Lee Lawrence: Fleeing New York for the Rural Life

While some gay and lesbian people spend their lives trying to escape the isolation and loneliness associated with being different, some have the opposite problem.

Lee Lawrence had a successful design career in New York, but his personal and emotional life was not nearly so successful. Something had to change, so he left his job and prepared to leave town.

“My life at that point was filled with frustration and insecurity,” Lee Lawrence, now 58, says of his days as an interior designer in Manhattan. “My design career was going well, my Manhattan duplex apartment was impressive, and yet I lived with discontent daily. Something wasn’t right. I was always in some kind of emotional turmoil and didn’t know how to get out.”

Lawrence was physically sick. A cold or the flu seemed to constantly invade him. Then he happened to read a letter his brother-in-law’s aunt had sent back from Thailand, where she was living in a monastery. She wrote of a simpler life than the one she found in the United States.

“Yes, frankly, I am happy to be back here,” Aunt Pauline wrote about returning to Thailand. “Life in the USA is far too hectic and violent for me. For material comforts, America, of course, is marvelous, but for peace of mind and genuine health they are going in the opposite direction. Excitement and overactivity is the conditioned way of life and these very things cause innumerable physical and mental sicknesses. In America I was so terribly nervous. I wanted true peace of mind and so I decided to try another way of life.”

Lawrence was not the victim of the stresses of living in a global community nor did the often-blamed Information Age cause his stress. It was 1970, years before the Internet and pervasive security cameras, when he packed up and left New York.

Lawrence knew then that he needed to try another way of life, too, but he didn’t think he was suited for Thailand or a monastery.

“I left New York in May of 1970 driving a pick-up and camper, with my Great Dane Misty riding shotgun as we headed for New England,” he said. “I had no idea where I was going or what I would eventually end up doing with my life. I didnt belong in New York anymore and that was enough.”

He drifted along the Eastern Seaboard, then settled in California in 1973. In 1980, he moved to rural Tennessee and opened Lee Valley Farm, a naturalist bed and breakfast.

The rural life that to many in our community would seem a nightmare of isolation turned out to be the fulfillment of Lawrences dream. He says he thinks many people experience the longing he felt to escape of the city.

“[Gay youth] grow up in the country and when the hormones kick in they’ve got to get out of the country… and off they go to the city,” Lawrence says. “And then twenty or thirty or forty years later, they try to get back as fast as they can. They have a yearning for simplicity.”

He says theres nothing wrong with the desire to leave the country or the yearning to return. Neither type of life is for everyone, and some people need to experience both. “Do it all,” he says.

However, he recommends country life.

“There are certain healing qualities in the country that simply don’t exist in the city,” he says.

Since Lawrence runs a retreat, he’s not as isolated as some who live in the boonies; he has the opportunity to interact with people, but the interaction is in a different way than in the city.

“I don’t know that I’d want to do this without the people who come here,” he says. “I get a great deal of companionship and stimulation, but I get it on my terms.”

Lawrence says the farm is no longer a business to him; it is his way of life. That was evident when legal problems threatened to shut it down.

“That was probably the most difficult moment of my life,” Lawrence says. “When the state came and said they were going to close me down, I went into an absolute panic. That was Big Brother, and I had spent my life avoiding Big Brother.”

To escape government regulations, he decided to no longer charge fees for visits to the farm. That meant he didnt have to remodel his kitchen or keep pets out of the house or anything else that bed-and-breakfasts have to do keep Bog Brother at bay.

Lawrence, who is a freelance writer, now offers his farm as a location for individual and group writing retreats.

“Writing is a solitary activity. Nobody can put the words in your head and no one can create emotions that don’t exist. But every writer knows that certain situations, people or activities can act as a trigger — the catalyst that enables feelings to surface and words to spill onto the page or screen,” he said.

“A writer coming to Lee Valley Farm can tap into the energy that exists all around us. He or she can share that energy with other writers, and when that happens the blocks fall away, laughter comes forth, tears are shed and the words are all yours,” Lawrence said.

It is one more way that he can offer to others the contentment and health he has found from rural living.

Living in the country does have some drawbacks, however, and Lawrence says he misses some things about the city — at least two things anyway.

“Bakeries,” he says.

“And dialing-out for pizza.”

In May 1999, Lee emailed to tell me he left his farm to move to an even more isolated location. I later got word that he died from complications of HIV/AIDS. Despite his openness to me during our interview, he did not want me to reveal his HIV status in my original article.

In April 2011, I wrote again about Lee and his legacy in an article for my simple living blog So Much More Life called What Are Your Doing To Preserve Your Simple Legacy? I wrote the article after being contacted by one of Lee’s friends about newsletters Lee wrote that were in danger of being lost.