a self-actualized middle-aged escape journey, depending on your perspective.

In 2019, at the age of 43, I decided I wanted to be more self-sufficient. After a five-and-a-half-year relationship ended, I was meaningfully single for the first time since my 20s, and I took all the energy I regularly put into finding a new long-term romantic relationship into becoming more independent. In the months leading up to the pandemic, I booked swimming lessons, learned how to fix my bike, called mortgage brokers, bought my first car and tried to figure out how I might someday become a parent on my own.

I managed to achieve some new goals, like getting my driver’s licence (after two failed road tests). And in early 2020, I took my best friends to brunch on my 44th birthday and told them I was pregnant. It felt like my last chance to be a biological mother; and, indeed, it turned out to be when I miscarried. Losing the baby was painful, especially because it happened at the start of a terrifying pandemic. But it also put things into perspective: There were things in life that I’d always wanted but never made time for because I was focused on my career and my romantic life.

Miserable in my apartment by myself for the majority of 2021, I started to think about what I could control or change. Instead of making a list of qualities I wanted to find in a new partner, I instead made a list of things I wanted for myself. I wanted to live somewhere smaller, a place that resembled the small Quebec town where I’d grown up but that was more politically progressive and closer to the city. I didn’t want to live under the constant threat of renoviction. I wanted the money I’d been saving for emergencies to be used right away, because my life and the world felt like an emergency. So a year and a half into the pandemic, I left the city. Now, I have my own yard and a beautifully sunny home office—and an unfortunately leaky basement.

The trouble with buying a house in my price range is that it’s definitely a fixer-upper—and I am definitely incapable of fixing anything aside from sentence structure or a cocktail. The home came with a new roof and a new-ish furnace, so immediate fixes weren’t that major, but some issues are still revealing themselves, like the bathroom sink that’s not really attached to the wall and the freezer that leaks and is slowly filling with ice. And what, oh what, to do with my basement foundation, which leaks in weird riverlike patterns through the big, grey slabs of brick?

When I wrap up the Zoom interview, I walk down the rickety wooden steps to the simultaneously dusty and humid unfinished basement. I immediately burst into tears: It’s flooding. Water is leaking into an ever- expanding puddle. I’m desperate for there to be someone else in charge. I hated every landlord who ripped me off for 20 years in Toronto, but I wish there were one I could call now. I let myself cry—my therapist insists you have to feel the feelings in order for them to shift—and then decide to plow through and actually do something.

I unplug the dehumidifier because water is gathering underneath it and I’m afraid of electrocuting myself. Then I pause, unable to figure out what to do next. I’ve always had partners who can handle this kind of stuff; I cannot lift heavy things, and I have zero mechanical acumen. For years, I thought I was just lazy and dumb, but it turns out I have ADHD, which means I can hyperfocus on things that interest me (writing scripts and novels, taking photos of my cats) but have executive functioning issues with pretty much anything else.

Instead, I Google questions like “What is a sump pump?” and “Can you electrocute your- self in a basement flood?” I order sandbags from Canadian Tire. I call my friend who just went through something similar for tips. I have the internet; I have friends; I have my dad, who showed me how to use a wet-dry vac when he last visited. But in this moment, it is just me. In this small town, in the midst of a pandemic, in which I vaguely know my neighbours and have only a few friends whom I’d feel comfortable letting see me in this state, I feel defeated. While it’s easy to wallow in a paralyzed moment of despair, it’s not as easy to do so when water could soon be gathering around your ankles.

Standing outside trying to affix a large plastic tube around my drainpipe while it’s still pouring rain, I remind myself that I wanted this. Instead of waiting for a new partner and for everything to fall into place, I decided to do this alone. Okay, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted—the breakup wasn’t my idea—but you can’t always get exactly what you want. I vowed I would not date anyone seriously until I was over the hurt of that relationship. I learned that grief takes as long as it takes and there is no rushing it. Hopping from one serious monogamous relationship to the next for 20 years, mostly out of a fear of winding up alone, wasn’t a solid plan.

And to be content by myself before I find someone with whom to share my life will potentially yield a more sustainable relationship. Before buying the house, I had several short relationships with people I probably would have settled down with if I’d repeated my former patterns. I consider it a victory that I knew when those relationships weren’t right.

