This was my second published work. (The first was a poem published when I was in high school.) It came out in the OE journal and it’s still one of the pieces of writing I am most proud of despite now having several published books.
Growing Back Home
My parents and I are sitting at a booth at Barnaby’s on a Tuesday night, eating hot turkey dinners and apple cobbler with vanilla ice cream when my Dad announces that he might want to study philosophy. It is not the first time he has mentioned philosophy; the word, if not the subject, has been gradually working its way into his conversations as of late. This is, however, the first time he has spoken of it with commitment. It is the first time that he has dared to voice his desire in the form of a proposition. The course, he says, would cost one hundred dollars for ten lectures – just ten dollars per lecture. It would only be one night a week, just up the road at the Practical Philosophy Foundation.
My father’s face changes as he speaks. He is tentative, but the corners of his eyes betray his excitement. Despite the fact that he will soon be fifty, he is a youth in the throes of idealism, seized by the passion to read great thinkers, study the arts and soak up all of the knowledge that God has provided for our pleasure. I sense in him a readiness to succumb, like a man who has decided against all odds to fly.
My mother is uncertain. I can read it in her face and the way she puts her hands near her chin. She senses in his desire the potential for a fall. She conjures images of her husband plummeting to earth, dropping like a heavy stone. “Have you asked them if they believe in Jesus?” she asks. “Why do you want to study at the Practical Philosophy Foundation? Why not take a course at a local community college?”
I can see that she is pushing him towards safety, not wanting to deny his desire but desiring to protect him from something… There is an element of danger in philosophy that my mother can not put her finger on. It is a threat somehow, not just to him but to the beautiful and fragile balance of their marriage. What if he flies away?
The discussion twists and turns and I can tell that my father is disappointed. It is not progressing as he hoped. Even I, the daughter who has always been the challenging child, can only voice my support in a marginal way. The truth is, I understand my mother’s fears and some deep part of me knows that they are not ungrounded.
Philosophy will not leave a person unchanged. It can not be touched upon in a cursory way and then let go again. There is a power in thought, word, and idea that demands respect. My mother’s instincts tell her that this is not a path one spouse should walk alone, yet it is not a path she wishes to follow. So, she reaches out to protect the precious gift that is their relationship. Could any idea, no matter how profound, be worth the risk?
* * * *
It has been a long time since I first left home. I do not remember the day that I packed my bags and departed for Eastern College, but I remember quite a few partings since then. I remember the day that I left for the Oregon Extension to chop a little wood (turned out, for me, to be one mangled piece of kindling) and I remember the day that I left Oregon, crying into the sunlight and winding down, down, down to Klamath Falls.
I remember the day I left for New Orleans to serve a two year volunteer term with the Mennonites and the day that I came back again to attempt to find my place in the same small town I grew up in. Of all the comings and goings this last one has been the hardest. There is a challenge to returning home and it has to do with the question of philosophy. It has to do with both feet being planted firmly on the ground.
When my father first spoke of his desire to study philosophy, I must admit that it surprised me. It shouldn’t have because my Dad has always been the type of person to try new things. He loves to read and to learn. Nevertheless, I was surprised that he would come up with this idea on his own and that at fifty my Dad might begin a study that I myself have only touched on. If the truth were told, it was threatening.
Until recently, it has always been my privilege to be the explorer. While my parents stayed home in tiny Pine Bush, New York, I roamed around the country attending the Oregon Extension, working in a gift shop in Kennebunk Port, Maine, going to school in Pennsylvania, living in center city New Orleans. Always I have invited them along on my journeys. “Come on, Mom and Dad – come see the mountains. Try out the streetcar. Have you ever traveled by train?”
They have been devoted parents, eagerly turning each of my new addresses into a road trip even when my living accommodations were less than ideal. They have listened to me expound on the joys and trials of each new home and followed with enthusiasm the reaching and stretching of my being. Not only have they followed my physical progress with interest, but they have also had the grace to let this relationship extend into the philosophical as well. “Hey, Mom and Dad, I’m going to be a maid of honor in the marriage of two women.” “I’ve decided to attend a synagogue in addition to my church.” “ Jacques Ellul says…” I have reveled in my ability to stretch the limits of their tolerance and patience but now, suddenly, my role changes.
I am twenty-six, no longer the student, no longer the traveler. My father hints that the relationship might, for a time, be reversed…There are very few rites of passage for young people today. My single friends and I have often remarked upon the inability of the unmarried to truly feel grown up. People still seat you at the children’s table at family gatherings, your parents still fill your Christmas stocking because you have no spouse to take over the role, your bedroom in your parent’s house remains untouched (“It’s yours until you get married!”). My young cousin Kyle grilled me endlessly the last time I saw him. “Are you a kid?” he’d ask, and in truth, I found it hard to know how to answer him.
