. . . the ground at my own feet. . . 2019
“And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.”
― Wendell Berry, The Unforeseen Wilderness: Kentucky’s Red River Gorge
Given that I’ve lived at least 39 places in my 75 years, I felt compelled to write a sequel to Karen Rose’s piece, Should I Stay or Should I Go, especially since I usually pick the “go” choice. Moving seems commonplace to me, what people do. But when I listen, I realize that not everyone is on the move. I’ve had neighbors and friends tell me they’ve lived in their houses for 20, 30, 40—since the beginning of time—years. Because I can’t speak to that experience, and, since right now I’m obsessed with doing my own soul work, I decided to think about moving in soul work terms, or, as Wendell Berry calls it, my spiritual journey.
One of my mother’s favorite stories about me was how, even as a young child, I liked to run away. I’d go missing and she’d find me way around the block. My recollection is that I wasn’t trying to be naughty; I truly wanted to see what was around the corner. My son had the same proclivity. When he was about four, though instructed to stay in front of the house, he would invariably ride his Big Wheel to the gas station around the corner, where I’d find him watching the comings and goings of a busy filling station. My explanation for our curious natures is that it’s genetics, starting with my paternal grandfather, Nils Jacobsen, who left Norway in 1888 at age sixteen to come to the US. I like to think that he, too, wanted to see what was “around the corner.”
Early in my life, as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, my moves were to find a room I could afford. Everyone moves around at that point in life. My tendency to move as a strategy to solve life problems started later, with my first husband, always looking for an affordable and better place, big enough for two children, and located in the same school district. We moved ten times until we were able to afford a house. Our children, at ten and eleven, had lived somewhere new just about every year of their lives. After our divorce when our children were grown, I started graduate school and moved again and again, always to find a better place within my means, which wasn’t much. Soul work at that point was building a new life.
Building a new life to me meant having a fresh start in a new, clean house—no cluttered drawers, dusty shelves, moldering food in the refrigerator—not to mention, unpleasant memories. As Robert Louis Stevenson puts it, “The great affair is to move.” I’m not surprised that after retirement people consider making a move. Retirement, fundamentally, forces one to start over, to reconsider all the choices made over the years, including where to live.
To be a professor, one has to move upon graduation. I was all in for that requirement. Upon graduation, I moved for a job and adventure, off to Utah and a new life with a new husband, Gary. We would hike in the mountains, ski, and explore the southwest. It was travel rolled into a career move. But then something changed.
Our second year in Utah, Gary was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given a year to live, if he was lucky. About eight months into his last year, I had a tremendous urge to move “home”, back to the Twin Cities. I found a posting for a job in Minneapolis, applied, and was hired. I persuaded him that we needed to move; he died four months later in the Twin Cities.
Although we’d bought a house for me to have when he died, I immediately started looking for a new place to live. And there it was, the need to keep moving had become almost a pathology. See what was around that corner. It had to be better than sitting alone in the house where Gary had died, facing my grief. And move I did, first to a condo that I lived in less than a year, then a house, then to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Lehigh University, all in the space of four years. . . another travel adventure combined with a job change. I sold it to my now married children as “exploring the east coast.”
I moved to Bethlehem in June of 2001, and on September 11th, our country was attacked. Planes crashed in Pennsylvania, the Twin Towers in New York City, and the Pentagon. All felt too close. I was alone in a strange city, and I couldn’t reach my children because the cell phone lines were overwhelmed. On that afternoon and days after, I longed for “home,” someplace solid, with familiar ground under my feet. I had learned that in an emergency I would never be able to get to my children quickly. I lasted five years in Bethlehem, spending a good deal of time wanting to move back to the Twin Cities. Yes, I explored the east coast, and I made many friends, but I needed to belong somewhere, a place close to my children and grandchildren. I moved, back to the Twin Cities.
I bought a townhome I didn’t particularly like, thinking I’d stay there a short time and move on. But then came the Great Recession. The housing market crashed, and I couldn’t get out of my townhome. Everyone else liked it and my friend, BetsAnn said, “Make it into a place you like. Don’t just sit there and complain.” I did, and I stayed there over eight years—almost a record for me—and I became attached to it. I even looked forward to going “home” at the end of a day.
In 2013, I remarried, and Jim and I bought a house together, which we’ve lived in for five years. This spring I had the urge to move. I insisted my husband look at townhomes with me. We looked and concluded that our house suits us and our relationship, and we decided to stay put. Our children live in the Twin Cities, so we don’t have the pull to be near family. Our next move could very well be our last, and we’ll wait, like Karen Rose suggests, until it just feels right.
But how will I handle my need to leave, to see if there is anything better around the corner? I’ve learned that I have a wanderlust that bubbles up whenever life gets uncomfortable. The lesson that I move to run away has not been easy to learn—39 domiciles attest to that. It means doing the work of my soul—confronting my seemingly logical reasons to move and seeing them for what they are—boredom and low level anxiety, the sense that something isn’t right, covered by a veneer of wanderlust.
The other day I made my usual circle of the neighborhood, first to the co-op, then the library, from the library to Kowalski’s for a gourmet touch to dinner, a stop at the ATM, and finally home. How comfortable it felt! What I used to believe was boring—staying in the same place—has changed to belonging. That evening I biked the Minnehaha Creek Parkway. Living here long enough has allowed me to know the creek at both low and high levels, in winter under new fallen snow, in spring, raging as the ice gives way, and during summer, when it meanders under a lush canopy of green.
As for “should I stay or should I go,” my first impulse is to say GO, move. I am Nils’s granddaughter after all. But staying in my last two homes has opened me to something else around the corner—the dynamic of neighborhood, the way a calm or raging creek invites me into my own movement and change. This isn’t an advice blog. The only thing I can say for certain from my experience with losing a husband and 911 is that being near family counts. The decision to move, while it may seem straightforward when the reasons are financial or job-related (and even those have nuance), is complicated, especially so with the emotional, physical, and family considerations that come with getting older. Maybe the best we can hope for when sorting things out is Karen Rose’s wish that “a place (will) just speak to me and tell me where to get off.” Meanwhile, for now, for me, I am in a place where I can finally, “learn to be at home.”