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Breaking Free of Suburbia's Stranglehold

Asburn resident Liz Schnelzer, left, with son Logan, makes time for  twice-weekly walks with friend Roberta Weiker and her sons Anthony and Andrew, right.
Asburn resident Liz Schnelzer, left, with son Logan, makes time for twice-weekly walks with friend Roberta Weiker and her sons Anthony and Andrew, right. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

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By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 3, 2007

Jennifer McNelley's life felt like one big errand -- an endless series of Target runs and school drop-offs and commuting to two jobs from her Loudoun County home.

McNelley, a single mother of a 6-year-old, was feeling "overwhelmed and hopeless" when a flier appeared in her mailbox announcing a sermon series at her church called "Death by Suburb." The congregation would spend five weeks talking about the suburban lifestyle -- the consumerism and the overcaffeinated schedules, and how it all can choke the life out of you if you're not careful.

"That's how I feel . . . like we're squeezing in everything," said McNelley, 33. "My daughter has cried about it. She feels like we're always rushing. She asked me the other day, 'Mom, how come you never laugh anymore?' All I can think about is what needs to get done, laundry and everything else. It's affecting us hugely."

Turns out, many of McNelley's Ashburn neighbors were struggling with the same question: Is there a way, a slower way, to eke out more meaning in one's daily life? Now, they are all letting go of something so they can do more things that really matter.

Her friends Liz and Doug Schnelzer are letting the grass grow. Steve and Julie Johnston put their McMansion on the market so they could quit worrying about money and give more to charity. It was clear to McNelley that she needed to do something different, although she wasn't sure what.

It's not just suburban life that can leave people feeling like each day brings more of the same: commuting, work, errands, chores, pressure to pay the bills. The quest for more and bigger can breed isolation and stress, leaving some in the region to question their lifestyles.

David L. Goetz -- whose book "Death by Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul" inspired the discussions McNelley attended -- said such searching is universal.

"The struggle is: How do you view the world in a deeper, more mystical way when you're living in an environment that sucks you in with more shallow goals -- bigger house, better body, perfect kids?" he said.

The families trying to change their lives this spring ended up dealing in the currency of small gestures. Dishes went unwashed. Laundry piled up. Pouty teenagers were overruled.

Change, when it came, was slight. But significant.

The Johnstons: Downsizing

The house was perfect, with four bedrooms on a half-acre lot in the Regency, one of Loudoun's most exclusive subdivisions. Julie Johnston, a teacher, had painted many of the rooms a warm yellow to match her family's French country furniture.

After a while, though, the huge space began to weigh on her.

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