“Something that has long perplexed me is how Americans have persuaded themselves that an important part of their freedom is to be measured by the degree of non-interference of their neighbors in their lives and the distance–psychological and social–they have achieved from other people. […] Related to this measure of freedom is the desire for mobility and the hoped-for ‘escape’ from one’s own neighbors, perhaps the perfect expression of which is the automobile, which permits constant proximity to others who exist mainly as obstacles and causes of frustration rather than, as the shared road might suggest, as companions on a journey to a common destination. It is remarkable how much modern Americans travel in and around the cities where they live, and how few pilgrimages we make. This is a function of not understanding what freedom is, which is a freedom among and not a freedom apart from.”
I recently moved into a small apartment with my wife and daughter, having in the first year of my daughter’s life moved already twice before finally settling on our new downtown digs. Since moving out of my parents house to attend college I have lived in seven different rentals; a dorm; temporarily in my parent’s house again; and for a short time with in-laws. Growing up I moved quite a lot, too. In my hometown in Montana I lived in several different houses, including the abodes of both grandparents. We also lived for a while in Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. before moving back to Montana and then on to Arizona.
I attended public school in kindergarten, then Montessori school in first grade, then back to public school for second and third grade. In Vancouver I attended public school in the first half of fourth grade; for the second half I was home schooled. Fifth grade found me attending Catholic school, and by sixth we were back in Montana where I attended the local middle school. By seventh we had landed in Arizona, where I thankfully remained, and remain still today, though apparently I still haven’t learned how to stay in one place for very long, even if for the most part I stay in the same town.
I find myself almost perpetually torn between my desire to go out into the world and do great things, and my desire to root myself to a place, to some semblance of home. After all, there is only so much one can do if they remain in place. In modern terms this might be termed career inertia. But the miracle of a child does funny things to people. After our daughter was born I found myself more uncertain than ever about what exactly it was that I wanted, that would create for us the best life, the best home, the best childhood for our little girl. I toyed with the idea of law school; or perhaps academia. There’s not a terrible amount of options open to a graduate of a four year college with an English degree after all. Surely what I needed was more. More degrees, more money, more success.
Then again, perhaps not. Perhaps such a path to success and prosperity would require something sacred to be sacrificed; namely, a home. A place for our daughter to grow up where, as the Cheers ballad has it, everybody knows your name. I think, for reasons I haven’t yet fully come to understand, that this is a better way of understanding liberty than the great economic potential we can discover in mobility and particularly upward mobility. Perhaps liberty and freedom are two different beasts entirely.
Everything requires sacrifice. To remain where I am, I sacrifice the potential to amass wealth. I sacrifice the potential to gain academic prestige. (There is a university here, but in today’s world attending the same university for one’s Bachelor’s and PhD is the surest way to academic anonymity. Certainly said institution would never lower itself to actually hire such a scholar…)
Yet the alternative is to sacrifice home, roots, a sense of place and belonging – all those things I lost, one piece at a time, as I grew up. I sacrifice simplicity for material gain. And the one who would pay the highest price would be my child (or children). My parents grew up in one place. I believe my dad moved once from one Montana town to another, and my mom may have changed houses once, though it was just across town. In a sense, for lack of contrast, they had no idea what all this moving would be like, but I do. Susan McWilliams writes, “Moving is unmooring. It is unsettling. I wish, as William Butler Yeats wished for his daughter, to “live like some green laurel, rooted in one dear perpetual place.” Not only this, but it sets us free, gives us liberty that is too daunting, or at least too daunting for children.
There is something intangibly valuable about having a history in one place; about having those familiar people around you, cousins, friends, who you’ve know forever and who will shelter you if you need sheltering, and shame you if you need shaming. We are not meant to be raised in nuclear, atomized families, adrift in our suburbs. Generations are meant to exist entwined. Good Lord, I’m not sure what we’d do without our parents to watch our daughter for us, to give us time to ourselves, but also to help in their own way to raise her. She loves them madly, and just the thought of her having to be separated from her grandparents is appalling to me.
I was back in Montana this summer for my grandfather’s funeral. A number of things struck me then. The first was how long it had been since I’d seen most of my family. We have a big Catholic family. My grandparents managed to pop out eight kids, which to me, after the trials of raising only one thus far, seems a staggering number. Most of their kids had lots of kids of their own. When I was a child I was engulfed in family, though as the years passed we all started to drift off to different points on the map. Lawyers, doctors, businessmen, academics – out went my uncles and aunts and parents to make their fortunes. They’ve all been successful, prosperous, happy. But something was lost, at least for me. I knew it as soon as I stepped in amongst them once again, these cousins of mine now grown to young men and women. I know it still, thinking about my daughter who has only two cousins in the whole world. I think I have close to thirty.
The other thing that struck me was the crowd that gathered at my grandfather’s funeral. Here was a man who had really inhabited the place he lived, who had been “rooted in one dear perpetual place” for so much of his life that it had become part of who he was in a way that no place has ever helped define me. His life had helped to define the place as well, had given it some of its shape and flavor. I felt like a leaf in the wind sitting there amongst so much history, so much time. I was a stranger there as I am a stranger, I fear, everywhere I go. It is a strange sensation to be a stranger always. It is as close to being a ghost as I can imagine.
For my daughter I want home to be a real thing, not abstract, not a thing of longing for, not merely nostalgia or regret, but a place. I want hers to be a “freedom among and not a freedom apart from.” I want for her a wealth of spirit.
And now, a poem and a song:
“A PRAYER FOR MY DAUGHTER”
by William Butler Yeats
ONCE more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle
But Gregory’s wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack- and roof-levelling wind,
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.
I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come,
Dancing to a frenzied drum,
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.
May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.
Helen being chosen found life flat and dull
And later had much trouble from a fool,
While that great Queen, that rose out of the spray,
Being fatherless could have her way
Yet chose a bandy-leggèd smith for man.
It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.
In courtesy I’d have her chiefly learned;
Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned
By those that are not entirely beautiful;
Yet many, that have played the fool
For beauty’s very self, has charm made wise,
And many a poor man that has roved,
Loved and thought himself beloved,
From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.
May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound,
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.
My mind, because the minds that I have loved,
The sort of beauty that I have approved,
Prosper but little, has dried up of late,
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there’s no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.
An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?
Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.
And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.”
Daughter, Loudon Wainwright III