If you had told me, a happy and professionally satisfied D.C. lawyer living on Capitol Hill, just over a year ago, that I would be back someday soon living in my hometown of East Grand Rapids, Michigan, writing this, I wouldn’t have believed you. And if you had told that I might even be happier here, it would have sounded bizarre. While I still considered Michigan home, I had a good job and my family and I had made a good life in Washington D.C. We were blessed with wonderful friends, priests, and a very good parish. But, here I am, living less than a mile from my parents (who still live in the house I grew up in) and from my in-laws (who still live in the house my wife grew up in). My older two children attend the same elementary school where I was a student nearly three decades ago. My experience of journeying back home—a journey that has been equal parts geographic and intellectual—reveals something about why we may be the freest and happiest when we are rooted in a place—a place that may at first glance seem limited, small, and confining.
What set the journey home in motion was a simple thing. We had rented a house in D.C. on Capitol Hill beginning in May 2010. About a year ago, the owner told us that he wouldn’t be able to extend our two-year lease. Thus, we were faced with the question of where to live in the D.C. area. Attendant to that question were numerous others: Should we rent or buy? Where would our kids go to school? How close would we live to their schools? Where could we move that allowed us to live a pedestrian lifestyle, but also not require Herculean commutes for our children? How much house could we afford without mortgaging away our future? At the same time, several projects at work had left my wife, Laurel, feeling, for weeks on end, as if she were a single mother. I loved my job, but I began to have serious doubts as to whether I could give it the attention it needed and whether I could sustain that sort of effort for 30 to 40 more years. Observing other D.C. lawyers farther along the career road than I, did not leave me sanguine about my ability to “balance” my work life with my family life. I have no idea if I will ever coach one of my children’s sports teams, but I’d like the option to do so. In Washington, I didn’t see how that was possible.
As we considered the various possibilities in Washington, every option seemed to require sacrifices and tradeoffs that we were unwilling to make. We could live farther from downtown but face a less walkable lifestyle and a considerably longer commute. We could stretch to buy a row house on Capitol Hill, but we’d likely outgrow it if we had another child. Staying on Capitol Hill would also necessarily mean long commutes to school for our children. I could continue working my great job and make the sacrifices it required but this would likely leave outside pursuits—such as writing and reading theology and philosophy—unrealized or under-cultivated. And, most importantly, I didn’t believe I could be the husband and father I was called to be if I was working these kind of hours for another several decades. We felt stuck. There seemed to be no good options in front of us.
To be honest, moving home to Michigan did not initially occur to us. We had thought about it before and ruled it out. We loved our hometown, but for some reason, when I had considered it previously, it always seemed a bit limiting, crabbed, suffocating. Moving home was good for other people. It wasn’t what I was supposed to do with my life.
Indeed, the culture had taught me from a young age to seek my fortunes elsewhere. In this I was a fairly typical product of the American culture of meritocracy and its emphasis on mobility and possibility. While there are certainly goods that result from that ideal, it undoubtedly lures people away from home and contributes to a sense of homelessness. I had gone to New England for college and returned again to the East soon after law school. The jobs and opportunities that I received were, in my mind, important and heady—much more so than anything I might do or experience back in Grand Rapids—or so I thought. Home seemed small and limited.
Still, at the same time in the background, on an intellectual level, exerting a very different pressure—one that contradicted our meritocratic culture and its push to pursue possibility and fortune on the coasts—were the writings of those familiar to readers of Front Porch Republic. Particularly influential were Wendell Berry and David Schindler.
Berry, as readers here well know, writes eloquently about our failure to heed limits and the tragic consequences this disregard has wrought. In one of my favorite Berry essays, “Faustian Economics,” written shortly after the great economic downturn of 2008, is a passage that has haunted me since I first read it. Berry describes the “problem” of limits and writes:
It is the artists, not the scientists, who have dealt unremittingly with the problem of limits. A painting, however large, must finally be bounded by a frame or a wall. A composer or playwright must reckon, at a minimum, with the capacity of an audience to sit still and pay attention. A story, once begun, must end somewhere within the limits of the writer’s and the reader’s memory. . . Within these limits artists achieve elaborations of pattern, of sustaining relationships of parts with one another and with the whole, that may be astonishingly complex. And probably most of us can name a painting, a piece of music, a poem or play or story that still grows in meaning and remains fresh after many years of familiarity.
