Rootedness and Uprootedness: A Lament

mosaic

In the past few weeks, I’ve learned of impending relocations of more relatives west of the Mississippi River, including one family that has been in the same state for decades and one elderly relative who has even been in the same house since the mid-1960s. One by one or in clumps, over the past several years it seems that both sides of my family (or at least the parts I stayed in touch with) are gradually relocating at least two time zones to the west, with all indications that they mean the move to be permanent.

I couldn’t quite place how I felt about all that when I learned it. It seemed a combination of anger, disappointment, betrayal, regret, helplessness and loss all bound up together into one unnameable emotion.

I don’t blame the individual members for their reasons, to be sure. For some, it is for work. For some, it is health. For others, it is simply a desire for a major change of scenery they’ve never had before. For still others, it is to be close to those who were already headed that way. And even though we haven’t lived less than hundreds of miles from most of them for many years, this series of relocations seems to me far more tragic than when we at least lived in the same time zone, within a day’s drive.

It all seems just wrong, like a violation of some sort. And of course, I suppose I have little room to talk. I ran off and went to seminary, offering up my locus and domus on a platter to the hierarchy like a good soldier. I just happened to get assigned to my native time zone at something relatively near my accustomed latitude. So my loyalty to—what, exactly?—only remains vaguely intact for reasons mainly beyond my control. But I still nevertheless feel that it is right I should be here (even though it is no credit to me) and that my family ought to be somewhere accessible to me and to my children. Shouldn’t they be allowed to know them?

Again, I am not blaming any of them individually or even as a group. Their reasons are all pretty decent reasons. But for many of them—for many of us, I should say—there is nothing to violate. There is no home. There is no hometown. There is no ancestral land, no place where we all once were from, no place to go back home to. There’s just nothing.

For generations now, my family on both sides has been mobile. They usually didn’t head this far out, to be sure, but they were mobile. There hasn’t been a home for… well, I don’t exactly know how long. Maybe a century. Home seems to me some kind of artifact hanging on the wall of a museum, fashioned by hands long cold and dead. I can see it and see how beautiful it is, but I can’t quite touch it. It is out of reach, behind the glass, above my head, somewhere else. But not here.

One of the curiosities of what it means to experience the peoples of Orthodox Christianity in America is that we are always encountering immigration. In one form or another, immigration touches everything we do. Everyone here either is or knows someone who is far from home, who has left family behind somewhere, stranded on a map somewhere. We continually are confronted by uprootedness, an unsettled restlessness where the heart is always somewhere else. But even the immigrant has a home, a place to locate his heart, even if it is not here. I’m not really sure what my family has. It’s not that.

My wife and I made a commitment to try to give our children this thing we’ve never had—a home. It’s kind of laughable, though, isn’t it? I’ve moved twenty-two times, and she’s moved twenty-three. We’re not experts on home, not by a long shot. But we want roots. I want them really badly.

Roots are a curious thing, though, something that can take generations really to put down, even for trees. And some trees will never come to their full glory within the lifetime of those who plant them. I feel that way sometimes about my now 15-year-old move into Orthodoxy. I know so many families whose whole lives are bound up in this faith, bound together with cords that are centuries old, and I am deeply covetous. I don’t know of anything that binds my family together like that. Even though most of them are all Evangelicals of one sort or another, they’re distributed nearly randomly among a post-denominational handful of churches that happen to be close to them and are mainly the kind of thing they’re used to.

But I dream of “the Orthodox Damicks,” and I don’t know if I will ever see such a thing. Right now, we are the only ones. Will my children remain in the Church? Will they marry Orthodox Christians and raise Orthodox Christians? Will they know Emmaus as their home and remain in the Lehigh Valley so that we all will celebrate Pascha and Christmas and Theophany together, so that I will get to baptize and marry them, so that many cousins will go to church together, so that love will not only be something we do over the telephone?

Forgive me all this. I know it’s self-indulgent. But I do have a point in all this. Even though it’s true that we have no continuing city, that we seek the one to come, we best reflect and preach that city that is to come by making the homes we have into Paradise as much as we are able.

