Bethany and Mark Douglass at their home in Bryan, Texas
Nearly a decade ago Bethany and Mark Douglass decided to leave the expensive city suburbs and move to the small community of Bryan, Texas, where Mark attended graduate school nearby. After eight years in Bryan, they were again looking for a way to downsize their financial obligations and chose to break free of their recently remodeled house and large mortgage, and instead prioritize travel, life experiences, and time spent with their children.
They bought a modest three bedroom house in desperate need of TLC. The entire family banded together to help with renovations. The project became more than just a remodel, but also a learning experience for their four children - Liam, Burke, Blythe and Olive. Mark works as a high school teacher and Bethany home schools their children and works as a photographer, writer and runs the successful lifestyle blog, Cloistered Away.
While they are both aware of the irony associated with one parent working as a school teacher and the other as a homeschool teacher, they chose to homeschool their children several years ago as a way to better shape their children's education in a way that fit each child's unique style of creativity, processing and learning. Their schooling now goes beyond the confines of the classroom. With the money Bethany and Mark saved by downsizing their home and expenses, they were able to road trip across the country last summer - camping and learning along the way.
Liam, Burke, Blythe and Olive could be poster children for the homeschooling movement, they are respectful, curious, articulate and independent. Living in a small community and a smaller house has allowed them the ability to give their family a richer quality of life, even though they own much less than they once did. Although their home is still a work in progress, they have made great strides in creating a creative, light-filled, and cozy space. They cut away the overgrown tangle in their backyard and built a vegetable garden to help offset their food costs through the productive Texas growing season, and they hope to soon add chickens to mix. By leaving the rat race and prioritizing quality of life over the accumulation of things, this family has built a life filled with learning, play and the beauty of living simply.
What inspired you to move to the country?
Bethany: We live in a university town and originally moved back for Mark’s graduate program in European History. After he finished, we realized how much we enjoyed the smaller living and simple friendships we had made here. We had adapted to smaller living and it suddenly felt very costly (financially and relationally) to leave. He found a job at a college-prep school here and we stayed.
Mark: I went back to the last place that “made sense.” After years in Kansas City and Dallas, we needed to find a touchpoint with a place that had significance and roots. My elderly grandfather was here and I knew I wanted to be near him for whatever time he had left (5 years, as it turned out).
Initially what was the hardest part about making the move? What challenges came later?
Bethany: I remember feeling a little suffocated the first few years of small town living. I had grown accustomed to the energy and faster pace of city life, the quick access to art and music, the larger variety of people, food, and shops. I spent a lot of time shopping or driving places. I always tell people moving to a small town saved my soul. Although the statement began as a joke, it’s really true. I’ve learned to savor what I have, where I am, who I’m with, as opposed to always feeling the need to go and do and buy.
Mark: Nothing! I hear a train roll through town at dusk and a rooster with the sunrise. We don’t hear traffic or shouting. I can plant whatever I want, wherever I want. My bank, grocer, work and world-class library are within 3 miles of our little cottage. We have evening fires and a tiny mortgage. As a public school teacher, the small payments make everything else possible.
What surprised you most about country living? Did it meet your expectations?
Bethany: Sadly, country/slower living often dovetails a stigma of ignorance and non-progression. Honestly, after living here for a decade now, I think some of those thoughts were initially intermingled within my own, too. Although our town is still fairly traditional as a whole, I have met some of the most creative and progressive people here: homesteaders working their land to create clean food and break reliance on industrial food, men and women fighting for human rights or helping rescue women from sex-trafficking; parents creatively educating their children from home or finding alternate ways to give their children a more holistic education; artists challenging social norms through their music or paintings.
Mark: I’m not sure we count as “country” living, there are folks here in Texas that would take that label more seriously and do a better job with it than we do. I’d feel like a hack calling myself “country” in their presence. Scaled down. Back to basics. Elemental. Those are the terms I’d use. I don’t know that I had many expectations going in, but the amount of time I am able to focus on my children has been a very nice result.
What were the hardest things to get used to? What do you miss the most about the city?
