Roots of an American Mover

I have an essay published at Front Porch Republic today, where I reflect on some lessons I’ve learned from my grandparents about maintaining a sense of place while also being trapped in the cycle of moving around the country for the sake of a job.

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.

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