CLAREMONT, CA. We have become homeowners.

This week, my husband and I are moving boxes from our latest rental into a house that we may finally call home.

It’s a big change, to live somewhere with a relative possibility of permanence. Since we graduated college ten years ago, Will and I have lived – where “lived” means residing for more than two months – in at least 19 places in at least four countries. I remember windowless basements, high-decibel dormitories, mysteriously stained carpets, and lots of white walls. I remember phone numbers and addresses that once were mine.

Some of my cardboard boxes make me nostalgic, calling up memories of this move or that. The boxes are oddly stable fixtures in a life made up of so much motion.

Proust had his madeleines, and we have our bubble wrap.

Part of what it means to be a young professional – a young professional in this America, anyway – is cultivating the art of mobility. One must become accustomed to moving: moving out, moving in, moving on.

To some extent, this is nothing new. In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville found Americans remarkable for our “restlessness,” for the constant streaming and shifting of our population. We Americans have long associated our social mobility – to the extent we have it – with geographic mobility. Moving is part of who we believe we are.

In every class I teach, I ask my students how many of them can tell me where their eight great-grandparents are buried. Of the hundreds of students I have asked this question, only four or five have answered in the affirmative. “I don’t even know where my mother is buried,” said one.

When I ask my students this, I point out the obvious: Such a lack of knowledge suggests a sad disconnection with the past. I think it also suggests a sad disconnection with the future. If you cannot tell me where your parents’ grandparents are buried, then it’s likely that your children’s grandchildren will not be able to find your grave, either. They will probably not know much about you, if anything at all. Obsolescence looms.

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.”

So often I lament all this mobility, and yet at the same time I want to resist too much wistfulness.

For as James Baldwin among others have noted, it is our American mobility that in part gives us a “sense of life’s possibilities.” Moving may be unmooring, but it also may be liberating.

I think of a young Alexander Hamilton, raised in the Caribbean. An ambitious guy, he knew that to realize his ambitions he needed to leave the islands. He knew that to leave the islands was to leave everyone important to him – and likely never see them again. He grieved, but he left.

Perhaps our American mobility is best thought of as a tragedy, a fact about ourselves we cannot change. And it is a fact about us with a sharp double-edge. In suggesting to us terrific possibilities, it also suggests terrifying potentialities. In liberating us, it also limits us.

The best modern American tragedy I know is Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog. The book centers on a house – a home – where upward mobility meets downward mobility. Where there is one, you find the other. In one place, you find all this terrible motion.

In the United States, “home” is not an easy concept. Lou Reed runs through my head: “Some of us never had a home, and if we did we left it long ago.”

When I look out of the window of my new house I see a “for sale” sign across the street. It is a short sale. Someone is nearing foreclosure. Someone is being forced to move.

I wonder how many of us choose to move, and I wonder how many of us are compelled. I wonder if in all cases there is a distinction between those two conditions. I wonder how Americans think about home, and how we might. I wonder what our thoughts about home suggest about who we are.

I wonder if I should recycle my boxes or keep them.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Lovely post; lovely paradox. I feel the same way as this:

    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.”

    My life is one of constant moves – between first grade and junior high I attended five different schools and was home schooled. My father grew more and more successful the more we moved. I became more and more lost and “unmoored.”

    Now I have a daughter, and my wife and I found that within the first year of our little girl’s life we had moved three times. Now we’ve stopped. I’ve reconciled myself to the idea that success is made up of much more than professional success or income. Living in the same place, growing roots, learning the people of a place for a long time – these are vitally important. Having our parents in the same city so our children can be raised by the extended family is vitally important.

    An irony I stumbled upon while reading this post is also the fact that while my great-grandparents had very little in the way of technology to keep memories of them preserved, we most certainly do. The fingerprints of my existence are everywhere, in digital photos and blog posts – while at the same time it seems that culturally we place less and less value in remembering things, on tradition, on the past.

  2. This is indeed a moving reflection. I think the caution against excessive wistfulness is one that anyone involved with this site should keep in mind. Thanks Susan, and happy homeowning!

  3. I’m listening to your father’s Haverford Pols 268 course and just wanted to thanks you (and Haverford) for leaving this online. I’m sort of a professional podcast student. I must say that the warmth between your father and you permeates the course.

    Regarding American’s mobility, I’ve lived in Pretoria, Nome, Key West, and many places in between. But now I’ve peaked. I drive a big rig in 48 states and I don’t sleep well unless I’ve moved 500 miles.

    Keep the boxes.

  4. I don’t understand Mark Shiffman’s comment above. Does this site issue “cautions against excessive wistfullness”?. What does he find so wistful in her post, and why has he appointed himself the wistful policeman?

    I don’t know Susan and I’m new to this site but I find this completely unnecessary and offensive. Academia is not enhanced by snobbery.

  5. Honey, you know I hate to be vulgar, but if any other houses near you are being foreclosed, let me know, kay? A girl’s gotta live, and it’s pretty hard on my dinky salary in this high class town.

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