“Do Not Make an Idol of This Place”: When Love and Loss of Place Collide

What do you do when a place is incredibly beautiful to you, and deeply meaningful, but in order to grow as a person, you must leave and settle elsewhere?

That question is one I think about a lot, especially as I have been working on settling into our current home. I have lived in a lot of places with significant meaning. My home town and county, with its rich history, river-carved landscape and Midwest/Southern influence. An Estonian city known for its deep intellectual life and long history. The oldest city in North America, and the easternmost point of the continent. A desert city surrounded by mountains. And two college towns, both near home and both extremely influential in how I live my life.

Recently, I watched a beautiful short film called Journey to Pascha, which was created by a catechumen/photojournalism student who attends my former parish in Kentucky. Although I am a proud Hoosier, I will not deny that I also love the state right across the river. I spent many summers and car trips through the state, visiting family, seeing different historic sites, and eventually attending graduate school there for two years.

I came to Kentucky less than two months after returning home from a semester in Estonia. The transition was initially difficult, but the more I dove into the life of the place, the more I loved it. When I began attending the Orthodox mission near my university, it only solidified the love. In my last semester of graduate school, I found myself surrounded by a group of people who had either made a lifelong effort to be a part of the faith (sometimes driving up to 2 hours each Sunday for Divine Liturgy), or who had found it, and wanted to spend their life in the Church. Even after graduating, and moving back home until I moved to Canada, I spent my weekends in Kentucky with people from the parish. It was, simply put, where I felt most at home.

I wanted to return as soon as possible, and when I had the opportunity to return to Kentucky for work, I did. However, as I was transitioning back to life in the US, my new spiritual father, Fr. Michael Nasser, gave me very short, but very important advice:

“Do not make an idol of this place.”

It was not even nine months later that I found out that my job would not be renewed for a second year. It was not a decision that I could control, and one that I was deeply disappointed by. I had tried extremely hard to settle in a place that I loved, and would have to either find alternate work in the city, or leave again. I did nearly everything I could to stay, even applying for things that really didn’t fit with my skills or experience, just to be able to remain. However, it was to no avail, and with few other options related to my field, I began to look elsewhere, eventually finding an opportunity in Tucson.

Ultimately, it was the right decision. In Tucson, I had the support I needed to finish my doctorate, and the strength to eventually find work that could properly support my family.   Meanwhile, in Kentucky, I saw the university I studied, and worked for, gradually strip away the office in which I worked, leaving it in such a state that it did not even resemble itself. Even now, people are continuing to get laid off, or their positions are being eliminated after they retire. It is very likely that even if I had remained working there, I would not have a job.

However, the feelings of missing the place still exist. They come and go in waves, and the feelings are simply that. They can exist, but they ultimately cannot take care of a family.

However, in losing a place (even temporarily), there can be much to gain. One of the most striking stories about loss of place comes from the life story of St. Porphyrios of Kafsokalyvia. St. Porphyrios ran away from home at the age of 14 or 15 to escape to the Holy Mountain, eventually becoming tonsured as a monk with the name Nikitas. However, his stay was relatively short-lived:

While he was on Mount Athos he suffered a bout of pleurisy at about the age of eighteen and his elders sent him to a monastery outside Athos for treatment. At this monastery on Euboea he met the Archbishop of Sinai, Porphyrios, who, after observing that the young monk had been visited by God’s Grace, ordained him as a priest at the age of twenty. A little later the local metropolitan bishop made him a spiritual confessor and so the gift of clairvoyance with which God had endowed Porphyrios was placed at the service of the faithful. With this gift the young hieromonk and spiritual confessor Porphyrios helped people to escape from various snares of the Devil, to understand what was going on in their souls, to reject the deceitful claims of witches who drained them of all their money under the pretext that they could break the spells that afflicted them, to discern and heal their bodily ailments and their causes, and generally to see and understand things that would help them in their lives.

Eventually, not long before his repose in 1991, then-Elder Porphyrios returned to the Holy Mountain, settling in the same cell that he had to leave some seven decades before. He returned when the time was right, and the impact that he made as a result of leaving is not without notice.