Thus, limits, rightly understood, are the very preconditions of true freedom. Now in early 2012 as I faced the question of where to live, I began to see how Berry’s words about limits applied equally to home and place. What I once had found narrow and crabbed, I began to see as something alive with possibility and adventure.
The same was true of theologian David Schindler’s work. In an essay that deserves wider reading, entitled “‘Homelessness’ and Market Liberalism,” Schindler describes “homelessness” as “the fundamental problem of a liberal economy.” Homelessness is at its most basic a “lack” of a sense of “one’s proper place in the cosmos.” One can only be “at home” when one “is rightly related to God, to others, and to the world in and through a family.” In this reading, “[i]ndividuality emerges from within community and is always already an expression of community.” Schindler’s subtle but profound argument is that “there is no community anywhere in the creaturely universe that is purely, or first, voluntary in character.” Or, as Alasdair MacIntyre has written, “[T]he story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity. I am born with a past, and to try to cut myself off from that past, in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships.”
Reading Berry and Schindler’s words in relation to moving home impressed several themes upon me. The simple fact was I hadn’t chosen Grand Rapids or my family and friends back there. I had been raised and nurtured from within a community and a family—a community and a family that were back in Grand Rapids. My life had been shaped by Grand Rapids’ people, its geography and architecture. And, as I reflected, I realized that Grand Rapids was a place that grew “in meaning and remain[ed] fresh after many years of familiarity.” There were fresh revelations in places I had been hundreds of times and there were nooks and crannies I had never discovered.
Adding fuel to the intellectual fire that powered me home, was an essay on the pitfalls of meritocracy by my friend Jeremy Beer that appeared on Front Porch Republic. It moved me deeply. In it Beer wrote about the ideological framework that led to the hollowing out of the Midwest as people fled to good jobs and opportunities on the coasts. When I first read it in the spring of 2009, it stirred my conscience and made me question my flight from flyover country. Why wasn’t I taking whatever meager gifts I had back to the place where I’d grown up and where my family still lived? Thus, in 2012, as I faced these real questions of where and how to live in D.C., Beer’s powerful words began to have practical purchase and pointed me homeward.
Then there was the recent example of my friend Rod Dreher. As detailed on his blog and in his forthcoming book, Rod moved back home to his small parish in Louisiana, St. Francisville, after being away for many years. The richness and joys Rod was describing back in his hometown just as I was faced with questions of where to live played no small part in my reconsidering home.
All of this, together, shaped and guided my thinking and discernment. As much as I wanted D.C. to be home, it wasn’t. I also realized that I was related to Grand Rapids and, more specifically the neighboring town of East Grand Rapids, in a way that I was not to D.C. My relationship to this place isn’t the same as a farmer’s to his land, for sure. It isn’t a relationship to a particular homestead or manor. Mine is a relationship to city and town. But, still, there is a relationship with this particular place—its streets, its stores, its restaurants, its public spaces. Traveling around this place conjures up the memories that formed and continue to form me. This field is where I hit my first (and likely last) homerun in t-ball three decades ago. That tree is the one I climbed to write a report about nature. This is the school and that is the classroom where Mrs. Mitchell taught me to write. These memories are anchors and roots, the launching point for new adventures in exploration, discovery, and rediscovery.
Sure, life in Grand Rapids might seem humdrum and plain. But life is made up of the humdrum wherever one lives. As I considered where to live last year, I began to wonder why I shouldn’t face those daily burdens in a place I love surrounded by people who love me and whose very lives have been defined, in part, by the doing of the quotidian tasks needed to raise me.
