Born Under a Wandering Star

I was born under a wandrin' star
I was born under a wandrin' star
Wheels are made for rolling, mules are made to pack
I've never seen a sight that didn't look better looking back
I was born under a wandrin' star

Mud can make you prisoner and the plains can bake you dry
Snow can burn your eyes, but only people make you cry
Home is made for coming from, for dreams of going to
Which with any luck will never come true
I was born under a wandrin' star
I was born under a wandrin' star

Do I know where hell is, hell is in hello
Heaven is goodbye forever, its time for me to go
I was born under a wandrin' star
A wandrin' wandrin' star

When I get to heaven, tie me to a tree
For I'll begin to roam and soon you'll know where I will be
I was born under a wandrin' star
A wandrin' wandrin' star (from Paint Your Wagon, Lerner & Loewe, 1951)

When people ask me what my home town is, I am at a loss. I tell them I've moved around a lot. "Okay, where were you born?" is the usual followup. "San Jose, but I only lived there for five weeks."

That usually gets me off the hook.

If they're persistent, though, I tell them that by the time I was fifteen, I had already moved seven times. "Military brat?" is the next question. No, preacher's kid. Actually a bit worse: Methodist preacher's kid.

My father served sixteen different churches over the course of his career. Several of them were served concurrently; as is often the case with rural pastors, many of his appointments were to "two point charges." But that's still a high number of relocations, even for a Methodist. The move back west (we were in New Hampshire for five years) came, I believe, because both surviving grandparents lived on the West Coast, and were entering the final decades of their lives. One of the moves, from Emmett, Idaho, to Philomath, Oregon, was something of a promotion. But things did not go well in Philomath, and the only reason we stayed there for four years--still the longest period of time I have had a single address--was so that I could finish high school there, and not have to move just before my senior year. None of my brothers was that fortunate; all four had to move in the middle of high school. In my case, Dad went to bat for me with the Bishop, who was hearing plenty of rumblings from a congregation known to be hard on its pastors.

Dad was a hard worker in all his appointments, but like me, he probably would've been happier in a classroom. His reality made such a transition unworkable: by the time he came to this realization, he already had four children, and there was no way for him to afford going back to school for a teaching certificate. Like many men of his generation, his responsibilities did not permit him the luxury of a midlife career change.

My parents now live in the house in which my grandmother spent the the last forty years of her long life (she lived to be 97), a beautiful craftsman home in McMinnville. They've been there since Dad retired in 1991, making it the only home he's had for more than six years. That house has also been the only geographical constant in my life, so in a way, I can call McMinnville my home town. It's not a place I went to settle--the longest I've spent there has been a month--but it's always been my center of gravity. 

You might think I would crave stability after a childhood with so many transitions; and I do, I really do. I want to have a retirement like my father's, to settle into a single place and stay there for the rest of my days.

But here's the thing about growing up itinerant: moving is easy.

Don't get me wrong here; I don't look forward to moving, don't seek it out. Packing, moving, unpacking, it's all a pain in the ass, a complicated string of chores that seems never-ending, and always takes longer than it should. But it's not the stressor for me that it is for most. Every list of "most stressful life events" I've ever seen places moving near the top, alongside divorce, bereavement, and terminal illness. It's never felt like that to me. I pack methodically, logically, and efficiently, and I unpack in the same way. Ask Amy about how I unpacked the garage in our new place. I got into my organizing zone, focused, intense, and needing not to be interrupted until I was done. It's the same when I'm packing up my classroom at the end of the year. I'm good at this. I have a lot of practice.

There have been times in my life when I really looked forward to moving as an escape from unpleasantness: the bullies in Emmett, the warmongers in Dallas, the mentally unstable senior pastor in Medford. I'm sure my brothers had similar feelings toward moving away from a place that had been difficult for them. When you're feeling misunderstood and rejected by everyone around you, moving can feel like an opportunity for a fresh start, a chance to remake yourself from the ground up.

As time passed, though, and the moves accumulated, I began to wonder if my attitude toward moving was somehow unhealthy. Standing outside my home in England, watching jumbo jets take off (we were in the flight path of the Manchester International Airport), I often found something stirring in me, wondering where that one was headed, what adventures awaited the people in that plane. There I was, in the midst of the greatest adventure of my life, remaking myself as a British pastor and new father, feeling the itch to move again. It made no sense, and yet it seemed to be wired into me.

I just took a tally, and not counting going back-and-forth between school and home, I've had thirty-six moves since graduating from high school. This leads me to think that at some point it became far too easy for me to move my stuff. It's as if I have no physical roots. I'm not a tree, or even flower; I'm a dandelion seed.