While a person grows from leaving a place, it can be a great challenge. One of the best literary examples I can think of is that of Alexei/Alyosha from The Brothers Karamazov. Alyosha, a novice monk, is sent by his elder, Elder Zosima, to leave the monastery, which causes Alyosha great sorrow and inner conflict:

“Let me stay here,” Alyosha entreated.

“You are more needed there. There is no peace there. You will wait, and be of service. If evil spirits rise up, repeat a prayer. And remember, my son”—the elder liked to call him that—“this is not the place for you in the future. When it is God’s will to call me, leave the monastery. Go away for good.”

Alyosha started.

“What is it? This is not your place for the time. I bless you for great service in the world. Yours will be a long pilgrimage. And you will have to take a wife, too. You will have to bear all before you come back. There will be much to do. But I don’t doubt of you, and so I send you forth. Christ is with you. Do not abandon Him and He will not abandon you. You will see great sorrow, and in that sorrow you will be happy. This is my last message to you: in sorrow seek happiness. Work, work unceasingly. Remember my words, for although I shall talk with you again, not only my days but my hours are numbered.”

[…]

Father Zossima raised his hand to bless him. Alyosha could make no protest, though he had a great longing to remain. ”

I have written before about how we shift between worlds of vulnerability and worlds of familiarity in our lives. Worlds of vulnerability bring new experiences, new wisdom and new outlooks, but those come through struggle. Worlds of familiarity exist for the same purpose, but they are often a place of re-centering, rather than de-centering.

Sometimes the same place is, for better or worse, a bit of both. As Alyosha returns to the monastery upon the repose of Elder Zosima, a series of events occurs that unravels all that he previously thought to be true. He struggles, because the world he loved is not, in fact, the world he saw before his eyes. The romance and the naive longing for a place wears off, like we often see in travel literature about places like Paris, which are quite beautiful in some places but dreary in others.

The challenge of struggling where we are, rather than thinking of someplace where we might struggle less, is a great one. But, as St. Porphyrios demonstrates, leaving that place of familiarity, even in a process of sorrow, brings us closer to home, and brings us towards our ultimate goal.

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Small Things, Great Joy

When there is a respect for small things, there will be an even greater respect towards the bigger things. When there is no respect for small things, then neither will their be for the bigger ones. This is how the Fathers maintained tradition.

-St. Paisios the Athonite

Like a lot of people, the time after Pascha has been difficult. After putting so much energy into the Lenten season, the challenge of avoiding a crash is a big one, and I’ve certainly fallen into the pattern (again). It comes at a time where a lot of things happened around the time of Pascha (e.g., an exhibit opening, a dance competition, etc.), and since then, I’ve been in a sort of survival mode to keep going until the next wave rises.

Additionally, my daughter’s had a resurgence of some of her pre-medication symptoms, which has made things really, really difficult at times. Granted, I was fully aware that this could happen from time to time, but when it did, I don’t believe I was fully prepared for it, and as a result, I started to become despondent. In those moments- where you’ve had a wave of joy and it starts to fade again- you fear that you will lose it, and lose it forever. It’s difficult not to say “Why? We just got things going again, and now it’s setting back before our eyes.”

In that process, however, I have realized that things are always going. Life never stops going. Rather, it tends to go high, or it tends to go low, with the intention being the same: to help us realize our connection to God, and His intention for our lives.

Recently, I was listening and watching to the recent series, “The Comforter,” a homily series by Fr. Nicholas Louh that is featured on his podcast Healthy Souls. Focusing on the sending of the Holy Spirit, Fr. Nick spoke of the Holy Spirit as a comforter, and comfort comes in the form of focusing on things that are praiseworthy, rather than following more earthly matters that don’t tend to glorify God. One of the most powerful quotes that came from the homily series was very simple:

“You will never have peace following the other voices in your life.”

More often than not, the person who puts those voices in my head, is me. In public, if one of my children is struggling in front of other people, my thoughts tend to wander to the voices of the other people around me, and forget about the cry for help coming from the struggles of my kids. When I hear people talk about things they recently bought, or journeys that might be going on, I sometimes fall into the trap that, in order to be worthy of personhood, I have to incorporate those things into my life as well. It is very, very hard, especially growing up in a generation that is struggling more economically than those before them.

