My apologies for the slow posting of late; I’ve returned to Michigan after several days visiting Seattle, where I grew up, for the first time in nearly two years. It was a wonderful trip; altogether too short, but when you have a farm…getting away for even a few days in the middle of summer is asking a lot. I went alone, and am grateful that Mrs Yeoman Farmer and the Yeoman Farm Children (particularly the older two) were able to carry the burden in my absence.
The purpose of my trip was to ride the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic on July 11th, and I will be putting up a separate post describing that adventure. It’s an event I’ve done many times in the past, but not since 1996. Being able to get in shape again, and manage all the logistics of getting myself and my bicycle to Seattle (and then to Portland) once more, fulfilled a dream that had been simmering in my mind for several years. As I pedaled along Lake Washington Blvd on Saturday morning, with the rising sun framing the Cascade range in purple, and Mt. Rainier standing with all its immensitude in the crystal clear summer daybreak, my heart overflowed with joy. I’m really here. I’m really doing it. This is truly happening. Everything in the world is exactly right.
It occurred to me that this could be a rough working definition of “home”: not simply the place where a person happens to be living at the moment, but the place in the world where everything seems right. The place where a person senses he belongs, and the place from which a person feels exiled when he is not able to be there. Circumstances and grave obligations may force a long — even permanent — exile. But it takes much more than relocation to change one’s sense of “home.”
I had several days, largely to myself, to reflect on these and other thoughts. In a sense, the trip was not unlike a retreat. I spent last Wednesday getting to Seattle and retrieving my bike from the mechanic to whom I’d shipped it. Then, apart from reconnecting with an old friend for dinner one night, and the big event on Saturday, and spending Sunday afternoon with relatives, I had few scheduled obligations for the rest of the trip. I was able to spend much of Thursday and Friday simply riding all over…and thinking, and praying, and reflecting. I rode the Burke-Gilman trail to the small town where I grew up, pedaled past our family’s first house, and rolled around town.
The community swimming pool was still there. So was the football field. And the Ranch Drive-In. But there were also uncomfortable changes: the local library — my favorite spot as a young child — was now a cold municipal office building; the books had been relocated into a larger and more modern structure nearby. One of the grand old school administration buildings had been razed and was now a parking lot. Other buildings had disappeared. There were new buildings I didn’t recognize. And so on. And so forth.
And I couldn’t help asking myself: Is this where everything seems right? Because it’s funny how, the longer you don’t live somewhere, the more it lives in memory … even if the reality has become quite different.
In that town, and all over Seattle, I did see plenty of other places and things that were familiar and comfortable, and were reassuring in their seeming permanence. But despite the joy of being in Seattle, it was hard to avoid a simultaneous sense of melancholy…because nothing in Seattle is truly “mine” any longer. I couldn’t stay. I couldn’t be attached to it. As much as I may feel a sense of belonging in that city, I don’t truly belong there now. And it was these two competing senses about “belonging,” pulling in opposite directions, that triggered the melancholy.
Because no matter what I might feel, the inescapable reality remains: I chose to leave and go to college in Chicago. I chose to take a job in Detroit after college. I chose to attend graduate school in California. And, above all, I chose to marry a woman who grew up in Michigan, with deep roots in that part of the country, who very much dislikes the part of the country in which I grew up. One of the better definitions of “adulthood” that I’ve come across goes something like this: doing the things we ought to do and need to do, and not necessarily the things we want to do. And in our family’s case, there is no doubt about what we ought to be doing, and need to be doing: living in rural Michigan, near the town in which MYF grew up and has so many friends and so much family. And I have no doubt that “adulthood” was calling me to do all the other things (education, career) that took me farther and farther away from Seattle, one step at a time. Funny how easy it was to take each of those steps, without reflecting on the larger picture of how much distance each of them was putting between me and the city I loved so much. And yet even if I had seen the whole picture, with all its consequences, I wouldn’t go back and change any of those steps.
I will no doubt be living in Michigan for many years, and I have few illusions that the passage of time will make it seem any more like “home” than Seattle always will. I will always be, in some sense, an exile here. But you know what? That’s okay. And the more I pedaled around the region where I grew up, and the more I thought about it, the more okay with everything I became. My family is infinitely more important to me than getting to live in any particular place…and at the end of the day, I’m much happier living with my family in a place that is so completely right for them than I ever could be if they were compelled to live in a place that was “right” for me but completely wrong for everyone else. Because it’s ultimately not being in any particular place that makes us happy…it’s being with the people we love, and above all it’s living our lives in the way God wants. And I have absolutely zero doubts that that this little farm in this little town in this Rust Belt state is exactly where God wants me — and my family — to be.