Bethany: The slower pace of life was the hardest part initially. I am commonly asked by sub/urbanites, “what is it that you do there?” Small town life required me to focus more on the people around me and when you drastically change anything about your lifestyle or location, it can be difficult. I only miss living in a city when we go out together. Sometimes I want to window shop or comb through great antique or thrift stores. Fortunately, we’re only 90 minutes to Austin or Houston, so on the occasion we’re wanting a little more of any of it, we’ll head there for a night out together or a day trip with the kids.
Mark: Austin is there for my sampling when needed - once or twice a year just about does it. We’re in Dallas for the holiday season to see family, so we generally get our fill then.
Would you ever go back to an urban existence?
Bethany: Never say never, right? Honestly, I find it hard to imagine, especially while we have children at home. Whereas I used to love having quick access to many things at once, in this stage, I love having more and faster access to nature. It would be difficult to live in a city with tons of noise and air pollution again, with a more common lifestyle-focus of consuming rather than producing. I would love to move more into the country, to have more land.
Mark: People are more important than location, in my opinion. I think that if we suddenly found ourselves isolates, if friends and family were to move away, then I’d consider leaving.
What do you appreciate the most about life in the country?
Bethany: Small-town life has focused me more toward resourcefulness and quality relationships. Although I snubbed my nose at having less shops or restaurants and museums at first, I see I’ve also learned to use that time to create great environments and experiences at home, to make tasty meals with friends in our backyard, to learn that life is not about being entertained, but about creating enjoyment right where you are. I love not having to expend hours of our day commuting to work or activities. Mark works one mile from our home and most of our friends live within two miles of us. I’ve come to see this as its own version of luxury.
Mark: I am able to drive or cycle home for lunch each day. That was an unexpected benefit to reducing our lifestyle. I love it and I love that it makes summer travel a possibility. Living small and frugal opens up other opportunities.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of moving out of the city?
Bethany: Give yourself time to adjust. Whether you’re moving to a small town or wanting to farm acreage, it will take a bit to find your own style and rhythm there. I’m grateful we had Mark’s graduate work that tied us to this place for a bit. Had we not, I might have bolted before I really learned to enjoy our simpler life.
Mark: Do it. As connected and busy as we all find ourselves, there are so many great things about reduction and slowing.
When you go back to visit the city, what are the first three things on your to-do list?
Bethany: We mostly travel to cities to see friends and family. I suppose people are usually at the top of our list. We love eating good food - always choosing something we couldn’t find in our own hometown - and enjoying something culturally, a museum or art or music. We sometimes have a small list of things we might need for ourselves or our home that we can’t find here. I still love browsing shops when we have time.
Mark: Cultural events, museums, concerts. The internet streams anything else we might need/want.
Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?
Bethany: Motherhood, home, and nature strongly impact my creative work and work as a home-educator. All of these things seem inseparable to me. The way I want to mother impacts how I want our children to learn which impacts the stories/thoughts I write and photographs I take. They all impact the other, grounding me to where I am.
Mark: I come from many generations of Texas farmers. I find I’m in the same line of work: education is cultivation and planting. It is a fight in support of and against nature. The biggest difference is that my students reap the yield. I only get glimpses of the fruit of my labors. We even educate our children from out small home. It is a small life we have here, but I wake up every day knowing that ours the labor that may matter most. My grandfather taught me how to sweat, so I’m built for it.
Have you noticed a change in yourself and/or your work since moving away from the city?
Bethany: Yes! I think I was far more materialistic and fast-paced before. I derived worth in staying busy. The idea of community with people felt much more structured - a matter of invitation and plans. Our life feels far more organic now. Although Mark and I are both much busier than we like, I love that friends spontaneously walk through our door, that Mark can cycle to work or come home at lunch, that our life can be rote and spontaneous at once.
Mark: That move was ten years ago, so yes! I have noticed a change in the last ten years though it is hard for me to parse whether the change stems from our location or our four children!
Walk us through your typical day. How does it compare to the day to day in the city?
Bethany: I alway wake around 5 am to work: write, edit photos, email. When Mark wakes up we have coffee together, in the backyard when the weather’s warmer. After he leaves, the kids and I begin our school work and morning chores. In the afternoon, they play and I return for some more work, or sometimes we have dance class or soccer practice.