Even those though things are of this earth, what I eventually realized is that they have no roots in something bigger. Fr. Nick’s series had a well-stated fact about our connectivity: “You’ll never grow fruit if you’re not connected to the root.” Things on the surface often lack those roots; that’s why they are on the surface in the first place. At the same time, the process of establishing and building those roots is not something that can be done in the course of a few weeks, or a year. Roots grow for a lifetime, and they grow if we are feeding them, and keeping them connected to the soil in which they grow and take hold. Building those roots is how peace is acquired, and according to Fr. Nick, “We need to be able to tune in, follow and be comforted by [the Holy Spirit]…when you wake up in the morning, God is knocking at the door of your heart…”

In times of struggle, it’s hard not to speak up, and be transparent, and up front. It’s hard to not want to shout from the world, “I am a human, and I am having a horrible wave of frustration, anger and despondency, and I want your respect and attention.” Admittedly, I’ve been on the side of over-sharing, and not processing those emotions before projecting them out into the world. This can lead to trouble, and bring people into situations that they may not be able to properly understand or respond to.

In one of his Comforter homilies, Fr. Nick noted that has a profound effect on our actions, and it’s not just rooted in feeling, but in thought: “the way we think determines how we feel; how we feel manifests in the way in which we act…Negativity will never grow in a giving heart.” In times of trouble, giving, and working together, has been the way to overcome the waves of struggle. And in these times, waiting for a giant, sweeping deus ex machina to come through and smooth things out will only disappoint. Instead, as St. Paisios stated, the small things will make all of the difference.

The way that we have responded at home is to undertake smaller, but more meaningful actions. I confess that, for all of my Orthodox life, I did not have a firm prayer rule until this spring. And, when i finally received one from my spiritual father, it was smaller than the one I had forced upon myself. As a result, it’s easier to adhere to, and my prayer life has been more consistent and regular.

In our home, being renters means that we cannot engage in large-scale renovation or restoration, but are instead limited to small but helpful changes around the house and garden. In the last few weeks, we have turned our weed-laden yard into a tidy, colorful garden space, and the processes- the little ones- have brought our family together in a new way. My kids adore watering, weeding, and having the chance to cultivate and grow their first flowers, herbs and tomato plant. My wife and I are working together to create small decorative pieces that add a sense of optimism and beauty to the space.

I recently reviewed the new Ancient Faith Publishing book by L. Joseph Letendre, When You Pray,  and it featured the advice of turning very small moments into prayerful moments. I thought of some of the prayerful moments that I have lost from small tasks at home and work: transferring laundry to the dryer, taking trash and recyclables to our backyard bins, and even cutting construction paper for our many school tours. I haven’t made a full list, but it’s not a bad idea. In those moments, a small and tedious task suddenly becomes a moment of prayer, and thus a moment of joy.

Eventually, all small things could become moments of prayer.

Small and Practical Guide to Prayer

(This was a review I recently did for Behind the Scenes, one of the many blogs featured at Ancient Faith Radio.)

When You Pray coverSometimes, the most powerful and effective books are the ones that are short, simple, and full of practical ideas. Examples such as Tito Colliander’s The Way of the Ascetics and Metropolitan Anthony Bloom’s Beginning to Pray are compact, portable, and filled with encouraging suggestions for ways to make small but meaningful life changes.

When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer – a new book by author L. Joseph Entendre – is no exception. Originally a series of talks on prayer given to members of the St. Moses the Ethiopian Community (a group of incarcerated Orthodox Christians at Indiana State Prison), the book serves as a practical guide to prayer that can be applied by anyone in the Church, from the neophyte inquirer to long-time Orthodox believers. At 65 pages, the book does not focus on extensive personal stories, but instead breaks down its thought on prayer into a set of short but attention-grabbing chapters. The brevity of the chapters is an asset, not only for the reader, but also for anyone who is looking to help others learn how to pray.

In keeping with the brief nature of the book itself, the lessons throughout When You Pray focus on simplicity, particularly in prayer. One of the core principles throughout the book can be best summed up in a sentence from Chapter 5: “Pray as you can, not as you want; do fewer things better.” Readers are encouraged to go slowly, rather than diving into hundreds of Jesus Prayers or kathismas, and the text is clear in its focus: pray frequently and consistently, but do not overdo it. This message is well-stated, and is one of the book’s best takeaways.