Thus, both despite some of Grand Rapids’ limits—real and perceived—and, in truth, because of those limits, we made the decision to return home. Our friends in Washington D.C. almost to a person understood our decision—which was a relief in many ways. It was hard enough to leave them; it would have been even harder if they thought we were foolish and crazy for considering the move. I can’t tell you how many people described our move as natural, a “no-brainer.” There also were friends who told us that they wished they had a place to which they could return. These comments came from people happy and successful in Washington D.C.
Five months into our new life back home, we have no regrets. There are things we miss deeply about Washington, most especially our friends, priests, and parish. And, it is true that from one perspective, I have left a place of great possibility and potential to return to a place that can seem small from the outside. Washington D.C. is a near perfect embodiment of the American belief in limitlessness. It is where our government leviathan resides. Its suburbs stretch far beyond anything that makes sense on a human scale. Parents face almost endless choices and opportunities with respect to educating their children. Job opportunities, especially for an attorney, are plentiful, varied, and interesting. In contrast the options aren’t endless here in Grand Rapids. But paradoxically, just as Berry has written, I feel freer here. Grand Rapids’ limits are the very cause of its rich life—within its confines are a myriad of possibilities.
The Grand Rapids to which we have returned has embraced the fact that it is a place with roots and history. A vibrant localism is thriving here. There is a flourishing and expanding beer culture in the city and across West Michigan. Farm-to-fork restaurants are sprouting up. My neighborhood pub brags about its local coleslaw and locally pastured beef. A new downtown food market is currently being built that will help to make permanent the advances in the locally rooted food culture.
Moreover, being home has put into full view for me the shared memories of the generations that are here. My children come into regular contact with grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other relatives, and are getting to know these family members in ways they never did before. The family friends who were such a part of my growth and Laurel’s growth are here as well. In many cases, they’ve known us for longer than we can remember and they are repositories of stories and memories stretching back before we existed. My children will take those memories and stories and pass them on to still unknown and unmade grandchildren and great grandchildren.
My children are also getting to know me in a way that they never did before. By playing in the same parks where some of my best boyhood memories took shape, by riding their bikes on the streets that I too cycled down, by attending the same school with the same scary boiler room that I attended, they are coming to know the things that formed me and have made me who I am today. Their memories are being shaped by the same architecture and geography that shaped and continue to shape me.
I am not so naïve to think that moving home is a panacea for all that troubles us—or the various practical difficulties we faced in D.C. Being home will not satisfy all the longings of my heart. Nor will it quench what Henri de Lubac described as man’s “nostalgia for his divine country.” All we can hope is that home here gives us a foretaste of the pleasure, happiness, and belonging we will experience in our heavenly home. If my first months back home are any indication, that is exactly what happens when one is rooted in a concrete place and home.
There is, however, something odd in this story being remarkable or noteworthy. Why should it be that returning to the place one is from should be seen as the exception and not the rule? Our governing ideology teaches us to seek fortune and success in far off places. Indeed, it teaches that true success comes in setting off from one’s home and making new lives on new frontiers. Our aphorisms and songs tell us that we can never go home—that it is impossible to return. This is a pernicious lie that we need to do away with. We need to recognize that the freest we may ever be is when we are tethered to the ones we did not choose.
My wife and I don’t regret for a moment the nine years we sojourned on the East Coast. Our friends from those years are people I love and miss, whose friendship has shaped and formed me, and whose absence from my daily life causes an ache that I imagine will never heal. The experiences I had in Washington D.C. have expanded my vision and developed me as a man, husband, and father. I am not certain this would have happened had I remained here for the last decade. And were it not for being away and for the ache for home, I might never have realized what I had and why place, home, family, community, and memory are so important. In short, I think I had to leave to return. I had to experience what it means to be homesick and what it means to call a place home. There could have been no homecoming without the sojourn. Why God chose this time to call us back home, is something beyond my ken. All I know is that I am thankful for it all—the sojourn and the homecoming, the friends there and the friends here. But, most of all, I am thankful that I had a place to call home and a place to which to return.
Conor Dugan is a lawyer working and living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He invites you, if you are homeless, to think about moving to Grand Rapids and sharing some or many local brews with him.