I try to make meals at home most nights, and often we share one with friends or with my sister and brother-in-law who live nearby. I try my hardest not to work in the evening, although sometimes deadlines require it. I prefer to bathe, read, spend time with Mark, and go to bed early. It doesn’t always happen that way. But that’s always my goal during the week. It’s hard to say how this compares to living in the city, since most of our parenthood years have been here. What I imagine is that we spend much less time in our car now than I would elsewhere. I don’t ever worry about sitting in traffic or commuting across a city. I love this.
Mark: We wake before dawn and start coffee/breakfast. The children stumble in and we have family readings and prayers. Then they start their day of math and history, etc. I’m off to stomp out ignorance with dry erase boards and copies of Death of a Salesman. I’m home for lunch and then back home for the evening by 5. We toss a football around or cut the grass or talk with neighbors until dinner. We eat outside by the fire pit if the weather permits. The children file through the showers, brush teeth, and read before bed. Lights out by 8:30 or so. Bethany and I work a bit in the evenings, usually, until the lights click off about 9:30. I know it isn’t glamorous, but I do believe it is fruitful.
Are there things that you are able to do here that you couldn't in the city?
Bethany: In our previous home, we had chickens. I don’t know if early on I ever imagined chickens intermingling with my children’s outdoor play, but it works.
Mark: No. I think we will jump into most anything to give it a whirl. The worst that can happen is that you have to deconstruct it or start over. I’m not afraid of failing - it doesn’t hurt as much as you think!
Do you have a specific space or place that helps you feel inspired?
Bethany: Our backyard. We’ve only lived here a year, so we’re still in the beginning stages of establishing our outdoor space. This year we’ve built gardens and a fire pit area. We’ve planted new grass and ivy for surrounding walls and set aside an area for yard birds in the next year. Even in its beginning stages, we love being outdoors--it allows the soul and mind to wander, to listen and dream, and mostly for moments at a time, not to be distracted by the daily needs inside the home.
Mark: I agree. The backyard. It was a wreck one year ago - think abandon alleyway with tires, paint cans, beer bottles and patch of Brazilian rainforest with briars, collapsed tree limbs, and dense undergrowth. It is better now. We’re making progress. I love to see order from chaos and deep shades of plant-life-green bursting into production. See? Farmer blood. Can’t help it.
What are some common misperceptions about life in the country? What do you want people to know/understand about life in small communities?
Bethany: I mentioned the non-progressive stigma earlier, but small town or country living happens in a variety of ways and can often also be misunderstood as easier or isolated living. Some aspects are easier, but the lifestyle as a whole requires more discipline and intention. Although we love the idea of moving further out onto a larger bit of land someday, here we have learned (and are still learning) in smaller ways how to grow our own food, how to fix and renew our home spaces, how to build community, how to rely on what we have.
Mark: Whatever presents itself to the eye immediately is almost certainly NOT the reality. A sleepy small town is never that sleepy; characters and dramas play out all around you if you’ll take the time. Our local donut shop is full of old men -- they call themselves the CRS (can’t remember shit) club. An entire Greek tragedy is playing out across the street with the family in turmoil. There is a charm in the mundane. Digital life/connected life blurs and drowns out what matters most (I know I sound ancient), but it is absolutely true. Small living in smaller communities allows you space to step back from the hum of it all.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
Bethany: Our home is almost 100 years old and was largely in disrepair and neglect when we purchased it last year. We’ve spent so much time making it our home since purchasing it last year, from tearing out our kitchen to re-wiring to painting to yard work. There’s still so much to do, but we’re planning to slow down on the major projects this year (since we do most of it ourselves). We’ll finish out the kitchen space and build out some more of the yard, but really we need time to connect to our home as a family. Sometimes connection occurs through projects and other times it happens through being and enjoying. We need more of the latter this year.
Mark: I’m pretty sure Bethany’s last remark was a directive. I hear you. I’ll slow it down! I have a project list on the chalkboard, but we do need more down time in this next year. Absolutely.