In another section, “Pray Frequently,” Letendre asks readers to focus on thinking of “a short, simple prayer we can use at any time, at any place, and in any circumstance.” By thinking of multiple types of prayer, including short Gospel and Psalm verses, moments of saying grace, and the Jesus Prayer, the book seeks to expand the reader’s view of prayer, creating a stronger toolkit to be used in everyday practice. The book is such that it – like the prayers that it promotes readers to engage in – can be used at any time, any place, and in any circumstance. Perfect for a backpack, desk, or travel bag, When You Pray is easily transported, accessed, and utilized in any Orthodox home or setting.

The Process, The Vocation and the Craft Documentary

Always look ahead and above yourself. Always try to improve on yourself. Always strive to elevate your craft. That’s what he taught me.
-Yoshikazu Ono, son of famed sushi chef Jiro Ono

An admission: I don’t watch a lot of current-day television. My wife and I have been long-standing Netflix subscribers, but most of the time, our girls are using it to watch a couple of episodes of their favorite shows. I usually spend more time scrolling through Netflix trying to find something to watch, only to end up diving into a book or talking to friends on Facebook.

However, one of my guilty pleasures involves watching cultural documentaries- after all, I am a folklorist who also did an anthropology major- and I’ve been watching one of the seasons of the PBS show The Mind of a Chef, which is a more personal look into the lives of chefs, and how their background and surroundings make an impact on how they cook, as well as how they create unique culinary experiences. Initially drawn to the show by the chef and author David Chang (best known for his restaurant Momofuku), I’ve especially loved watching the episodes featuring Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson, who owns and operates the well-known Swedish restaurant Fäviken. Fäviken takes traditional Swedish cuisine seriously, not only creating Michelin star-winning dishes, but also gaining attention for his dedication to preservation and conservation of his ingredients. In these shows, the product is very important to highlight, but what draws my attention to them is the processes, and the thoughts, that go into doing very intentional, deep work.

These “process-oriented” shows and films have always attracted my attention; I used them during my years as a university lecturer as a way to get students to understand that the finished product is not the only place for aesthetics, beauty and community to exist. I have seen the movie Happy People: A Year in the Taiga at least ten times because I find the processes involved in the practice of fur trapping to be absolutely intriguing: making skis and canoes for the hunting season, building and re-building hunting shelters, stocking up on provisions, and living a life based around the seasons. Similarly, I have grown to love the food documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which centers around the life of Japan’s most famous contemporary sushi chef, and which highlights the small details of making what is widely considered to be the world’s best sushi: fish-buying, making rice, heating nori, and cutting the seafood in ways to obtain the perfect cut of tuna. My kids have even joined in on the fun; both of them have watched Jiro and Happy People with the same amount of gusto that they would use to tune into Sarah & Duck or My Little Pony.

…having some limitations is good for creativity, it should make you want to figure new ways out of doing things. If we have access to everything we want there is no reason to think about new ways of getting something we want.
Magnus Nilsson, head chef, Fäviken

According to folklorist Henry Glassie, we are trained “…to learn to understand tradition as a process, an integrated style of creation.” A folklorist’s job is to bring out the cultural significance of the process, rather than just highlight the finished product. This has made a profound impact on how I understand the traditional craftsmanship of liturgical arts in our church, and because of that background, I’ve found myself drawn to the writing and podcasting work of Khouria Krista West, an ecclesiastical tailor based out of Oregon.

From Kh. Krista’s podcast, The Opinionated Tailor, I have not only learned about the great efforts that go into making cassocks, epitrachelions and zones, but also a lot about doing good work really, really well, and with prayerfulness. In her podcast episode, The Honorable Workman, Kh. Krista speaks of how duty and responsibility are misinterpreted as an obstacle in contemporary society:

it’s time to embrace duty and responsibility, despite our culture trying to convince us that they are millstones round our neck. The duties and responsibilities of our lives are like the repetition of the craftsman—we get better and better at things the more opportunity we have to practice. This includes things like marriage, raising children, caring for aging parents, showing hospitality, serving our parish community. A carpenter can’t call himself a master until he’s made hundreds of pieces of furniture; likewise, a father must work daily at providing for his family, a mother for her children, a priest for his parish. Hey, it’s certainly not glamorous, but glamour’s a little over-rated. I recently spent two days acid-etching the concrete floors of my new workshop. The way you start the process is by mopping on a diluted solution of hydrochloric acid and letting it fizz and bubble, after which a brown sludge appears. Glamour is a lot like this—about 15-30 seconds of fizz and bubble and then a bunch of brown sludge. It just doesn’t have any life-long staying power.