I think it will be long after I am dead before the Orthodox Damicks will have their earthly Paradise, at least the incomplete, contingent one that will help them along to salvation toward the true Paradise. But like a monk I know once told me, you still plant the tree, even though you know it may be a century before it’s truly grown.

Gardening is hard. We do it anyway.

5 comments:

  1. My parents moved around a bit before I was born, eventually ending up two states away from their families (4 hour drive to our closest relatives) when I was about 4 years old. They’ve been in that same house, however, for over 25 years, now.

    My brother has moved many states away, and my sister is one state away (for now).

    But I have stayed in pretty much the same place for over 25 years. I don’t love everything about where I am, and I don’t even feel particularly connected to the area, to be honest. At the same time, I am loathe to leave. Perhaps I will someday, but not in the near future. I remember talking to an older lady, once, who told me that I should move around, experience life in other places, and all I can think is, “Why? Sure, cultures are different and all, but *people* are basically the same where ever you go. Besides, this is the culture I grew up in, the culture I know. Why should I leave this, sacrifice this stability, just so I can say, ‘oh, yes, I lived in New York City for a while’?”

    Again, perhaps my job, or my wife’s job will eventually take us elsewhere, or some other life circumstance, but, for now, I’m happy establishing my family right here, where I grew up.

  2. “I’ve been at Indiana University in one capacity or another since 2003, somewhat ironically making it the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere. My family bounced around a lot for reasons best recounted elsewhere, and even now, they live, quite dispersed, in places I have never lived, in houses I never called home, in zip codes I never visited until they moved there. Brown can rely on her connection with the place of Elgin, Illinois as an anchor for where she is now, but I am literally from nowhere, in the sense that I have had to construct my notion of ‘home’ from different raw materials than place and family, and I find it very difficult to relate to concepts of home that do center around place and family. If my family moved around for reasons having to do with the military or career development, than I might be able to legitimately claim – as a friend of mine, the son of a prominent Russian History scholar, does – to be a ‘citizen of the world,’ to be from everywhere. Alas, I can claim nothing quite so romantic or interesting. Robert Frost once said that home is where, if you have to go there, they have to take you, but the places where that is even marginally true are places that have never actually been a part of my life. If Brown is correct that one’s biography is closely linked to place, than I truly am the Nowhere Man – so again, why should anybody care what I think?”

    http://leitourgeia.com/2009/11/11/embracing-paleostructuralism/

  3. Funny that you should speak of wanting roots and great families ties. I have that. My large, extended family is spread out between several adjacent villages, not to speak of all those in other communities throughout the Americas. The whole lot of us are Old Believers, tied together by a faith, a culture, and a language distinct from those around us. I have a wondrous family network, but, alas, I may just lose all of that.

    They’ll still remain where they are and who they are but I will be different. To be joined with the Bride of Christ, the Orthodox Church, I’ll have to give up all that. I’ll have to give up everything and everyone I know (mostly anyhow). To be received by the Nikonians, the enemy, I imagine, will be perceived as being worse than simple apostasy. It’ll be the very antithesis of the belief system in which I was raised.

    I have roots. I love my roots. Too soon, however, I might just end up an uprooted sapling.

  4. Growing up, my mother moved us around 16 times from the time I was 12 until I was 18. Partly due to our very tenuous resources, partly due to my mother’s mental unraveling, and partly due to our violent father from whom we were running. One of those years, we moved three times. I would only unpack items I used daily–everything else stayed in boxes stacked in my room and closet, and I was in my 30s before I got out of that habit, even though I didn’t move myself around like that when I had finally gotten my own apartment somewhere. The insecurity was still there.

    Family was never an issue–my mother cut us off from all family on both sides, and I was again in my 30s when I went hunting around for relatives on the internet (of all farcical places.) By the time I found a handful of them, two uncles were dead and my grandfather was in his last year of Alzheimer’s.

    I’m probably three feet left of ‘neurotic’ at this point, but I’ve found that the adaptive nature of man–when deprived of the ability to put down roots in any one spot–will invariably find something else to tether himself to, and that ‘something’ usually ends up being either self-destructive, or a thing far more substantial than physical location or domicile.

    Your head’s screwed on straight–that’s half the battle right there. If I had to guess, I’d say you’re going to be just fine.

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