Scholar Fridays is a weekly series on Bearings Online where we feature 2017-18 Resident Scholars. Susan Sink recently interviewed Tom Montgomery Fate, who spent the spring semester at the Collegeville Institute as a Resident Scholar. Fate is an English Professor at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, IL. During his residency, he worked on his project titled “Detours of Intention: Travel That Takes You Home.” To view previous Scholar Friday interviews, click here.
Tell us about your new book project titled Detours of Intention: Travel That Takes You Home. How are you approaching the idea of travel and pilgrimage?
I am a slow and bumbling pilgrim. The stories in this book are my wayfinding. If I had to label it right now I might call this work “a spiritual memoir in travel essays.” But I define “travel” very broadly.
When we travel we are always looking out at the physical world with the Eye and in at the self, at the I. This delicate, difficult braid of self and world, of both seeing and seeking, is for me at the heart of the writing process. But it’s also at the heart of prayer. Seers and seekers. Seeing and seeking. Where does one end and the other begin? Do they ever converge?
The journeys in this book are rooted in the physical seeing—the framed images: a cold curtain of rain sweeping over my son and I as we bobbed in a canoe on a Canadian lake, or a drunk Lakota man putting a gun to my heart in White Clay, Nebraska, or the few garbled syllables my father uttered on his deathbed, or a choir of Benedictine monks praying at 4 AM in a stone chapel in rural Iowa, or trying to box up a crazed, rabid cat that had bitten my wife one wild night in the Philippines.
These framed moments are meant to deepen into stories of seeking–the unexpected moments of spiritual revelation that guide and/or confound our lives, that lead us down well-groomed paths and into thickets of confusion. The poet William Stafford calls this “travel that takes you home.” Not only “a journey into space,” as Nell Morton once wrote, “but a journey into presence.” Not tours, but unmarked detours. Detours of intention, which can be read two ways: sometimes I chose the route, but more often it chose me.
Your essays combine family, nature, and faith. How is being alone in nature, such as at your cabin in Michigan, or here at the Collegeville Institute, where your family is back home in Illinois, different? What gifts do each experience offer?
When you are teaching full time, and are married, and have three children, and are involved in your community, it can be difficult to find time to write, or for any other kind of art. One way I’ve resolved this challenge in recent years is to actually write about this balancing act. My last two books have dealt, in part, with the problem/promise of nurturing a family, and parenting amid a hi-tech multi-present, frenetically “convenient” culture.
The (im)balance between my experience with my family, and finding the alone time to write about that experience, is sometimes the creative tension that actually drives the narrative. And that’s a good thing. As is the fact that my wife, Carol, and kids, have always been very supportive of my finding time apart to write.
Did you grow up in suburbia or just move there later for work? What was your childhood relationship to nature and how has that shaped your imagination?
I grew up in Maquoketa, Iowa––a “big” small town with 5000 people. Our little white ranch house was a quarter mile from Highway 61, which lead to two cities: Dubuque, 30 miles north, and Davenport, 40 miles south. There you could shop in chain department stores like J.C. Penney or Montgomery Wards or even eat at McDonalds. Beyond the highway, thousands of acres of corn and soybeans unrolled into a green sprawl of endless farmland, which was marked and divided by a reliable grid of barbed wire and gravel roads. Along those roads and fence lines the red-winged black birds perched, vigilant and ferocious, ready to attack any threat to their nests. And high above them the soaring red-tailed hawks described the wind, kiting on thermals while scanning the earth for a vole or cottontail.
As a teenager, my friends and I spent the summers mowing lawns and bailing hay and walking beans and detasseling corn and roaming the town and surrounding farmlands on our bicycles with sweaty reckless abandon under the comfort of an enormous sky. On those excursions, sometimes we brought our lunch, or fishing rods, or maybe a few cigarettes someone had stolen from their parents. The days were slow. And though we all had watches and clocks, the sun too measured our lives—the rising and fading light softening the edges of each day. My life in that little town always felt connected to the rhythms of the natural world.