In previous blogs, I’ve discussed how there is a lot of sociocultural pressure for people to constantly change their work, whether through switching their jobs or changing vocations entirely. This is why documentaries such as Happy People and Jiro are of such interest; with their focus on solitary practice of doing one thing very, very well over the course of life, they stand in such sharp contrast to modern-day tenets of who we are, and what we should do with our lives. DIY and Pinterest culture have made it possible to be inspired by the work of other makers, but such maker culture is often more a hobby, or a side enterprise, rather than a full-scale vocation. (Sometimes, it becomes the latter, albeit not always at a young age.)

In her book, The Garments of Salvation, Kh. Krista references how, in the Orthodox Church, properly adorning the church, whether with vestments, icons or hymns, is not just a DIY endeavor, but is actually rooted in our church’s theology:

The true craftsman of the Church understands that his goal is not to create something from his own limited human imagination but rather to serve and perpetuate an ultimately God-created, not man-made, tradition. […] Once we understand that the beauty of the material church temple is integral to the theology of the Church, the adorning of the earthly temple is no longer seen as a “fussy” or “luxurious” pursuit, but becomes a holy and worthy endeavor.

Kh. Krista’s book repeatedly focused on the effort that parishes must take to ensure that their space- and that which fills it- is properly outfitted with the people’s best efforts. In an age of fast culture, limited free time, and readily available, readymade culture, the focus on traditional artisanal work as a side enterprise stands in sharp contrast to our calling as Orthodox Christians. Although people write icons, chant and create beautiful things to serve the Church, such things are not “side gigs” that people do during the hours they are not making their living. Rather, our full-time jobs are things that support us as we strive to do the work of the Church. In a previous post, I wrote about how Archbishop Irenée, in his pre-hierarchical years, worked in the emergency room of a Montreal hospital as a way to make his living. The consternation that might arise from saying “He works in a hospital, and in his spare time, he is a monk,” would be understandable.

With that in mind, we have to ask: how does our way to make a living supplant what we do in the Church? How would our daily lives change if we focused our thoughts in that direction, and doing our best work as a way to support our involvement in the Church? The final thought that I learned from Kh. Krista’s look at the honorable workman says it better than I can:

In the barest terms, the honorable workman is just that, a workman. He’s got great skill, learned over years, but he certainly wouldn’t consider himself anyone special, like an artist or a genius. He’s simply done the same actions over and over and over until he has freed himself from even paying attention to the actions. But along the way, he’s figured things out—a technique to make this go together better, a certain method to achieve a particular result. It’s the repetition and the limited focus of his work that has ultimately brought him freedom.

Part of the strategy of finding that freedom is like prayer- it involves repetitive practice and a willingness to stay in one place, as it is, in the given moment.

That, perhaps, is why folks like Jiro and Magnus Nilsson appeal to me: they are reminders of how, in the world, joy and satisfaction can come through doing something, sticking with it, and doing it very well.

When you add the beauty of the Church- whether in its liturgies, iconography, or hymns- the combination is a powerful, moving force that serves our true vocation: a life in prayer.

Chancing to Drink Tea

At work, we take our tea fairly seriously.

Our former intern desk, for quite a while, was our tea nook, as my former officemate and friend Megan was a former tea seller, and we have expanded that tea nook to be available to all staff. As I started to feel the physical effects of two morning cups of coffee, I started to replace one of them with a strong Irish breakfast tea or a mint green tea. It has grown into a way of starting the work day with something that clears the mind. On the corkboard above my desk, I have a small cutout photo that says “Drink tea, say the Jesus prayer, and handle it.” It seems simple, but on difficult days where I either have much to handle or feel disorganized, it’s a reminder to recenter.

drink some tea

Of all of my memories of college, it recently occurred to me that a lot of them involve the simple act of drinking tea with a friend. In my pre-Orthodox life, I belonged to a Unitarian Universalist church, and also spent quite a few hours at our local Buddhist monastery,  helping my close friend with chores, and sometimes having conversations with the monks who lived there. We drank chai quite often, and it was always a treat to have it. While living in Estonia, I lived in a student residence with a large number of international students, and it wasn’t unusual for us to sit until 2 o’clock in the morning, drinking varieties of tea and pondering life in the way young adults tend to do. Mostly this happened with my Russian friends; it seemed to always be “coffee with the Italians, tea with the Russians. When my Russian friends have visited me in the US, many cups of hot tea were drank in between adventures.

