Houston, TX. After returning home from driving landing boats in the Pacific during World War II, my granddad, Cal, grew restless. He’d become impatient working a dead-end job selling shoes, helping his parents with the family farm, and struggling to support his wife and daughter. In February 1954, he and my grandmother pulled up their stakes in Little Rock, Arkansas and drove I-40 until they arrived in Orange County, California. It’s a familiar “Go West and seek your fortune!” American story, but it’s only within the past few years that I’ve recognized how that decision set in motion my own pursuit of the good life.

Cal and my grandmother, Bonnie, left for economic reasons. There were more jobs in California, and there was a higher standard of living. I have always admired my granddad’s willingness to go west, to strike out on his own and to make a life for himself and for his family. He was a man of action, and he was well-rewarded for it. Such success, unfortunately, overshadows what must have been serious deliberation about the move itself.

Bonnie initially resisted the idea. She didn’t want to leave their friends, family, and childhood homes. Both Cal and Bonnie have passed away, but I wish I would’ve asked how my grandmother argued her case before finally being convinced to leave. How exactly did they arbitrate between the good of staying rooted in their hometown and the good of economic prosperity on the other side of the country?

Knowing my granddad, I imagine his response to Bonnie’s concerns resembled the rationale of Joe the mobile-home-owner in John Steinbeck’s book Travels with Charley. Midway through his road trip circumnavigating America, Steinbeck-the-character talks with Joe about the idea of “roots.” He wonders whether Joe’s decision to raise his family in a mobile home would obscure his children’s sense of place and belonging. Joe responds with a brief history lesson: everyone in America is a descendant of a people who were “movers.” The pioneers would “take up land, sell it, move on.” According to Joe, the romantic idea of roots impedes life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: “You got roots you sit and starve.”

Whatever we may think about the lesson Joe derives from American history, he’s not wrong about the consequences. As inheritors of movers, most Americans have restlessness coursing through their veins. It’s part of the genetic make-up. My grandparents’ Arkansas exodus extends from a larger cultural precedent, and their children and grandchildren have maintained the pattern.

I first moved away from home when I went to college. Since then, every new chapter in my life has resulted in moving further away—to Northern California, to Tennessee, and now to Texas. Even my parents, both of whom grew up in California, have moved to Colorado in their retirement. Like Cal and Bonnie’s decision to leave Arkansas sixty-five years ago, every move has been couched in similar economic terms: better jobs and a higher standard of living. Like Joe, no one wants to sit around and starve.

As my wife and I arrived for one of the last services we’d attend at our church in Tennessee, one of the ushers greeted us in front of the large red entry doors: “What’s this rumor I hear about y’all moving to Texas?”

We moved from California four years previously, and we were preparing to head even further south. Graduate school transplanted us to Tennessee and now a job opportunity pulled us down to Texas. We confirmed the rumor and then reminisced about our time at St. Patrick’s. Our friend expressed our feelings for that parish and its community perfectly:

“It’s one of the best churches I’ve been a part of, and I’m an old fart. It’s a real family here.”

We agreed. Within the first couple weeks of attending, the rector and his wife invited us to dinner at their home: homemade fried chicken and biscuits, honey harvested from their beehives, berry infused gin, a curated selection of cigars, and top-shelf scotch. It was an evening that would make any hobbit proud. We walked in as strangers, and stumbled out feeling more like members of a family who had a long history in Tennessee.

Ironically, “becoming attached” was one of the primary experiences we intended to avoid while living in Tennessee. We came for graduate school, which was supposed to take a maximum of two years before we would move on to bigger and better things. Four years later, we not only had to ditch most of our original plans, but we had laid deeper roots than we realized.

I had begun working at a small start-up school where I immediately connected with the faculty, the students, and their families. My wife began working for a barre studio that cultivated strong relationships with people in the local community. We had our first child in Tennessee, and we were supported with a long-standing meal train and occasional free babysitting. We rejoiced with friends newly married, and we mourned with those who suddenly and unexpectedly lost loved ones. We found ourselves enmeshed in a community of people whom we loved, and who selflessly supported us during our time among them.

Prior to our Tennessee move, I had spoken with my granddad about our plans. It must have been strange for Cal to hear that his grandson planned to move with his wife back to the southern region he had escaped over sixty years earlier. I don’t know exactly what went through his mind when I told him we were moving. At ninety years old, his body and mind had been slowly declining. Conversations stuttered, stopped, and digressed.

I thought about Cal while we drove I-40 to Tennessee, as hail pelted our cars through New Mexico and as we drove headlong into the black clouds of Oklahoma storms. I imagined myself as one of Paul Simon’s pilgrims following the Mississippi River “down the highway through the cradle of the Civil War” in search of a Graceland. It was a pilgrimage that reversed Cal’s trek to California, but it was made in the same spirit. I thought of him again as we packed for Texas. I could sense his vision of a good life propelling me forward: one grounded in a desire for economic success, of finding work that I enjoyed and that paid a living wage. Cal was a “mover” and his daughters and grandsons have kept pace.

The move to Texas felt different, however. I’ve left some part of me in Tennessee, in the same way that a part of me remains in California. I cannot suppress the poignancy of that growing sense of fragmentation and of placelessness.

