Photo by Nic Hartmann.
Northern New Mexico, 2016. Photo by Nic Hartmann.
“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.
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.
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.
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!”
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?
Cedar Rapids, Iowa, April 2018. (Yes, April.)
The answer is yes. With a lot of prayers, patience, and awareness of the benefits.