Stuff and addresses aside, what does this all say about my ability to form relationships? As I've said frequently in this blog, I am, always have been, an introvert. It's not easy for me to meet new people. When I do, when I have the opportunity to form connections, I tend to focus on a very few individuals, and to have deep, intense relationships with them. When relationships like that come to an end, it's traumatic. I grieve deeply, and moving on is difficult.

I think there must have been something in me that new this, because I had very few really deep friendships as a child. Part of the problem was, I'm sure, that we moved every three years, so I just didn't have time to go that deep, especially given my native shyness. But more than that, I think there was an unconscious defense mechanism at work within me, telling me not to go too deep because I knew this wouldn't last, that in three years I'd have to say goodbye for good, and the pain of ending those friendships would be too much for me to take. This wasn't helped, as I've shared elsewhere, by the clergy ethic of not going back: once moved to another parish, clergy stay away from where they once served. Pastor-parishioner relationships, while resembling deep friendships, are still supposed to have a professional distance, to be somehow compartmentalized within the pastor's psyche so that the inevitable end of the relationship can be as damage free as possible. Whether or not my father expected this same behavior from me, I internalized it, and never looked back once we'd left a place.

So I maintained a grief shield, a barrier to deep relationships that kept both me and my friends from suffering too much when we parted. It served me well through childhood--though whether that's a good thing is open to debate. I felt only mild pangs when we left Philomath, as important as my high school experience had been to me. But I knew how to do this. Goodbye is for good.

College stirred the pot, shook things up. I made some very deep connections in college, and after graduation, I mourned the end of The Group. I was not to know that depth of relationship again for many years, though I did find it much easier to establish good friendships during my brief time in LaGrande. But I was coming to realize what I was missing now, and it frightened me. I wanted intimacy, craved it, longed for it. One reason I went to seminary was that I thought it would be an environment that would encourage deep community. It was not. But I did meet my first wife, the mother of my children, there. And onto her I transfered all my hopes for depth.

It worked at first. But over time, it became oppressive to her. She frequently urged me to make friends, to have relationships apart from her. I tried, but always came back to her. It took our divorce to force me out into the world around me, to make good friends in Estacada, friends I would, of course, have to leave in a few months as I was moved to a different appointment, and rarely to see again.

When I finally left ministry, I settled in the Peace House, and began developing the kind of friendship I'd been missing. The people I came to know in Metanoia Peace Community are still close friends. I saw many of them a few days ago at a birthday party, and as with the few good friends from my past that I've had the good fortune to see again after a long separation, we clicked easily, picking up where we'd left off.

So I can, indeed, make lasting friendships; and even though moving is easy for me, it doesn't mean I seek out the severing of connections. I no longer wonder if I was psychically maimed by my itinerant childhood, and the wanderlust brought on by passing jets has faded considerably.

One concern that has not faded is the way it feels to others to have me so easily take in stride their absence from my life. I'm not concerned about how it feels to me; in fact, I think it's healthy that I (and most of my family) can move on from an ended relationship with far less fuss and muss than most experience.

This can be hard to take for people who are no longer in my life. Ex-girlfriends, ex-in-laws, former parishioners, many people find it hard to understand how I can function so well, why I don't miss them anywhere near as much as they miss me. And it's not that they cease to exist; it's simply that I focus on who I'm with. "Love the one you're with" could be our family motto (right up there with "We are what we are") if those words weren't derived from a song about infidelity. I don't mean to be callous; I'm just conditioned to move on.

It doesn't have to be this way. In fact, it shouldn't. I should be more intentional about maintaining ties with people who used to be an important part of my life, and not just because it's good for me. It's also the compassionate thing to do. There is no reason that relationships should not overlap. Good friends don't stop having value simply because they're no longer in the same zip code as I am.

I wonder at times how healthy it is for children to be raised itinerant. In early Methodism, circuit riders who wanted to raise a family were expected to "locate," to settle down in a single place and, usually, to leave ministry entirely. It was understood that having a family meant being far less available to parishioners and, more than that, far less flexible when it came time for the church to change pulpit personnel. Over time, Methodism lost that knowledge, settling instead for a compromise practice of appointing pastors one year at a time, but renewing those appointments to make sure family life was not overly disrupted. We still had to move a lot, but at least we had our father with us.

And we learned things. We learned how temporary a physical address is, how a house is just a location, that it's people who make a family, a community.

But still I wonder what we're doing to our children with all this moving around, as well as to our marriages.

More to the point, I am constantly working now at being intentional in maintaining ties with people who have meant a lot to me, whether they have been friends, classmates, or family members. Because at some point, even the most itinerant of wanders has to locate.


Popular posts from this blog

Contact Matters

The Children Sing

Checking Diversity Boxes