Every morning I wake up around seven. I check my Twitter feed, shower, play with the kids and leave for work just after eight. It takes me about twenty minutes to drive from Rongotea, the small, 600-person Manawatu village where we live, to my office in Palmerston North, where I work as a lawyer.
I ask myself—is this what they mean by the good life?
Like a lot of small New Zealand settlements, Rongotea has a lot of character. All the streets are named after English rivers and they’re lined with cherry blossoms that are glorious for a few weeks every spring. There’s a superette, a feed store, a café, a pub, takeaways and all the other things you would expect in such a place.
Still, it’s not exactly on-trend. Popular culture and long term statistical projections hold that the flow of people is supposed to run out of smaller centres and into larger ones. While I grew up here and returned, few of my high school friends were able to resist the pull of Wellington, Auckland, and even bigger smokes further afield.
So as somebody who once fancied himself as a person who could make a bit of a splash in the world, some explanation is in order. And, truth be told, it wasn’t all by design. As John Lennon said, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Planned or unplanned, here’s how it happened.
In 2008, I was twenty-two, engaged, living in Wellington, and at a crossroads. I would soon be finishing law school and had a part time job as a dogsbody at one of the country’s bigger firms. I lacked the grades or other qualifying characteristics for a career there, however, and the economy was pretty weak. Law blogs were filled with stories of layoffs and retrenchment, as the profession wilted in a hostile market.
I had vaguely recalled reading somewhere that former US Chief Justice William Rehnquist had advised his clerks to “move home” to begin their careers. It wasn’t what I had intended when I moved to Wellington but it wasn’t like I had established myself as a high-flier. In a time of uncertainty and insecurity, moving back to the Manawatu didn’t seem like the worst idea in the world.
I got to talking about this to one of my professors and, in a move for which I will always be grateful, he decided to help me out. He jacked up an interview with a very good Manawatu firm and it went well. In a bearish job market, I was lucky enough to have a job in private practice secured at my graduation—a rare thing for a not off-the-charts-brilliant law school student at the time.
It was in a smaller city, though, and a good friend tried to persuade me not to take it up by warning me that I was going to end up a “Dennis Denuto,” the hapless lawyer from The Castle. That was easy for him to say, of course, given he had a job sewn up at a premier firm. I shrugged it off at the time and then waved away his subsequent apology.
But the comment bothered me more than I let on. And it still does, sometimes, when I am feeling a bit low. It gave me pause.
In the end, it came down to a question of priorities.
My wife and I had started dating while we were both studying in Wellington, and we were to be married in the Catholic Church. Before this can happen, there’s a process of mandatory couples counselling. These sessions were excruciating at the time, but very helpful in hindsight. It turns out, you see, that it really helps a marriage when you go into it on the same page.
We both wanted at least three children and a house with a big garden. That would be harder in Wellington and Auckland, where dirt is that much more expensive. The opportunity in the provinces (closer to our families too, by the way) really aligned with our shared goals. When you granted that, all else was vanity.
So I got married, finished school and we got up and moved to Palmerston North. I started work was admitted to the bar in the High Court at Palmerston North. We had to wait for a judge to be there on circuit but I was admitted by myself rather than as one in a group of thirty.
Which was the provinces in a nutshell, really. Much less glamour and more delayed gratification but less competition at the same time. Funnily enough, when I looked up the Rehnquist advice about going home, it turned out that his reasoning was that you could leapfrog your contemporaries through a sheer lack of competitors.
Work in a smaller city is, by necessity, often small time. While my contemporaries started out working on big regulatory cases for multinational corporations, the first thing I had to draft was a will for an elderly couple. I drafted a great deal of wills in those earlier years (and still do, from time to time).
In a good provincial firm, however, there’s also a constant flow of interesting work. In the last few years, I’ve review tenders for contracts with governments, prepared documents and handled transactions for large corporations. I’ve even had to deal with a US intelligence agency.
We were initially flatting on the edge of the “city centre” but after a few years we were able to buy a three-bedroom mortgage. My wife was still studying and, contrary to the expectations of many, the law is not a high paying profession in the early years. But with a limited guarantee from my parents and no LVRs to contend with, we just managed.
It was the back flat on a cross lease title on Limbrick Street. It was a good street and we paid just over two hundred thousand for the place (on the basis that the vendor wouldn’t have to complete the half-finished repaint). At 130 square metres, it was smaller than where we wanted to end up but it wasn’t a bad place to start as a member of the landed classes at the age of 25.
