Although we’ve lived in Chicago for 28 years now, we moved a lot before landing here –San Francisco, Boston, Mississippi, New York (Brooklyn actually), New Hampshire, Houston. We’re proud to say that we never left one step ahead of the law or out of unhappiness with the place. It was always pursuing a new opportunity or exciting experience.
Each time we moved, there was that nagging question: how would our lives and the lives of our children have unfolded if we had stayed put? How would our understanding and appreciation of the place have deepened with more time? Which of our embryonic friendships would have flourished if we had stayed? What kind of role might we have assumed in the communities we were leaving behind, as if they were stops on the Pony Express?
Our more extended time in Chicago provides only partial answers to these questions. We came too late in the game to allow us to feel that we were anything more than transplants from other worlds. True Chicagoans have deep roots in their neighborhoods, parishes, schools they and/or their children attended, the towns on the other side of Lake Michigan which have been their family watering places for generations. By the time we arrived, our children were no longer with us, already deep into their own adult lives.
Once we attended the funeral of the husband of a friend here in our Hyde Park neighborhood. The synagogue sanctuary was packed with close to 1200 attendees. Tom, we’ll call him, was a true child of the city, born and raised here and then as a lawyer engaged in many civic activities that burnished his local reputation. Looking around at the assembled crowd, Rosellen and I agreed that our funerals could never possibly look like this. The shards of our past relationships are too scattered to make such a gathering possible. Maybe if we took our funerals on the road, we might, in sum, approach Tom’s impressive numbers.
We like to think that the trade off for our mobility is the variety of experiences and situations we’ve logged, all those different demographics and geographies we carry behind our eyes. This may be a classic example of the frequently misused term cognitive dissonance. It’s the rationalizations we employ to justify the decisions we make, absent which we might be deeply unhappy with our decisions. In the end, there are arguments to be made for both staying close to home or hitting the road.
I was obliquely reminded of this issue that has haunted me for decades by my current fiction reading. Writers are confronted with the same decisions about constancy and change in their choice of subject and location for their creations. I’m just finishing a book by Colm Toibin called The Master, in which he recreates Henry James’s late 19th century expatriate life in England and Italy. I was eager to read more of Toibin’s work after being moved by his Norah Webster, the story of a woman in a small Irish town trying to resume her life after the death of her husband.
No two books could explore such different worlds and sensibilities than these two. Add to that list, Brooklyn, perhaps Toibin’s most well-known because of its movie adaptation, the story of an immigrant Irish girl who leaves the safety of home for an uncertain life across the water. He’s written a number of other novels which I haven’t gotten to yet, but when I do, I’m sure I’ll find that he doesn’t repeats himself. Toibin’s work exemplifies a passion for change – in character, setting or time period, a choice that requires adopting a permanent role as explorer of new territory, with all that entails.
Contrast this to the wonderful work of Elizabeth Strout. After creating her Olive Kittredge character, a somewhat desiccated, tightly wound Maine woman, Strout has followed her into several sequels of a sort. Of course, there are changes in her circumstances and, to some extent, to her personality, but all within clear boundaries. Strout has chosen a path followed by many authors who operate within self-defined limits of place, time or character. Most famously, there’s Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, but there’s also Flannery O’Connor’s rural Georgia, William Kennedy’s Buffalo, NY, Jesmyn Ward’s watery Mississippi Gulf Coast, James Joyce’s Dublin, Chaim Grade’s Eastern European shtetl. (Note: I’m sure many of you have never heard of him. He’s worth more than a look. This is a much more nuanced vision of the world of Fiddler’s Anatevka). I’m sure you can add your own favorites to this list of constancy examples.
The writers who explore new territory each time are too numerous to list. This is the path most authors pursue. The lady I live with has written books set in Brooklyn, Alsace, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Chicago and never the same characters. She has been adamant about not repeating herself. She has opted for what she considers the heavier lift of exploring new territory, although the Joyces and the Faulkners of the literary world could argue differently.
I want to add one more set of examples from the less glamorous world of teaching that I inhabited for so long. I always admired teachers who taught the same books year after year, but never on automatic pilot. Each year they found something new in their texts, some fresh way to present them. In contrast, I almost never repeated book selections. To keep myself engaged, I preferred to visit new material every year. There’s merit in both approaches. Each has strengths and potential shortcomings, so, as with all the previous examples, we have to be careful about not viewing them judgmentally.
In real life, as well as in literature, both constancy and change can lead to well-lived lives or well-realized works of art. Drilling deep where your feet are planted or going wide across a broad area can both lead to gold. I need to constantly remind myself of that when I question my own inclinations. Truth is I want it all, both the familiarity of constancy and the newness of change. These two polarities will always exist in tension with each other.