This article was first published in the Autumn 2015 issue of Bearings Magazine, a semi-annual publication of the Collegeville Institute.
As I had expected, my recent trip to Japan was rich in the pleasure and insight I experience when I encounter a culture very different from my own. And yet there were also moments when I wanted to go home, when I counted the days until I could board my flight from Osaka and head west. No matter how many fulfilling travel experiences I have had or hope to have there is in my psyche a deep reluctance to leave home, to fling myself into the unfamiliar, to take the risk of feeling dis-placed. I am afflicted not by a fear of illness or accident but by a free-floating sense of doom. I never leave home, particularly on a transoceanic trip without saying, “Why am I doing this? I know I’ll never see home again.” But my family and friends are never surprised when, upon returning, I declare “I’m so glad I went.” Within days of returning home from Japan I found myself once again turning the pages of travel catalogues.
Wherever I am in geographic space I dwell in a psychic place of irresolvable inclinations—I want to stay and I want to go. I was shaped at an early age by the way those desires played themselves out through my parents. There was my mother, who couldn’t wait to move from the house my parents had lived in for 50 years; who was inclined on vacations to drive a little farther to the next hotel, a hotel that might be better than the one we had stopped at; who wanted to travel often and far from home. And my father, who never wanted to move (and didn’t); who was happiest at home; who argued to stay here—this place—instead of heading on down the highway; who was not interested in traveling much farther than our cottage 50 miles away or maybe to Milwaukee—except for one bang-up trip “out West” when I was 13, a trip my siblings and I still talk about. When we reached Salt Lake City, my mother wanted to go on to California. My father decided to head home to Green Bay instead. “The kids miss the dog,” he said.
I sympathized with both of my parents’ perspectives. In fact, I have internalized them. For many years I felt compelled to resolve those dual impulses—to discover a theological insight, a psychological angle, or a spiritual practice that would enable me either to be happy staying at home or to discipline myself to travel without fear. To stay or to go: it felt like a decision fraught with moral peril. A truly good person, I thought, should be able to figure this out.
Happily, over many years of traveling—and thus far safe returns—I have left behind the need to declare one or the other choice good or bad, right or wrong. I’ve learned better how to juggle them, to let them dance together as my life unfolds.
Unlike my parents, I have lived in 16 different dwellings since leaving my childhood home. “Home” has become for me not just one particular place but an imaginative internal place, a constellation of feelings that has led me to develop a variety of “home-making” strategies related to my travels both geographically and theologically. No wonder one of my favorite book titles of all time is Laurie Colwin’s Goodbye Without Leaving. One can be at home, I’ve learned, in places where one cannot or does not want to live forever.
My theological home is Roman Catholicism. It has always been the community in which I dwell. But I have traveled back and forth from its center in a variety of ways. I have studied deeply in diverse religious traditions, from Mormonism to Theosophy to Christian Science, and I have spent most of my academic career on the faculty of a seminary of the United Church of Christ, a place that is a beloved second home, one that has given me perspective and a welcome critical distance from assumptions I might otherwise take too much for granted.
And yet in some way I never seem to have left home. My mind works in Catholic ways, my colleagues have told me, and I don’t doubt that they are right. I am an abstract, analogical thinker, inclined to find in disparate religious traditions themes, patterns, and similarities. I feel deeply what James Tate expresses in his poem, “Entries,” and that David Tracy uses as an epigraph to the Epilogue of The Analogical Imagination: “When I think that no thing is like any other thing/I become speechless, cold, my body turns silver/and water runs off me.”
Perhaps the sense of doom I feel before I travel to places where I don’t know the terrain or the language comes from the fear that I will be rendered speechless, that I will not be able to see similarities, make connections, find my way. But, I have discovered that it is not such a bad thing when the “talker” in me is stilled for a while; when the one who searches for likeness is compelled to confront, acknowledge, and absorb undeniable difference; when the abstract thinker encounters and is transformed by the very concrete other. I will never be a fearless traveler, but I know that sometimes I need to go.
There is, though, a place in my life where I have had many years of practice at both going and staying, where my conflicting inclinations settle down at least for a while. It is a spot on the western shore of Lake Michigan. Its solid-standing trees and always-changing sky and water have shaped my psyche from a young age. I have come and gone from this place for many more years than I have lived in any other place. I never know when I will get back there or how long I will be able to stay when I do, and so there is always a wistfulness that is part of my love for it. It would be my privilege to die in that place when my staying and going days are over. And it is my hope that on the last day of my life I will see one more sunrise emerge from the darkness of Lake Michigan and then, when evening comes, when it is time to go, I will step without fear onto the moon path shining on the lake and travel into endless mystery.