EMILY & MAX
ARTIST & SOFTWARE DEVELOPER
Boston, Massachusetts to Cummington, Massachusetts
A serendipitous Craigslist rental listing was all it took to convince Emily Billings and Max Shay to leave the city and move to the small community of Cummington, Massachusetts. Emily and Max were living in Boston and felt like the city wasn’t a source of inspiration anymore, they were ready for a new adventure and a different change of pace. Emily is a painter and a remote author and photographer for Apartment Therapy. When Max got the okay to work remotely in his developer job Emily immediately started spending time looking for country homes for rent in Massachusetts. One day, when she Googled “stone farmhouse” she came across the uniquely breathtaking property and knew it was fate calling. They discovered it had been a temporary home to many artists they admired, which sealed the deal. They spent their first winter adapting and learning the ropes of caring for and heating an old charming farmhouse. With the steep learning curve associated with transitioning from a small apartment in Boston to a large historic farmhouse, they were happy to be temporary renters instead of carrying the financial burden of ownership and upkeep. Urban Exodus visited Emily and Max last summer, their last month living in their stone farmhouse that they had come to love. The owner sold the place and although it was bittersweet to leave the country home, they both felt a bit relieved to start a new voyage. At only 23 and 26, they felt like maybe they moved either a bit too early in their lives or possibly to the wrong location for the long term. In Cummington, there were only a few young people they became friends with and they missed the social aspect and conveniences of city life. After a brief stint on Bequia island, they decided to re-settle back in Boston. It is much easier for Max to work from home, as he now has fast internet and when the city becomes too much, they go on road trips to the country to enjoy the pace and friendliness of small town life again. Living rurally, Emily’s passion for painting had been reignited by the quiet and solitude and Max had unearthed a necessitated desire for cooking and experimenting in the kitchen. They feel lucky to have had the opportunity to dip their toes into living rurally and renting for a year. It was just the thing to satiate their desire to live in the country, without fully committing. They look back at their time in the stone farmhouse with extreme fondness and know that eventually they will return to the country in years to come as it feeds many innate desires for them, both in their art and in their lives. (Click here to jump to their interview)
What inspired you to move to the country?
Emily: When we lived in the city, we were constantly trying to ‘escape’ it; whether it was trips up the coast or walking to the closest park to have a picnic and lay in the grass. When Max got the ok to work remotely, we never turned back. The property we found is not only architecturally beautiful but has such a strong artistic presence I knew we could leave the city behind (I mean, Helen Frankenthaler, Willem de Kooning, and Diane Arbus all spent time here- who can pass that up!)
Max: The desire to change the pace of our life was very tempting to me. Having spent so long in the hustle and bustle of everyday life in the city I think we were both excited at the prospect of doing something different. Initially it was just going to be for the winter to take care of my mother’s house while she was traveling; but when the opportunity arose to rent a home in the country it just felt “right”. The thought of having space to ourselves and being more in control of how we spent our days made me anticipate our move in the weeks leading up to it.
Initially what was the hardest part about making the move? What challenges came later?
Initially, the move itself was the hardest part. It was quite a big ordeal transporting our entire life out here. Once arriving, we definitely struggled to manage our time, especially finding a balance between work, unpacking, and enjoying our new space. Later…came the realization of just how much time it takes to keep on top of a home this size; stacking wood, cooking all of our meals (as opposed to eating out), managing when and how often to run errands; those sort of things took a while to find the right routine to get them all accomplished. Also, learning to ration our wood when we needed to. The long, romantic fires in the fall were quickly regretted once March came and our wood supply dwindled.
What surprised you most about country living? Did it meet your expectations?
Emily: How quickly we were incorporated into the tight knit community. I really thought we would hermit away. Also, we joined a year round full-diet farm share at Sawyer Farm, and it has wildly exceeded our expectations. We went into it with hopes to eat better, never imagining we would meet an amazing community of people through it. Our CSA pickup is a weekly highlight.
Max: How quickly a day passes! There’s always so much I want to get done in a day living out here and rarely does “everything” get done. Not only work around the house, but also trying to explore and experience our surroundings. Living out here has exceeded my expectations, I approach each day so differently than I did living in a city; you really learn to appreciate everyone you meet and socialize with, you look forward to having guests so much more, and when you find the right balance you look back at the end of the day surprised at what you were able to accomplish.
What were the hardest things to get used to? What do you miss most about the city?
Emily: Slowing down in a mindful way. The city is loud and there is such energy and commotion constantly around you. I often felt I was on autopilot. It is a daunting process to be more thoughtful and it was often easier to distract myself then look too closely within. Out here, I have a lot more time to myself and I am slowly learning to take advantage of this in a constructive way.