Many of my place-based memories involve tea drinking. After Mari was born, we spent part of the summer in Nova Scotia, and while there, discovered DAVIDsTEA, a Canadian tea chain that offered lots of blends, including Ayurvedic blends that countered the stress of colic-induced fatigue. Each day, when we came back to St. John’s, we would go to the shop to have the tea of the day. We were fortunate to have lived in a place where tea drinking has remained a large part of the life there. You might have a cup of coffee for breakfast, but it’s tea the rest of the time. (In most cases, it was always Tetley with milk.) Being in a mostly Russian mission, there were many cups of tea after typika (this was before Fr. John and Mat. Constantina Palmer arrived), and there were often many cups of tea drank on Sundays during a post-service drive along the various shores of the Avalon. Coffee was energizing; tea was re-centering and sustaining. It’s almost like tea is what you drink to get through the day, rather than to start it.

In Everyday Saints and Other Stories, Bishop Tikhon (Shevkunov) told stories about a priest named Father Raphael, who was frequently having tea with people around him. For Father Raphael, tea with parishioners and friends was a healing process for both they and him, as Bishop Tikhon recalled:

…if you chanced to drink tea with him on his little table in his country parish house, he became completely transformed, especially when people exhausted with suffering and heartache from their lost lives in this world came and sought him out. To be able to deal with such an endless flow of visitors, often capricious, often offended at everything and everyone, often rude and insistent, invariably with heaps of insoluble problems and ceaseless questions, would have been impossible for a normal person. But Father Raphael endured everything and everyone. Actually, he didn’t even endure them—that’s not really the right word, because he never even felt slightly burdened by it. In fact, he enjoyed this time that he spent drinking tea with absolutely anyone, always telling stories, always remembering something interesting from his life in the Pskov Caves Monastery, or talking about his old spiritual mentors, the elders of Pechory. Anyone sitting down to drink tea with Father Raphael found that once he had gotten going, it was impossible to tear oneself away. 

Tea, in Father Raphael’s case, was part of a discernment process for those who visited him, and it is certainly a beverage that often pulls people together, or, if you are drinking it alone- pulls one’s self together. Megan, when we were traveling to Des Moines for a work trip, introduced me to an East Village tea shop called Gong Fu, which offers traditional tea ceremonies, as well as a large variety of loose-leaf teas that you can choose to sit and drink.

That day, I chose a tea called Tour de France, a black tea with a blend of vanilla and black currant. I sat at my table, silently, awaiting its arrival, and when it came, the table ritual began. I poured the tea into my cup, watched the steam rise as it gradually made contact with my face, and took the initial sips. I felt my body suddenly clear itself of the day’s stresses. We were late to a meeting. Parking was a pain. Suddenly, none of that mattered, and my body tilted slightly to the right as Jesus prayers flowed through my mind. I learned in that moment that sometimes, you have to just sit, drink tea, and re-center yourself.

There is something simple about the act of preparing, steeping and drinking tea, that serves as a catalyst for silent, prayerful thought. I asked several friends about their processes of making tea, and received a variety of responses. Leah, my former supervisor and mentor, gave a simple response: “turmeric ginger tea in the a.m. while looking out my window.” My friend and fellow Orthodox April, who lives in San Francisco, share how she and her husband Taylor make it a couples’ ritual: “I make Lady Grey tea with multiple bags in a teapot and let it steep. Then we pull out two teacups and saucers (all a set from Taylor’s grandmother’s house.) I put milk in the creamer, and we place everything on a tray. Then we take the tray into the living room with our sitting chairs.” It can be simple, or complex, but the end result sometimes is the same: intentional, ritualistic time for conversation, contemplation or reflection.

And from that process, one can go forward. Elder Sophrony of Essex is known for saying “Stand at the brink of the abyss of despair, and when you see that you cannot bear it anymore, draw back a little and have a cup of tea.”