Certainly, my life has changed. I pay bills and keep a responsible job. I worry about car troubles and loan repayments. But am I a kid? I have had my share of profound life experiences. In New Orleans I learned about fear and violence and the many complex realities of racism and poverty. But am I grown up yet? Is it Okay for me to relinquish the role of the youthful challenger and if so, what do I replace it with? Can I let my Dad study Philosophy while I work as a Reservationist at a resort hotel?
Five years ago, this jolting reality might have pushed me into a fit of action. There used to be, and still is, something very enjoyable about being the one who jumps off the cliff. It is exhilarating to fly, to feel the earth below your feet give way. It is harder to take pleasure in NOT being the one taking the leap. It is harder to sit back and enjoy what other people are doing and thinking.
For the first time I can look back at my parent’s devoted attention through all those years and see it for the precious love that it was, and still is, rather than seeing myself as somehow meriting their interest through my unique and challenging exploits. This revelation is the closest thing to being grown up that I have yet experienced and it feels good.
However, my fear is that being grown up means that my mind grows stale and tired. Since I came home I have found it difficult to think of much besides money and day to day difficulties. I have worked two low paying, long hour, deal with the public types of jobs and Kierkegaard, Nietszche, and Ellul have had to work hard to compete with Buffy the Vampire Slayer after a long day of work. I don’t desire the spotlight of achievement anymore, but I do long for the excitement and passion of ideas. I long for the element of danger that comes from challenging the precepts of your worldview. I am afraid of the malaise of inaction that settles in without your realizing it.
Already, since returning home I have gone from strict vows of simplicity to the occasional thought of how nice it would be to have a TV/VCR with full stereo unit and those certain videos and CD’s that I absolutely can’t live without. Philosophy, spirituality, and the conversation between others who study the two kept me accountable and challenged in a way I have missed for many months.
I had not realized the void until I opened last winter’s OE Journal. I carried those pages around for weeks. I didn’t even remove the little yellow sticky note Doug had attached. There was something about being included in the conversation that reminded me of something I was forgetting. Me.
My Dad wants to study Philosophy and I am happy for him because I truly believe it is a strange and wonderful journey, but I can’t help thinking of how hard it is to come back from such a journey. It’s hard to live without it because it molds you. Your mind grows and stretches and wants to explore, to try things out and experiment with new realities. Yet life keeps going with all of its daily routines and demanding voices. Balancing the two is much harder than I ever imagined.
I struggle to be the responsible adult – the person who has both feet planted firmly on the ground; the one who has no need to demand theoretical perfections of herself or others – yet at the same time I desire to keep my mind open and ready to fly. Perhaps it is the struggle to achieve this balance that more than anything else marks my passage to adulthood.
* * * *
I am sitting in my small dorm style room at the resort thinking about philosophy. My shift starts in ten minutes and soon I will be immersed in the grueling abuse that is routinely heaped upon a hotel front desk clerk. I will dress in my navy blue uniform and stand in front of the computer and say “Welcome to Mohonk…” one hundred and fifty-two times. I will try not to think that this is the equivalent of saying “would you like fries with that?” because the truth is, it’s not.
Even though this wasn’t part of any mental image I ever had of my future, I am still learning and growing and the challenges of the routine have thus far exceeded the challenges of any other portion of my life. There is a time for jumping off cliffs, for risking it all for love of an idea… and there is a time for coming to grips with who you are when both feet are planted firmly on the ground. Although it may seem harder to stand upon the precipice, it can be even more frightening to stand naked in front of yourself.
* * * *
My parents have cleared all of the furniture out of the living room so that our hardwood floors stand exposed and barren. I can hear their feet slip-sliding across the floorboards in rhythm to the music that floats out of the CD player. They are practicing the steps they learned in their most recent ballroom dance lesson.
We laugh because tonight (as is becoming our routine on weekends) I will be staying home to work on my writing while they will dance the night away. I am walking away from them, towards my room, but I pause as I pass, staring in at the two of them entwined on the makeshift dance floor.
My mother is laughing, her head tilted back. My father is studying their feet, memorizing the purposeful patterns they are creating together. It occurs to me as I watch them that he hasn’t spoken of philosophy again since that night at the restaurant. I wonder if he has forgotten about it or if he made a purposeful choice to let go of the idea. Oddly enough, it doesn’t seem to matter. If he chooses philosophy I will marvel at his journey even if I am sitting on the sidelines. If he chooses to glide across the dance floor with my mother I will respect that choice equally.
Can any idea, no matter how profound, be worth the risks they entail? Yes, of course, but the wisdom is in learning where the profound ideas are buried. Sometimes they lie hidden where we least expect them. After chasing them all over the country, the yin and the yang of life swirl together right here in my own familiar terrain. Like a complex two-piece puzzle whose solution is nearly within reach, I can almost hold peace in my hands…