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News 2 weeks ago

A choice, and a move to Nova Scotia

Who among us doesn’t have at least one unlived life? You know the kind I mean – the life you would have had if only you had made a different decision. Perhaps it was a move to a far-flung country, leaving behind an entirely different future. Or maybe it was a move you didn’t make, staying put out of fear. A job you didn’t take. Or a job you didn’t quit when you had the chance. A lover you decided not to marry. Or a troublesome spouse you didn’t leave.

Do you ever imagine what your life would have been if you had?

I thought so.

We all think about our unlived lives on occasion.

And it can be hard to contemplate them. They reside in you forever as Alternative Selves. And often, we imagine many of those Alternative Selves as being happier and thinner, richer and altogether more interesting than the self we now inhabit.

Many momentous life pivots happen in our 20s: the decade of Big Choices, when we often don’t foresee the ripples of consequences. We think there will always be lots of paths, lots of lovers, lots of jobs, lots of possibilities. But they do diminish with time, and I think that’s why we get more fearful of major change when we’re older. We feel secure with where we are. Why put yourself out into the wind of change again?

Which brings me to the summer of 2022, when my husband, Mark, and I set off from our house in Toronto with no idea that, when we would return just after Labour Day, a SOLD sign would be planted on our front garden.

In the interim, we had made a spontaneous, life-changing decision – all because we saw a house in Chester, N.S.

Sarah Hampson and Mark Raynes Roberts had no intention of buying a house in Nova Scotia.MARK RAYNES ROBERTS

Our house in Toronto in a central pocket of the city was sold remotely within two weeks, thanks to an acquaintance of mine, Cailey Heaps of Heaps Estrin. Some minor staging was involved. But one thing that eased the decision was my tendency to leave a house spotlessly tidy when we leave for any length of time. It has something to do with not wanting to return from a holiday and be confronted with the mess of my real life the minute I walk through the door. It drives Mark crazy, but this time – bonus! No embarrassing and dirty laundry in the corner of the bedroom for a realtor to spy.

The view was a major draw for Ms. Hampson.MARK RAYNES ROBERTS

We had come to Nova Scotia for the summer as one of our sons (we have five between us) lives near Halifax. We had no intention of buying a house. In fact, I had said to Mark, “No real estate fantasies this holiday.” Because that’s what we tended to do every time we went somewhere. Don’t you?

We would see a beautiful spot and think, “Could we live here?” And then off we’d cavort in our heads. Real estate is the seat of dreams, after all. It is within the walls of a house that we play out the fantasies of how we will feel, whom we might become, the friends we will have, the family members who will visit, the next chapter of life we will write. It’s a movie set of the mind.

Chester is 40 minutes from Halifax, on the south shore.MARK RAYNES ROBERTS

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And we were vulnerable to dreams. Who isn’t when you’re in your early 60s? We’ve both had health scares. There isn’t a lot of runway left to realize your dreams – write that novel, live by the sea, create a beautiful garden.

So there we were that fateful summer, walking along a street in Lunenburg, on our way to book a sail on the Bluenose schooner, and we passed a real estate company. Mark saw a listing, posted in the window, for a house in Chester, 40 minutes from Halifax on the south shore and where we had some friends. We booked a viewing. Why not? Screw my no-real-estate-fantasies-this-holiday dictum.

We drove up to the house. (It’s No. 8, a lucky number.) The arbour leading to the front garden was covered in wisteria. (I love wisteria, a British-y thing.) Inside, some changes were needed, but the bones were perfect. Primary bedroom on the ground floor. (Wheel us in in our dotage.) A big dining room. (Checkmark for family gatherings.) Bedrooms for children and grandchildren. (Check.) An art studio for Mark. (Check.) A mud room! Who the hell knew that A MUD ROOM could be so necessary, so glorious, so envied? And we don’t even have a dog – yet.

The home has a mature garden.MARK RAYNES ROBERTS

And a garden, a lovely mature garden. Living in Toronto, I would often feel the need to be fingers deep in the loamy earth like hunger, even though I’m a complete novice and frequently murder orchids.

In the past, when we’d seen a house we liked, we would fantasize for a few hours, for a day or more, but then reality would kick in, and we’d see why it wouldn’t make sense. Too far. Too expensive. Too small. Too big. Too much money-pit potential.

But this time, it was undeniably right. There’s a lovely IRL community in Chester. It’s a village, not even a town. Historic but not touristy. People wave at each other on the street.

And the view, the view, from the house. There is a psychology to views, I think. They suggest a future; a new unwritten tomorrow; the erasure of yesterday. And they remind us that we’re on a ball, spinning in the darkness, letting one season go in order to welcome the next, all of which will repeat again and again. A therapy session through a window.

Mark and I knew that if we didn’t do something about trying to own it, the house would have resided in our Regret File as an Unlived Life.

I should explain here that I have a tendency for magical thinking. Not just “woo woo.” But, given encouragement, “Wooooo wooooo wooooo!” A week later on the second viewing, we walked out on the deck of the house … and hummingbirds. They flitted around us.

Okay, I thought, addressing The Universe, I get it. We consulted our adult children. “Go for it,” they enthused, wanting our happiness.

“Those who dare, win,” Mark said as I wrestled with the decision. We raked over the ramifications with a fine-tooth comb.

One of my sons in Toronto had a spare key to our house. He dropped it off for our realtor. We did the calculations. Boom!

We had made a choice for beauty. For a slower pace. For something new and serene.

Our friends were incredulous – and often envious.

“I want to do that. But my husband won’t ever sell up,” many Torontonian friends commented.

“Wow, that takes courage!” others said, asking how we planned to make new friends. Several Nova Scotians have told us that many central Canadians talk about moving east when they’ve come on holiday, but chicken out.

Some had questions about the winter – not bad on the coast, as it turns out – and health care. We will figure it out, we say, confident in our belief that decisions – or non-decisions – shouldn’t be made out of fear.

Forget a life of doom-scrolling. We want beauty-surfing.

Every morning, before we open our eyes, we know where we are. We can feel it in our bones.

Still, we wake up with a feeling of childish amazement. A sunrise is painting itself in reds and yellows and oranges and blues outside our bedroom windows. And just as a child is astonished when he becomes aware of his identity, his being, we find ourselves here, deep in a new life and not in any other. There is chance in that. There is choice. There is beauty – and immense gratitude.

An earlier version of this story appeared on the Substack page of Sarah Hampson and Mark Raynes Roberts.

Read the Globe & Mail Article Here