On the whole, it was an astonishingly fun and hedonistic part of our life. We went out for dinner, the movies and town quite often. We’d drive down to Wellington or over to Hawke’s Bay when we felt like it.
Like all locals I soon developed a repertoire of pre-prepared zingers to use when the joys of provincial life were questioned by people from the bigger smokes. If somebody asked me what there was to do, for example, I might respond by telling them I watched the same TV shows that they watched. Around my big city friends, I was always very careful to ostentatiously moan about how bad traffic sometimes meant it took me 12 minutes to get to work.
There’s a bit of a trap here, though, and it’s easy to let a sort of inferiority complex take hold. This life has its charms but by no means is it perfect. Sometimes, especially if you don’t have kids yet, you really do want to go out somewhere for a drink at 10pm on a weeknight.
And the thing about being a lawyer or in any other kind of demanding profession is work-life balance is a bit of a myth wherever you are. Once you become capable you soon find that there’s more work than you can really handle. In fact, it can be exacerbated in the provinces due to the difficulty in convincing younger professionals to follow in your footsteps.
Of course, one of the whole reasons we had moved to Palmerston North was the fact that we wanted a family and, at the age of 28, I suddenly realised we hadn’t made any real moves in that direction. So we did. And in 2015 we had our first son.
The following year, we decided to have another one. And all of a sudden, the 130 square metres with a little garden out the front seemed kind of small. We really wanted something bigger.
By this point the shockwaves of the property boom had reached the Manawatu and on a single income, the prices in the city were a bit much for us.
So to get a bigger house we needed to go to a smaller place. We ended up in the Rongotea, which is a 20-minute drive from the Palmerston North CBD and where a big, rambling five-bedroom villa could be had for under $250,000. It’s also about ten minutes from the farm I grew up on, and four generations of Hehirs are buried in the village ceremony.
Rongotea is a nice place. It is safe with parks and playgrounds and a well-regarded school. And I am really glad we moved there when we did.
But the strange thing was that when our friends in Palmerston North learned we were shifting to Rongotea, their reactions were so similar to our Wellington friends when we told them we were moving to Palmerston North: bafflement, concern and pity. But it was okay—we’d been there before.
As with the move to Palmerston North, there were adjustments to be made. When you live in a small village, it’s compulsory to say hello to people when you pass them on the pavement. Every business owner learns your name, so you have to learn them back.
It’s not always the most comfortable thing, but authentic communities rarely are. The synthetic cliques of online life are self-selected, curated, and optional. Like cities, they also hold out the false comforts of anonymity too. When you live in a village, you sacrifice much of that choice but you become integrated into something that is larger than yourself, which exists for reasons other than your own convenience.
The upshot of this is that, ironically, living in a sleepy country village can mean less isolation than living in a city teeming with people. Local institutions are strong. New Zealand’s indigenous playcentre movement is a focal point for community life and this takes up a lot of my wife’s time. So is the local rugby club and our first boy has just completed his first season of Saturday morning games. As a professional you end up doing work for a lot of them which means you’ve got to be extra careful not to screw up—because you know their faces are going to jump out every place you go.
But once you’re used to that, you soon find that it’s really quite congenial to belong to a community that’s so, well, integrated.
The real test came a couple of years ago when all of a sudden, we found ourselves at a crossroads. My career had kicked it up a gear and I realised I was pretty advanced for my age. Lucrative job opportunities from the main centres arrived at a regular clip. There were also prospects of jobs in politics, which I had long coveted.
Rehnquist’s advice had proved prescient. The low cost of living meant we had accumulated enough to make a triumphant return to Wellington if we really wanted to where the possibilities of real money and influence were serious. The question really came down to what we really wanted.
Truth be told we did think about it. Hard. Had we just told ourselves that it made sense to live here because we didn’t realistically have other options?
But whether through choice or circumstance, it eventually became clear to us that we were in the right place. I’ve got a good job where I am more or less my own boss doing interesting work for people who I get to know well. My children are happy and healthy and, I am pleased to say, innocent in our quiet corner of the world. My wife, though she hasn’t been employed for years, is much more connected than I am through the simple networks of country living. We’ve been in the Manawatu for ten years now. Is it the good life? Well, it’s certainly a good life, and I’ve found, that’s enough.