Mari tea time

Sometimes the hardest thing is admitting that we really need that cup of tea.

But once we do, it is often a joyful, peaceful thing to have.

To Wander, Or Not to Wander?

 

“My wandering foot gets to itching.”
-Charles “Pa” Ingalls, These Happy Golden Years

A couple of weeks ago, we renewed our rental for another year.

For the first time in our married life (and actually, for the first time in my adult life), we have lived at one address for two years. In nearly nine years of being together, the two of us have lived at a combined eight addresses- six as a married couple. Transiency and wandering have defined our early years as a family; every fall seemed to bring a feeling of uncertainty, and another round of job applications. The cycle was such that, when I celebrated my second work anniversary last month, it was not simply exciting, but also a very strange and surreal feeling that we were not used to as a family.

Practically speaking, it is a very difficult thing to fight. In thinking of the quote from Charles Ingalls, his wanderlust was countered by his wife Caroline’s desire to lay down roots in one place. In reading the Little House series, the family is constantly moving, and Caroline wishes for their children to have a quality education. They eventually settle in De Smet, South Dakota, where Charles and Caroline eventually live out their remaining years. At that point, the family has lived in Wisconsin, Kansas, South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota.

Although I am totally incapable of Charles Ingalls’ pioneering skills, I can identify with his struggle to remain in one space, both spiritually and physically. I spent my childhood thinking about living in other places (some nearby, some further away), studying other people, and having a lot of different interests. My language studies in college took me from Spanish to Estonian, not because of any particular reason, but simply because, at the time, I could. I took a semester of Quechua for anthropology credit, but also got tutored in Norwegian out of sheer personal interest. In Estonia, I found myself exploring other cultures and places, whether through taking a Canadian studies course, learning basic Italian and Polish from my neighbors, or listening to American roots music. There was always somewhere else to think about, and some other place to visit or think about relocating to.

NL west coast

North of Channel-Port aux Basques, Newfoundland, 2009.

A Canadian province and three states later, I’m in Iowa, where things are all mashing up together unexpectedly. My global experiences are playing an important role in my professional life, as we live in a city with a large newcomer population, and also in our church, where I am able to share my experiences of faith life in other places with youth.

NL TCH straight shot

Trans-Canada Highway/Route 1, Newfoundland, 2009.

That being said, the wanderlust, and the urge to journey and look elsewhere, is a tough one to fight. It involves constantly denying oneself the opportunity to say “What if I took this experience and brought it somewhere else?” or “What if we left here for a place with more fun spaces, more cultural opportunities, and- as we first thought when arriving in Tucson- more restaurants?” It’s often hard to visit another city on a work trip, and not think about what it would be like to live or work there.

SF downhill

San Francisco, California, 2017.

Tito Colliander, who wrote The Way of the Ascetics, talks about the fight as being one of ego-fighting; in the chapter titled “On the Denial of the Self and the Cleansing of the Heart,” Colliander uses wandering as an example of a practice rooted in self-satisfaction:

It is the life of our will that is destroyed. Since the Fall the will has been running errands exclusively for its own ego. For this reason our warfare is directed against the life of self-will as such. And it should be undertaken without delay or wearying. If you have the urge to ask something, don’t ask! If you have the urge to drink two cups of coffee, drink only one! If you have the urge to look at the clock, don’t look! If you wish to smoke a cigarette, refrain! If you want to go visiting, stay at home!

Much like Charles Ingalls had his wife Caroline, I have my own spouse to remind me of what there is to lose from being elsewhere. We live in a city that, after living in several places, is a very good balance of where we lived before. We had the urge to live in a college town for many years, when what we needed as a family was to live in a place that wasn’t one. We had the urge to live in a larger city with lots of Orthodox people; by moving to a mid-size city, we actually have more Orthodox churches nearby than any place before that. We had the urge to live in a place with certain amenities; instead, we’ve let our Costco membership expire, used the library more, and realized that the things we thought we needed in a place, aren’t always fundamental to our family’s emotional, spiritual and financial well-being.