Like you, I also taught at community colleges, and I was always in awe of their stories and ability to tell them. What has been your experience teaching creative writing, especially creative nonfiction, with adults or community college students?
I love the diversity of the student body at a community college, though I’m not sure I’d teach a creative nonfiction course there a lot differently that I would elsewhere. The one exception though, is what you allude to—the students’ life experience and their ability to tell their stories. I strongly encourage my older or “non-traditional” students to fully value and incorporate their vast (and often remarkable) experience in their creative work. Sometimes they say “I don’t think I have any good material to draw on”—even though they’ve served in Iraq and worked on an oil rig and are raising two or three kids.
But with all of my classes I teach the same basic process. I want my students to learn the art of the sentence, and of the paragraph, and of the essay, and to find a clear sense of their own narrative voice in that process. For me, that’s a life-long endeavor.
Tell us a little bit about your writing process.
As I mentioned, like many writers, I teach and have a family, so it can be hard to find extended times to write. There’s one strategy I’ve used over the years, however, that has worked pretty well. I try to write short pieces that I call “framed moments.” These are 400-500 word sensory-laden mini-essays that have a clear point or thesis. I often wrote these for National Public Radio and Chicago Public Radio, where I would later record them. Then, over time, I would slowly build these little thematic nuggets out into a 3000 or 4000 word essay/chapter. Eventually, over the next 6 or 7 years, I would try to weave these essays into a book.
If you could visit with one writer from any time period and place, who would it be? What would you talk about?
I’ve been reading and writing about Henry David Thoreau for thirty years. His books and essays and journals still offer me solace and guidance. There are many things I would like to talk about with him. One is how he was able to balance his life as an activist, who worked on the underground railroad and wrote “civil disobedience,” with his life as an artist, who lived as a monk in the woods and tried to live in what he called “the gospel of this moment,” as a creature in the Presence of creation.
Last summer, when I visited the old Concord house on Main Street, where Thoreau lived post-Walden, I noticed it was about 500 yards from the railroad station–where he smuggled fugitive slaves onto northbound trains. It is also about 500 yards from the grassy shore of the Sudbury River, where he kept his homemade boat and drifted in contemplation on long sunny afternoons. As an artist, Thoreau desperately longed to see the world; as an activist he longed to save it. But these two ways of seeing–of responding to society and nature–converge in Thoreau, rather than compete, which is partly why I admire him so much: the melding of the personal and the political in a spiritual quest for meaning.
You wrote a book titled Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father’s Search for the Wild. What experiences have you had in the natural environment of the Collegeville Institute and its surroundings?
The afternoon I first arrived here it was twelve below zero. Nevertheless, I decided to walk out to the Stella Maris chapel. It was much further than I remembered. Or maybe it was just the cold. The last time I visited was in August. Then people were swimming and kayaking.
During the walk I noticed a single trail of footprints leading out to the middle of Lake Sagatagan, where a man kneeled on the ice in the brutal wind. He was very still. Waiting. Ice-fishing I assumed. Or maybe praying. Maybe both. That day they seemed like the same thing. Any fish that appeared would surely be a sign from God. From the bank, I could soon make out the auger he’d used to drill the hole, and a little rod and a silver can. But no fish, or shelter from the wind.
As I kept walking, I pondered what I hoped to write during my stay at the Collegeville Institute–stories of travel, both physical and spiritual. Not stories of arrival–but of being lost, and found, and lost again. Not tours, as I mentioned above, but detours of intention.
The thing that struck me that afternoon, as I contemplated the fisherman, is that a prayer is also a kind of detour. We don’t know where we’re going. We choose to wait, and to listen, but for how long? Five minutes? A week? And to what or whom? Mystery. Sometimes, only silence. The presence of absence. But sometimes a shivering sense of Belonging rises up, even amid the icy rocks and creaking trees.