Third Places & Homesteads in the Shadowlands 🏘
on a more humane-sized daily life
This morning I had an early coffee with a neighbor friend of mine, both of us preferring the just-waking hours of the day before the hubbub requires our attention. I was the third customer there and I chatted with the manager and barista on staff by name, asking each other about our stuff: our kids, our day’s agenda, what one of them recently read in a book. Before I walked outside, the manager said, “Morning, Eric!” to the gentleman behind me. I’d seen him before here, so I nodded a hello to him as well.
While I waited for my friend to arrive, I also chatted with neighbors—an adult daughter and her dad, who themselves are neighbors to each other—and who I see on the regular at this same spot, their three white labs on leashes in tow. Once my friend and I sipped our drinks and prattled on the deck overlooking the herb garden, the coffee shop owners (and her landlords) said an “Oh hello! I didn’t see you there; what a lovely surprise” as she tidied the beds and plucked some weeds. Later, my friend’s own husband and his friend sat at a table a few feet from us as they caught up and mused over a chapter from the Book of Romans. Before we left we each grabbed a breakfast taco from the local taqueria (on sale daily at the coffee shop; hurry, they go fast), knowing I’d probably return later in the day to get some loose-end work done, and I’d probably see a whole new set of regulars reading, working, and catching up with each other.
This is our neighborhood’s third place.
Scene Two of the same Act: The day before, I was chatting with my fellow colleagues in the teacher lounge at our kids’ school. I’m new, so we’re still in the introductory phase of “Now where do you live?” sorts of conversations. Every time so far, when a new local friend discovers my family and I live in the Old Town neighborhood—meaning, the few walkable blocks right around our historic town square—every single person, without fail, has said, “Oh, that’s where we want to live, too. Either that, or buy some land outside of town.” Every single person. This happened again in this conversation—we talked about the challenge of finding an affordable family home in our neighborhood, and thus the desire to find affordable land outside town, also a real challenge. Others around us chimed in with similar ideals. Many people, in fact, move to our town with the strategic hope of eventually scoring a fixer-upper close enough to the Square.
Folks understand the limitations of living in our neighborhood; namely, forced downsizing because of all the houses’ age, more individual upkeep because of no HOA, and almost certainly a required can-do fixer-upper spirit because any house remotely affordable demands it. These houses are snapped up super fast, and sadly, more and more often their new owners are cash-only developers who want a quick flip and quicker profit to transform it into an Airbnb, pricing out the younger families we long for as future neighbors.
Because this dream is becoming more and more unfeasible for many of us ordinary folk (truly, we bought before prices spiked, and even then it was before it was officially listed and we had to write a letter to the previous homeowner), the flip side of the same coin is homesteading on land. It’s the same can-do spirit of living life “on your terms,” with a different (longer?) to-do list as well as different benefits and sacrifices. I, too, love this dream, and is one I fantasize about: wide-open space, star-punched skies, freedom to do our thing, but close enough to the town for friendships a drive away. Even if it’s not one’s cup of tea, I believe most of us at least understand the lovely sentiment behind this idealized living. It’s an invitation to commune with nature, right off your front porch1.
Even though odds are you’re not my literal local neighbor, there’s a chance at least some of you are nodding your heads in agreement. This sort of living—in a humane-sized community or on God-sized land—taps into a universal longing in all of us. We yearn to know, to be known, and to remember from whence we came. We long for the visceral reminders that we live in the shadowlands, but that while we bide our time, let’s do it as well as possible. It’s that whole Lewisian adage many of us are familiar with:
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” - C.S Lewis
If you’re human and reading this, I know you know this longing. You know in your bones what sort of quotidian living you’re made for: the humane sort. It’s manifested in all sorts of ways: urban high-rise boroughs, small towns, farming communities, and even thoughtfully designed newer suburbs. And you also know when it doesn’t make the cut because you feel that in your bones, too. You feel like you’re forever wearing a too-itchy sweater that doesn’t quite fit.
The important question in all of this is: What, therefore, is to be done?
It’s all well and good for us all to nod in understanding at this universal cry for humane living while we’re here in the shadowlands. But is it enough just to know it’s what we pine for without doing anything about it? Even when we’ve got a situation close to ideal (and I’ll admit that ours is, for which I’m singularly grateful and frankly, in awe), it’s not perfect. Ask me about the cost of new windows and siding while still adhering to historic guidelines.
We can embrace the acknowledgment that we live in a broken world and that no living situation this side of heaven is perfect. Yes. Most assuredly. And yet… While we wait in the shadowlands, there are partial solutions. It seems like the necessary measures call for wise yet small actions which lead to an ever-more humane way of life.
A few ideas:
First off, daily gratitude always, always, always. Because there’s always something to be grateful for about every living situation.
Do things to get to know the neighbors we have. A block party? A simple potluck? (My neighbor friend is here in The Commonplace and hosts monthly potlucks, so maybe she can chime in?)
If we have Third Places in our neighborhoods, start hanging out at them.
If we don’t have a Third Place, think of ways we can create one. A covered pavilion in our neighborhood park? A good front yard? A nearby cafe?
Start a regular neighborhood gathering with a common interest—a book club comes to mind.
Start outdoor movie nights in a yard with a projector and screen (or sheet).
Attend gatherings and events at our local libraries, 4-H clubs, and rec centers.
If our current living situation is genuinely unimproveable, is it worth a move? Or perhaps a change in priorities?
I'm not implying these things are easy, quick, and instantly successful. I'm simply wondering out loud whether they're worth the hard work. Because they are hard work. It's not easy to slide an invitation under our neighbor's doormat. Showing up to a meeting where you know no one isn't easy for most of us (especially us introverts). It's often disheartening to be the one to spearhead these things when you wish you're the one invited instead of always being the one inviting. But within reason... I posit the effort is worth it. Community building, when it leads to more human flourishing, is never not hard. It's almost like it's meant to be hard because most worthwhile things tend to also be the hard things.
…I’d genuinely love to hear from you in the thread here. If you’ve been able to successfully create a more humane-sized living situation, in whatever form big or small, I’d love to hear practically how you’ve done it. Tell us what’s worked!
Likewise, if you haven’t yet found your humane living situation, what ideas do you have? What do you think might work? What are your hurdles? I’d love to hear them as well, and I’d love for us to converse more about this. I sense that the Venn diagram of those who appreciate The Commonplace and those who appreciate humane-sized living is one complete circle.
Let’s brainstorm ways to make our ordinary offline lives—you know, our actual lives—partake in more humane-sized ways of living. It’s worth the labor and the sweat gathering at our rolled-up sleeves, even as we wait in the shadowlands.
Same favorite resources on this topic:
Anything by Wendell Berry
Tell me if you have good resources! I'm always in the market for a good Substack newsletter or podcast about building community, good urban planning and design, living subsidiarily, and other adjacent topics.
Ora et Labora,
I know there are a bajillion challenges that go with this sort of living, too. I’m just speaking of the idealized version of this popular dream.