One of my favorite movies growing up, but one I have not seen in a long, long time, is “The Wizard of Oz.” Our version was taped from a TV special hosted by the wonderful Angela Lansbury (“Mrs. Potts,” for those of you who don’t know her) and was interrupted by long commercials from the ‘90’s for cars, soap, and McDonald’s (thus I’ve somehow always associated those things with the Emerald City, scarecrows, and munchkins).
Anyway – the line I have been thinking of so often lately, as I drove from Louisiana back to Massachusetts, stopping in Athens, Tennessee one night, Washington D.C. the next, and later flying back to Notre Dame, Indiana, and as I now look forward to moving to Colorado next year, is: “There’s no place like home … There’s no place like home.”
Since writing this post on Setting and World Making, I’ve been rather preoccupied with the concept of place and how it shapes us, just as setting affects plot in a story. This week I have been teaching setting to little middle school students (they are SO small!)–a simplified form of what I did with my big kids a few weeks ago. These incoming sixth graders were especially intrigued by how setting establishes what is possible and impossible. After using lots of adjectives to label various parts and objects of our classroom with sticky notes, we then made a chart discussing what COULD happen in our room (“we could have fun,” “we could learn,” “we could write”) and what COULD NOT happen (“we can’t have a circus–the elephants wouldn’t fit” “we can’t cook a pizza–there’s no pizza oven” “we can’t be underwater–we couldn’t breathe/the water would escape through the door and windows”).
And I thought about what is possible–and impossible–for me, being back here at Notre Dame for the summer. I can write a lot more. I can spend time with ACE friends. I can pray in the beautiful basilica, and run around the Saint Mary and Saint Joseph lakes. But I cannot be with my high school students. I cannot observe alligators slipping slyly into the Mississippi river. I cannot enjoy drive-through daiquiris (read about these unbelievable establishments here).
Reunited with other ACE teachers here at Notre Dame, I am able listen to new stories about their kids—spread all over the country—and the funny phrases, the accents, the struggles, the absurdities and delights of all the different places that have shaped them. “Do your kids say ‘swaggin’?” “Yes they do!” “I’ve never heard of ‘cuttin’ up’ before.” “Well, neither had I!” And I thought, my goodness, we have become a part of new settings and some of us have even found ourselves at “home” there.
Yet my decision to leave my ACE school and to move to a new place, to a new state–to uproot myself, as it were, for the third time in three years–has me feeling rather homeless lately. I haven’t lived in Massachusetts for more than a few weeks at a time since high school. As much as I would love to, I cannot become an undergraduate in Dallas again. And although I plan on visiting Louisiana next year, I will be doing just that: visiting. I will be a visitor, in someone else’s home.
My Dad told me about a new book by Rod Dreher called The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, reviewed here by Michael Hannon. It’s very much about home, one’s sense of place, community, and belonging. And, in our restless and mobile age, it seems also to be an appeal to us to re-evaluate our relationship with our homes, wherever they may be.
Hannon’s description has put this book at the very top of my reading list this summer: “The book tells two distinct stories, beautifully interwoven: an autobiography of Rod himself, and a hagiography of his sister Ruthie.” Rod is the restless one—who wants to leave his native Louisiana behind, to seek home elsewhere. Ruthie is the opposite—content to remain and to grow in her beloved little community:
An involuntary outsider from a young age, Rod never wanted anything more than escape. Philosophical by nature and restless by temperament, he annoyed his sister and the St. Francisville community at large with his constant curiosity, asking probing questions about ultimate realities that they were happier just to take for granted. Despite knowing that they loved him, he never felt understood by his family or accepted by their small-minded local community. Without disparaging the simple lives they led, he always longed for something somehow grander for himself.
Whereas Ruthie was born into the place she knew she belonged, Rod always felt like a stranger in their hometown. So after college, he left Louisiana in search of a place where he too could fit in, pursuing a career in journalism and wandering all over the Atlantic coast. But even there, from Washington to New York to Philadelphia, Rod never found the sense of at-homeness that Ruthie had always known in St. Francisville. (Michael Hannon, “Small-Town Saints for Our Placeless Age”)
As I read Hannon’s review (you should too), I found myself feeling a little sad, and even a little guilty. In a way, I’m like Rod–bouncing around the country, encountering new places, meeting new people–and always wanting in the back of my mind to find home. So many of the people I admire most, like my Grandma, my Mom, my Dad, my sister, Flannery O’Connor, Tolkien, Emily Dickinson, Richard Wilbur, all seem to have a very strong sense of place, of home. My Mom still has a strong attachment for Oklahoma where she grew up. My Dad, my Grandma, and my sister are New Englanders through-and-through. O’Connor, Tolkien, Dickinson, and Wilbur are great because their reverence for place helps all of us understand what home really means.
And yet strangely, in ACE, part of our job is to be displaced and a little homeless. And our foreign-ness is often a gift to our students, many of whom may never leave their home-state and may never experience, first-hand, the adventure of travel as we have. Sometimes over the past two years I found myself tempted to encourage my students to branch out too and to see new parts of the country, to apply to that reach-college out of state, to accept the adventure. And there is good in this. As Bilbo says to Frodo, “You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
Yet of course this is a warning as a well as an invitation.
There is that distinctly “progressive” tendency to despise insularity, to belittle the prejudices and notions of small-town America, to complain that some people refuse to widen their horizons and see the world in new ways. It is one of the many temptations of the ACE teacher, I think. And I think Bilbo’s warning should be considered. We may encourage our students to leave–but where are we encouraging them to go? Where are we hoping they will be “swept off to”? The journey is important in and of itself, but so is the destination.
I have been swept off to many strange and wonderful places in the past few years, but I am beginning to feel what Rod Dreher describes in his book, a longing for home. And so I recognize there is a wisdom in the people who choose to stay–to go to the local college, return for your high school reunions, live near your family, remain in your home-town. It is not the popular choice nowadays.
Having cut the ties that bind us geographically, we have become in many ways a placeless people. We have lost what St. Benedict called “stability,” man’s permanent attachment to a particular home in this life. “St. Benedict considered the kinds of monks who moved from place to place all the time to be the worst of all,” Dreher recounts. “They refused the discipline of place and community, and because of that, they could never know humility. Without humility, they could never be happy.”
For Rod, the realization of this Benedictine truth required him to go home: “[If] I wanted to know the inner peace and happiness in community that Ruthie had, I needed to practice a rule of stability. Accept the limitations of a place, in humility, and the joys that can also be found there may open themselves.”
“There has to be balance,” Rod reminds us. “Not everyone is meant to stay—or to stay away—forever. There are seasons in the lives of persons and of families. Our responsibility, both to ourselves and to each other, is to seek harmony within the limits of what we are given—and to give each other grace.” (Ibid)
O’Connor also insists upon seeking “harmony within the limits of what we are given.” We are all invited to some courageous act, and for some it is the task of staying, and for others it is the task of leaving and starting somewhere new. I think my fellow ACE teachers can relate. Some of them are staying at their schools. Some are leaving. Some, like me, will continue to be teachers. Others won’t. We all carry the gift and the burden of whatever setting we have been shaped by for the past two years, though.
I guess I am still looking for home. But I am grateful that over the years, different people have opened their homes to me.
“My Way Back Home” by Dawes:
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