Cal died in a manner somewhat contrary to the way he lived his life: slowly. However, he met it on his own terms. Having refused hospital care, he kept a live-in nurse so that he could die in the house he and Bonnie bought when they moved to California. Even the room where he died looked exactly the way I remembered it from childhood. It had the same waist-high bookshelves decorated with golden cherub figurines and a half-drunk diet coke wrapped in an Arkansas Razorback cozy. The only concession he made was the bed itself. The electric hospitable bed was a far cry from his king-size bed with sheets pulled so tight you could bounce a coin off them.

As much as he could be, Cal was master of his own fate. His legacy gathered enough momentum to scatter his children and grandchildren throughout the country. He was restless. I can feel his restlessness coursing through my own veins, connecting me to him and to the long line of Hills who followed in the wake of the first American movers.

Even so, I know that roots don’t starve a man. They build him up, allowing him to stretch deeper into the earth and further into the heavens. Roots connect him to his past and his future. The movers, after all, will eventually run out of places to move.

In his essay “Health is Membership,” Wendell Berry observes that the concept of health is etymologically related to the idea of wholeness. Wholeness, he points out, “is not just the sense of completeness in ourselves but also is the sense of belonging to others and to our place; it is an unconscious awareness of community, of having in common.”

It’s difficult for me to point to the physical location of my roots. My parents never owned land apart from a quarter acre suburban lot in southern California. And as far as I know, my grandparents’ Arkansas cotton farm has been subsumed by a larger farm or converted into a subdivision section. Whenever I experience (however briefly) a life deeply rooted in a place, as I have in Tennessee, I wonder why I keep moving.

Berry’s notion that wholeness requires both “place” and “belonging to others” seems out of reach for me. I am relatively placeless with no generational home or land to which I can return.

Still, I have the memory of my grandfather, and with him comes a “sense of belonging, of having in common.” Bonnie and Cal kept their sense of place alive by way of an extended community. They frequently returned to Arkansas, and they made sure their children and grandchildren knew how to call the hogs during Razorback football games. They shored up their California community through block parties and unannounced house calls to their neighbors. It’s not an ideal, Berry-esque vision of an intergenerational community in a single geographical place. But neither is it an amorphous mobile-home life, wandering from place to place with indifference or purely selfish motives.

Near the end of “Health is Membership,” Berry warns against the dangers of “the world of efficiency,” which reduces “experience to computation, particularity to abstraction, and mystery to a small comprehensibility.” The “movers,” as Joe the-mobile-home-owner describes them, live in a world of efficiency—places and relationships have become means to economic prosperity. The problem, however, is that the human capacity for love will disrupt the desire for efficiency. Love, Berry argues, “obstinately answers that no loved one is standardized.” As we learned when we moved to Tennessee, places and people are not replaceable or easily dismissed. Particularity “belongs to the world of love,” and it asserts itself wherever we go. We moved to Tennessee hoping to avoid the emotional attachments that would bind us to a place and to a people. But our plans for efficiency could not withstand the love we encountered in the meals, the babysitting, the impromptu visits, and the long evenings spent with the people of that particular place.

The sins of the movers may be visited upon their children, but it’s possible for the children to suffer well the consequences of their parents’ and grandparents’ decisions. Bonnie and Cal’s example has taught me at least one lesson: although my place changes, an inevitable loss of belonging and of having in common may not. Bonnie and Cal gave themselves to their new place, and so their family grows and thrives even as it continues to move. It’s a model of health I can practice anywhere I find myself, strengthening ties to a place and a people wherever I am, however I can, and for however long I’m there.

As I write this, I can see on my bookshelf Bonnie and Cal’s wedding picture outside the Blytheville, Arkansas courthouse. At my feet, I’m frequently interrupted by my two-year-old son who is named after his great-granddad, and whose Christian name is Patrick–the patron saint of our beloved Tennessee parish. And again, I’m filled with a sense of belonging.

We always lose something when our restlessness carries us from place to place, some sense of rootedness and wholeness. Nevertheless, I take comfort in that ancient Christian image of pilgrimage as I move around, remembering where I’ve come from and where I’m going, and enjoying the companionship of fellow pilgrims who similarly hope to find a holy, final dwelling in the New Jerusalem.

Local Culture
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  1. These are things I’ve mused about, too. I remember thinking that Kevin Williamson’s infamous National Review essay got unfairly criticized, for making an obviously relevant observation: that moving is a long American tradition, and that more people should avail themselves of that possibility.

    So, I’m glad to see somebody here at FPR thinking about the problem of roots vs. opportunity. Not that those two have to conflict, necessarily, but this seems like an important subject, to me, and one that those of us with a localist mindset could stand to carefully consider. Living well involves the perpetually fine line between idealism and realism, this essay prompts me to consider that.

    • One problem with Williamson’s comment was his blindness to the fact that for many people who are living paycheck to paycheck with little or no savings, moving is something they simply cannot afford to do. Also, consider that today’s consumer economy very much revolves around personal credit and that this makes decisions like this difficult or impossible for many. There is little point in moving if your new situation requires you to assume debt that you’ll have difficulty paying off. And if you already have a low credit score you may not be able to acquire the funds to begin with. In short, a catch-22 — people can’t afford to move, but neither can they afford not to.

      The contemporary consumer economy often makes it very difficult for people of modest means to raise themselves economically, even when this involves relocating. What it seems to encourage instead is the “easy” route of kicking the can down the road via borrowing and credit card spending.

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