The Art of Leaving: The blessings of an uprooted life
When we left Virginia a year ago for Northern Michigan—driving 19 hours with two kids and two cats—I vowed I would never pack a box again. My husband and I are academics, but we must rival military families and missionaries in frequency of relocation. I have lost count of our moves.
We live on the school calendar, but for us, summer is a time not of rest but upheaval. Seniors graduate and strike out on their own, and the rest of the students pack their bags and leave until fall. Friends and colleagues work summer jobs in distant places or travel home to be with their families, or they take other jobs and move away for good. We spend our summers saying goodbye. As often as not, we are the family leaving. I never get rid of boxes anymore. I break them down and stack them in the basement or the garage, knowing we will need them again.
And we do. Sometime around May I heard that one of the new faculty cottages on the campus of the boarding school where my husband teaches was available. I was lured by the extra bathroom, eat-in kitchen and dishwasher. In late August we packed up the boxes and resettled in a house down the street.
My 8-year-old daughter has lived in eight houses in four states. I used to think with every move, this is the house that will be our children’s childhood home. In my first house as a newlywed, in South Bend, Ind., I invested months creating a nursery for the anticipated children that would grow up there. We moved when our first was 6 months old. Years later we bought a swing set for our backyard in Virginia—a tangible sign of commitment. We ended up paying the college to haul it away when we left for Michigan.
I am sorry I can’t give my kids what I had growing up—stable years with the same friends growing up together on the same streets, with grandparents, aunts and uncles a short drive away. Where I come from, kids grow up to live around the corner from their mommas. I did not leave southern Louisiana until I was 26 years old, when I moved to Pittsburgh to go to graduate school. Even going 90 miles away to Louisiana State University was a bold statement of independence. Moving to northern Louisiana was unheard of. But north of the Mason-Dixon? It just was not done.
The truth is I never meant to stay away so long. It was not supposed to be forever. So I mourn for myself too—mourn what my children don’t know to mourn—the withering of roots, the weakening of family ties across generations, the loss of connectedness to a specific landscape, a community, a culture. When, upon meeting me, people ask where I’m from, they often marvel that I have no accent, and it wounds me. I do not feel like a turncoat but like an exile. I suffer from intense homesickness and a longing to replant my roots in the marshy soil where I took my first steps. Yet it seems it is my destiny to head always farther north instead of back south.
Of Pilgrims and Parents
As a parent there is tremendous pressure to provide stability and roots for our children, but the truth is, I want it for myself, too. Many of my generation are living at home with their parents for financial reasons, and I often envy them. But are there benefits, too, to rootlessness, to adaptation and change? What are the blessings in the vagabond life?
In an effort to make our itinerancy more desirable and romantic, I have clung to certain stories and aphorisms: We are all pilgrims headed elsewhere. Our hearts are restless ’til they rest in God. I’ve sold my children on tales of explorers and orphans and outlaws and restless hobbits who seek adventure.
I think of Jesus’ injunction to the apostles in Lk 9:3: “Take nothing for your journey. No staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.” With our family and closest friends hundreds of miles away, we have been overwhelmed again and again by the kindness of people I barely know—the neighbor who baked me lembas bread at Christmas when she heard how much I loved Tolkien, the friend who built our children a tree house in the woods behind the new place. Without the daily support of our families, I have been forced to build relationships instead of fences—something that doesn’t come naturally to me. Everywhere we’ve lived we’ve forged a new family of friends and neighbors.
When we inevitably have to say goodbye to those friends and neighbors, I try to show my children how to take the parting hand with grace. I have stopped promising the kids we will visit the friends they make who move away or the friends we leave behind. There are too many to visit now. Their pen pals are scattered all over the map, coast to coast, in all directions. It is no longer realistic to make promises like that. I remind them and myself that, as C. S. Lewis said, Christians never really say goodbye; we say “see you later.”
Most important, when the homesickness becomes unbearable, I go to Mass. The familiar smells, sounds and language of the liturgy have always comforted me, like the smells of my mother’s house. But there is something deeper too. Even when there is no incense or stained glass and the songs are unfamiliar and the sanctuary smells like musty carpet, I am reminded that I am part of a family who will never be separated, no matter the space or the time.
These are a few of the gifts of rootlessness.
Still. Just once I’d like to see the perennial gardens I foolishly plant at every house come to fruition. I want to keep my friends for longer than an academic year. I want to see my dad grow old. I want to go home.
On Our Way
There’s a chapter I love in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows called “Wayfarers All.” I remembered it as an ode to the vagabond life and the pilgrim spirit in us all, but when I re-read it to my daughter recently at bedtime, I saw that it is quite the opposite. It is about the particular gift of rootedness, of staying put and the power of art-making to heal a restless soul.
The chapter begins with the River Rat watching with great irritation and envy as other animals make plans to leave his beloved English countryside and head south for the winter: “The Rat was a self-sufficing sort of animal, rooted to the land, and, whoever went, he stayed; still, he could not help noticing what was in the air, and feeling some of its influence in his bones.”
Then poor Rat is utterly seduced by a charming seafarer who strolls into town with his romantic tales of distant ports. By the time Rat finishes lunch he is in a trance-like state, ready to leave behind his home for a life of adventure. This alarms his dear friend the Mole. To talk Rat down, he chats with him about the everyday, and all the beloved familiarities a new season brings:
The harvest that was being gathered in, the towering wagons and their straining teams, the growing ricks, and the large moon rising over bare acres dotted with sheaves…. By degrees the Rat began to sit up and to join in. His dull eye brightened, and he lost some of his listening air.
Mole, seeing his chance, slips Rat a few sheets of paper and a pencil, remarking: “It’s quite a long time since you did any poetry.... You might have a try at it this evening, instead of—well, brooding over things so much.”
The Rat pushed the paper away from him wearily, but the discreet Mole took occasion to leave the room, and when he peeped in again some time later, the Rat was absorbed and deaf to the world; alternately scribbling and sucking the top of his pencil. It is true that he sucked a good deal more than he scribbled; but it was joy to the Mole to know that the cure had at least begun.
The story takes a great shot at that enduring myth of bohemianism—that we must live free and wild and detached to make art. Great lives have surely been led this way, the Mole seems to understand, but it’s not the only way. It’s also possible that the continuity and peace of a settled life enable us to channel our restless longings into something beautiful, something that lasts.
As we moved our boxes down the street to this second Northern Michigan house, the students returned for the fall semester, and I watched the tourists scatter for their southerly homes, knowing I must winter here. I was standing in the kitchen, wondering how I might muster the enthusiasm for organizing yet another set of cabinets, when two students arrived to collect the few things I had stored for them in our previous basement. It was just a few things and no trouble at all—the sorts of extras you might want for a dorm room but not for the train ride back to Brooklyn: a lamp with a candy pink shade, an oversized teddy bear, a suitcase full of towels. The students were musicians, and to thank us, they offered to play a couple of songs in our new living room. We gathered the children on the couch as one of them tuned her banjo and began to sing, with much more depth and longing and conviction than I would have imagined possible from a teenaged girl, the folk song “Wayfaring Stranger.”
In the spring, these students too will graduate, and our paths may never cross again. My own family may again be on the move. But I hope I don’t forget the day we gathered in that unfamiliar living room, and they sat on the little stools at my daughter’s art table to offer us a kind of blessing.
If I can’t make a gift of staying put, as Rat did, maybe this is how to make a gift of an unsettled life: to take our offerings—our songs, our stories, ourselves—door to door, to give whatever we can make to another, so that even if only for a short time, we are no longer strangers, but fellow pilgrims going home.