Max: The hardest thing to get used to was also the thing we missed most about the city; being able to see our friends at a moment’s notice. Not having everything we needed within walking distance was an adjustment; but was a challenge we enjoyed more than we struggled with. And lastly, I had to get used to constantly stoking our wood stove…whew.
Would you ever go back to an urban existence?
Emily: It is a possibility. Our landlords just sold our home, sadly, so we will be moving this fall. We are going to miss the 15’ Christmas tree and the community we have become apart of, but we are young. We are just beginning our nomadic stage in life, and neither Max nor I have a clear path chosen.
Max: Yes, but I would approach it with a very different mindset. I think there’s a certain perspective shift you get living a more rural life and were I to move back to a city I know I’d carry that with me.
What do you appreciate most about life in the country?
Emily: How connected we feel, to our community, to our land, and to each other.
Max: Getting to truly experience the seasons changing. Not just the weather, but the foliage, wildlife, people, and local produce as well.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of moving out of the city?
Emily: If you are longing for it, go. Don’t be concerned with the logistics of it all. Worst case, you move again. There were many hardships in moving away from our friends and city lives but it changed us for the better and I don’t regret it one bit.
Max: Firstly, select a living space that you can find endless days of joy in. Depending on your proximity to a major town you’ll likely spend a lot of time in or around your home. You are going to be so much happier if you love where you live. Secondly, find a good local farm near by; not only will that help you make acquaintances in the area and learn so much about your surroundings, but you’re going to (hopefully) get some of the best tasting produce you’ve ever experienced.
When you go back to visit the city, what are the top three things on your 'to do' list?
Emily: I usually visit my friends, spend time with my sister, and eat out at my favorite restaurants.
Max: 1) Get sushi for lunch. 2) Enjoy a walk by the harbor. I miss the ocean so much being landlocked in Western MA. 3) Take time to chat and catch-up with my co-workers at the office (since I only see them every few weeks).
Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?
Emily: I am inspired by my surroundings. In college, I referenced bucolic scenes. Now, I am overwhelmed by the amount of inspiration daily. From our next-door neighbors who are cheese farmers, to the fields and pastures outside our doors, to the vegetables we receive from Sawyer Farm. I am in awe of the beauty and passion behind all of it and would love to be able to portray this in my paintings. Also, seeing exhibits that speak to this idea. The Clark Art Institute (which happens to be a stone’s throw from my house) has a stunning Van Gogh exhibition this summer. It is amazing to think of all the French countryside impressionist and post-impressionist painters; Van Gogh was the only one with rural credentials. His rural roots stayed with him all his life and he was devoted to nature. Seeing a large compilation of his work was greatly inspiring.
Max: I think there’s some innate enjoyment I get from the act of creating something; working with a team to architect and construct our software might seem dull to others but I enjoy the camaraderie and feeling of accomplishment I get at the end of a productive and challenging day. I think I draw passion and inspiration from what other work I do around the house; stacking wood, stoking the stove, cooking meals, and maintaining our garden all make me feel like I’ve created or accomplished something worthwhile.
Have you noticed a change in yourself or your work since moving away from the city?
Emily: At the ‘Van Gogh and Nature’ exhibition, Van Gogh is quoted, having written to his brother, saying, “Painters understand nature and teach us to see.” I think so much of my fine art education was completed in studio practice. I’ve slowly been trying to reverse this; painting from life, in nature, and teaching myself again, how to see.
Max: Yes absolutely, I think that I’ve learned to take things in life a little slower and I feel like I better appreciate my everyday surroundings. Both in my everyday life and at work I’ve also become much better at managing my time and making sure to go into each day with a set of things I’d like to accomplish. I miss being around my teammates and I can’t collaborate as effectively with them when I’m working remotely; but I think the quality and quantity of what I produce has steadily increased.
Walk us through a typical day in your country existence? How does it compare to the day to day in the city?
Emily: The typical day here is much more intentional. Every day we wake up and plan what needs to happen that day, from chores, to running to the farm, or planning a trip to the grocery store. I wake up pretty early and enjoy the hour or so before Max is awake to start my morning routine. If we both are awake early enough, we will practice yoga in the great room and eat breakfast on the patio. Max will tuck away to his office and I normally find chores to do, respond to emails for Apartment Therapy, and attempt to disconnect and spend time in my studio. At dinnertime, Max and I put on music and cook together. We love ending our evenings playing board games, going for a walk, or curling up with a good book. We normally are in bed by 9.00, sometimes earlier. Your body acclimates to the lack of city lights and noise and you just want to go to bed once the sun sets. I want to add that I use the term “everyday” VERY loosely. I would say about half the time I get up, do yoga, and spend time in my studio, but the other half of the time I just think about it. I want to be honest and not self-righteous because we do love to binge watch Netflix and eat at the roadside burger stand. But the days I dream about are as described.