They say that moving away from your problems isn’t effective, that if you’re sad you’ll only be sad in a new place. While there is some truth to that, there is also something to be said for the cleansing power of new scenery, new daily rituals and turning over a new leaf in a literal way. During my morning walks around Christie Pits Park in Toronto, I was often confronting dashed dreams and potentially undesirable run- ins with the ex I wanted to avoid, or encountering old friends who were now married with kids and living a life I envied. As a queer person, I felt it was important to be in the city in my 20s for both safety and community, but rural areas and small towns are now far more welcoming. Now, my morning walk ritual is done on forest pathways and bike trails in the quiet of Prince Edward County. My new town even has Pride flags flying at the high school, a sight that made me burst into hot tears the first time I drove by.

It’s not that I wanted to substitute a house of my own and a permanently solitary life for a new relationship; rather, I wanted to set myself up with the kind of life I felt good in, that was my own, before adding anyone else to the mix. In my previous partnerships, I often moved into the homes they owned or was a new addition to their established families. When break-ups happened, I was the one who had to move out. I wanted to have my own home base where I wasn’t at risk of post-divorce desertion.

But complicating my goal of being more self-sufficient are several irrefutable facts about my character: I am useless in a lot of ways that keep people functioning and alive. I don’t know how to use a drill; I have never mowed a lawn; and when I look up and at an angle, I get vertigo. Growing up on my parents’ farm in rural Quebec, I wasn’t much help; I was much better suited to Montreal, where we moved when I was 13.

I am also a very anxious person, and for quite a lot of my life that meant I was literally afraid to be alone for long stretches of time. This is a common offshoot of panic disorder (the official diagnostic term is “monophobia”). But disordered anxiety is often like a game of whack-a- mole: When I conquer one fear, another pops right up. I’ve been living alone for two years and I’m so used to it that when friends come to visit, I don’t always know how to stay grounded until they leave. I always assume the worst will happen. Most people will carry laundry down steep basement stairs without a second thought, but for the first few weeks I lived here, I sent a group text that I would respond to when I was safely back upstairs in case I took an inevitable tumble down into the no-cell-service area. Most people can dispose of a dead mouse without Googling “signs of hantavirus.” And during a basement flood, most will think “the washing machine is up on planks and will be fine,” but I think “electrocution is imminent.”

I eventually ended up posting a photo of my flooding basement on Instagram. During the pandemic, social media has functioned as my de facto community. A friend I went to university with who lives nearby offers to do a wet-vac shift. The owner of the local bookshop sends me a message offering guidance on acquiring a sump pump. The man who used to own the house drives over and helps me fix the eavestrough leak. A guy I’ve been talking to from a dating app offers to drive three hours to come help. And while this is a sweet offer—I know instantly that old Zoe would have said yes—I also know that we don’t really know each other well enough to do this kind of thing for each other. It’s a partner thing. And even though it’s now been more than two years since my breakup, I’m not ready for that.

Instead I call a plumber, who comes by and assesses things. I wet-vac until my back aches and then line the walls with sandbags and make a plan to get a sump pump installed. When it stops raining, I go outside and stand in my driveway in a bit of a stupor. I’m very tired. But I’m all right.

The next morning it snows—a lot. My hot water is out. I go down to the basement and see the tankless gas-powered water heater is blinking some sort of malfunction code. I call my friend Joe, who assures me nothing is going to blow up. I look up the make and model on YouTube. I turn the water heater off. I go outside and clear the snow from the exhaust pipe. I turn it back on and it works again. I feel like I have climbed a mountain. I fixed something myself, and the house is still standing. I text my group chat a few missives about my personal triumph and they cheer me.

As I write this in the spring, I can see a robin circling the new scilla blooming in my front yard. The mourning doves are cooing on my fence. There is a sump pump in the corner of my basement. The freezer is fixed, and the horror-movie basement is less so. I no longer get startled by ATVs on the bike trail, and I know where to buy the best coffee in town. Instead of asking my friend Paul to fix my bike, I pay for a tune-up at the local shop. (Sometimes the answer will be to pay someone who knows what they’re doing.) The house has an attached apartment that my parents will be moving into shortly, a pandemic-related decision born of the horror I felt watching the situation in long-term care homes. They may be in their 70s, but my parents are landscaping wizards, so the yard looks amazing.

As I settle into this new season, I take a scroll through the oft-ignored dating apps on my phone. There are an awful lot of single people wearing plaid shirts next to pickup trucks or wielding axes in their profile photos—that could come in handy. I guess everyone has a type.

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