The Thought of Something Else

This poem is from Openings (1968) by Wendell Berry. I’ll only quote the relevant parts. You’ll have to buy the book for the rest.

Another place!
it’s enough to grieve me–
that old dream of going,
of becoming a better man
just by getting up and going
to a better place.

This “dream of going” seems to be deeply embedded in North American, perhaps Western, culture. From our birth, it seems, we are itching to get away from wherever it is we are. That’s what the United States is at its core, a collection of individuals who dreamed “of becoming a better man just by getting up and going to a better place.” Even after fleeing persecution in their home countries, the history of the United States is a continuing tale of searching for greener pasture (or golden mountains and streams). First, the dreams of the wild frontiers, then the Gold Rush. Finally the advent of the automobile and airplanes made dreams of far off places like Los Angeles and New York seem within our grasp. The roadtrip is a classic American tale of self discovery in which our hero(ine) leaves behind the familiar and the familial to find him/herself in the great expanse that makes up the contiguous forty-eight.

The truth is that every somewhere else is just another place that someone else longs to leave. Another career is just something else of which someone else is bored. We have dreamed of escaping these restrictions and limitations, only to find them again once the newness wears off.

The iron trees in the park
suddenly remember forests.
It becomes possible to think of going

The going at the end of this poem is different from the going at the beginning. The going of iron trees is a return, a homecoming. This idea of coming home is one that is simultaneously lauded and derided. We exalt the heroic individual that liberates themselves from the limits of their narrow-minded hometown, but we hate them for leaving. We welcome with open arms the successful son who has been to the city, but consider him somewhat of a failure if he hangs around too long. We love the idea of raising our kids in small town America, yet we ourselves fled those same small towns to make something of ourselves. In short, we have an awkward and uncomfortable relationship with place. Yet for all our longings and wanderings, everywhere we go ends up being “Another place!”

What we are longing for in the end is home. Not necessarily our hometown or a house down the street from our parents, but a place and a life in which we can comfortably inhabit our own skin. The problem with all this escaping is that we continue to delude ourselves into thinking we don’t have to inhabit our own skin. We think we can remove ourselves from the embarrassment of our own ordinariness, family origins or even past mistakes.

Home is both more satisfying and harder to swallow. Home is a place where we are known and vulnerable. We can be ourselves with all the messiness that entails and others can do the same, which in the end creates its own intertwined messiness that brings both life and strife. Peace is not the absence of conflict. Home is more than the warm fuzziness of our favorite holiday memories. Home takes time to cultivate. It is the easiness of knowing and being known.

Life in the last year (couple years really) has been full of a lot of coming and going. We have certainly held dreams of greener pastures, moving to the farm, belonging to Hope Fellowship and even moving to Bolivia, but reality has gradually sunk in and formed in us dreams at once more attainable and more difficult. One of the best things about moving to Bolivia was knowing that we would move back to a place we call home when we were done. We hold no illusions about living and working overseas, in part because our community at home is one we continue to long for. We know what we are missing and we know which way is home.

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