Max: Generally days start with me trying (and usually failing) to wake up as early as I ultimately would like. Breakfasts are often optional but I enjoy whipping something together when I can (especially weekends). There are usually a few key household things I try to get done everyday; but my favorite mornings are spent playing board games with Emily when there isn’t anything too important to tend to. Work starts around 9:30 or so when I get a pot of coffee together and sit down at the computer in my office. I’ll take lunch with Em and then finish up the workday. Sometimes I’ll hop out a bit early to run errands in town, and sometimes I’ll stay online until 7pm or 8pm; it’s always a little different. Then its time to make dinner and try to fit in some games or TV shows with Emily (without live TV or broadband internet our selection is limited, but we have our guilty pleasures for sure).
Compared to the city, life is at times more routine and at others less so. The pace of the day and its cadence often seems less routine because working remotely affords me a bit more flexibility in regards to when I start and finish the day; if something really needs to get done around the house or if Em and I want to go out and do something during the day, we can. But, what needs to be done on a day to day basis is more routine; meals, chores, errands, they all have to be done and we’re not afforded the same luxury of having it so close by as in the city.
Are there things that you are able to do here that you wouldn’t have dared to try before moving from the city?
Emily: This spring we planted a vegetable garden. I haven’t had land or time to attempt one since I was a child. My Mum always made it look so easy. Max and I are both perfectionists, so it is hard to let nature do its thing; but, the garden has been teaching us many life lessons I am thankful for.
Max: Cooking every meal almost every day. In the city its so easy to grab a sandwich at the local shop, or to order out for dinner; not that Emily and I don’t do that here when we feel like a little break, but not with the same regularity we had in the city. Also, keeping both an herb and full vegetable garden; although, that came by a bit of an accident as we planted much more than we intended to.
Do you have a specific space or place that helps you feel inspired?
Emily: I love to lie on the hammock. We have moved it around through the seasons; last fall it was by the wood pile, where I would watch Max stack wood. Now it is on the patio, overlooking our field and garden. We have many birds that frequent our bird feeder and they come close to us as we quietly swing on the hammock. I love closing my eyes curled up in Max’s arms listening to the wildlife and taking it all in.
Max: The kitchen is I think the space that makes me feel most inspired; whether it be making a meal before a big day of chores, after a long day at the office, or just to try something new that I think Emily might like, it makes me forget about whatever else I have to do and makes me focus on a task at hand that is very enjoyable to me.
What are some common misperceptions about life in the country? What do you want people to know/understand about life in small communities?
Emily: I think there is a misperception that country life allows lots of free time. It doesn’t. Just like everywhere else, there are only 24-hours in a day, and there are many chores and tasks to be done that are taken for granted when living in a city. Another is that young, passionate people only exist in cities. There are many young, interesting, driven people in rural communities. We have met many that have started farms or are pursing creative endeavors in our small community. Not only are they passionate about their chosen fields, but they also are considerate and excited about our futures, willing to assist in any way they can.
Max: I think a common misconception is that you’re going to be under a magnifying glass the second you move in somewhere; I felt that the moment we moved we’d be treated like outsiders or that it would be hard to meet people in our neighborhood. Admittedly, Em and I have kept to ourselves a bit but we’ve met some amazing people and I’ve been blown away at the sense of closeness and community here. Just be yourself, be friendly, and before you know it you’ll have met a surprising number of people. Another misconception; that you’re going to get sick of having to travel so far to get anywhere. I think that having to travel places for even simple errands gives you a better understanding of your surroundings and gives you more opportunities to explore where you live.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
Emily: Well, our property was recently sold. Our lease is ending this September and with that, we are planning to spend a few months living in the Caribbean, on a small island called Bequia. It will be another life change, but one we are excited for. Farther then that? I really cannot say. With the uncertainty of where we will go, one thing I will take from living a more rural life is to consciously slow myself, speak with compassion, approach with kindness, and take pleasure in the moment, rather than planning the next.
Max: Unfortunately the house we have been living in just sold and we will be moving out in September. Emily and I will spend some time with my Dad down in the southern Caribbean, and then we’ll take care of my mother’s house on Martha’s Vineyard for the winter; hardly a rough place to be, but we will miss this beautiful home and community. After that, well...we’re leaving that open ended for now.