Balancing well-being with mobility is not just something for the current generation, or even for the era of pioneer settlers; it is a part of human society that is ever-present, and even extends to the years of the early Church. In her book Time and Despondency, Dr. Nicole Roccas points out that this sense of wandering and escaping is actually a form of despondency that “is marked by a tendency to withdraw spiritually from the present. In theological discourses, despondency is often described as the temptation to abandon what the Fathers call askesis–spiritual effort or discipline.” Staying put, therefore, is a form of ascetic practice, whereas the constant sense of wandering can be the opposite. Roccas brings up St. John Cassian’s discussion of the struggle of eremitic monks who feel the desire to visit and be somewhere beside their cell:

“When [despondency] has taken possession of some unhappy soul,” [St. John Cassian] wrote, “it produces dislike of the place, disgust with the cell, and disdain and contempt of the brethren who dwell with him or at a little distance.” Likewise, despondency “does not  suffer [the monk] to stay in his cell, but instead causes him to believe “he will never be well while he stays in that place, unless he leaves his cell. […] And even when the monk remains in his cell, despondency produces in him a kind of restlessness reminiscent of a caged tiger…

Something important that Roccas points out, in the struggle with staying put, is that the current time, rather than the current place, affects people more:

When I think back on the places and spaces I have ever been tempted to flee–traffic jams come to mind–they all boil down to temporality, not geography. In other, it isn’t the space itself I want to run away from but the time that traps me in that space: the present moment.

For those of us who have lived from contract to contract, fellowship to fellowship, residency to residency, there is a major challenge in making the decision to stay put, and figuring out how to not run away from the present.  This challenge goes against the grain of our current era and its focus on the “gig economy,” where people not only work piecemeal and shift jobs frequently, but are actively encouraged by media and social pressure to do so. Articles such as “You Should Plan On Switching Jobs Every Three Years For The Rest Of Your Life” and “10 Good Reasons to Change Jobs Every 3 to 5 Years” are all over Google, LinkedIn, and other professional development pages. This is nothing new for some professions, such as athletic coaching, university teaching and even the priesthood. But rather than the exception, it’s becoming the norm, and the process of uprooting and re-settling is as routine as filing taxes or buying Christmas presents.

Having felt the stress of uprooting and resettling 3 times in the last 5 years, we have discovered that, while beneficial in some areas (e.g., a wider circle of friends, an increased amount of experience surrounding other people and places), there is a major price to pay in other areas. Family members often bear the brunt of the struggle, especially loved ones who not only have to find their path, but are often left with the logistical and mental load of the move. Whether arranging travel plans, packing boxes or buying cleaning supplies, it all adds up, and takes up time. Furthermore, the distance affects relationships with family and friends who might live elsewhere. In our current state of Iowa, there are many young people who return after being away for a couple of years, having seen the world beyond their home, yet desiring to maintain a deep connection to family, community and place. (Our former home of Newfoundland was also this way; while it’s not exclusive to one place, it’s more intense than in other places.)

The urge to flee remains for many. It never fully goes away. Yet, thoughts of leaving are simply that, and have the capacity to be nothing more. And, with practice and prayer, the urge to stay put takes over. In his book Everyday Saints and Other Stories, Bishop Tikhon’s account of Father Seraphim of the Pskov Caves Monastery recalls how Father Seraphim’s askesis involved staying within the monastery for six decades:

Once there was one novice whose name was Sasha Shvetsov who was seriously thinking about leaving the monastery but hadn’t said anything. Father Seraphim suddenly walked up to him and, stamping his feet, shouted to everyone’s amazement, “The road out of this monastery is closed to you!” He himself had lived in the monastery for sixty years and had never once left its precincts. And he used to say “I never once left this community, not even in my thoughts!” 

Puhtitsa nun gate

Pühtitsa Convent, Kuremäe, Estonia, 2007.

 

In an era of encouraged transition and temporality, I wonder: how can we learn to be more like Father Seraphim? How can we go against the grain of the push for movement, yet still go forward as a community? This is a question that I must ask, as I plan for year three, and also beyond. The fight against wandering is unceasing. But ultimately, remaining present, and in the present, has to win. Monks can do it. Wandering pioneers can do it. Should we, whether we are mid-careerists, fresh out of school, or- like my wife and I- “old millennials,” do it in an era of rapid flux and flow?

snow house wash ave

Cedar Rapids, Iowa, April 2018. (Yes, April.)

The answer is yes. With a lot of prayers, patience, and awareness of the benefits.