Stuck in Place — Or in Motion?


by Amy Carr

What do you think makes for a sense of place — the kind that fosters a commitment to nurturing a particular place?

Is it just living somewhere?

For how long?

The Benedictine theme of “stability of place” seems out of sync with the way so many of us live our lives in the US today.

A new friend from Slovenia told me she is always struck by how, when she asks someone in the US where they are from, they often rattle off several places, as if moving regularly is a natural part of life.

Back in Slovenia, she said, families live in the same town for centuries. They don’t think of moving. This can create a sense of being stuck in place — of not imagining an alternative to one’s life as it is.

I can see too how it can generate a very long historical memory — to live in the same place your ancestors lived for hundreds of years or more.

As a teenager, I pondered this kind of tie to place as I watched the son of the tribal chief one evening, sitting at a high school basketball game with the Finnish-American girl he was dating at the time (like some Finns, she had the whitest blond hair). I remember thinking: will he feel pressured to marry within the Ojibwe tribe instead? And he planned to attend Michigan Tech University next year. If he wants to pursue tribal leadership himself, though, he’ll have to come back to this town.

The thought made me uncomfortable. I so longed to leave my small hometown for the wider world, for cities and intellectual companions.

And I did.  Not counting summers spent in at least five different states, since graduating from high school, I have lived in three states: two college towns and two major cities.

After college the tribal chief’s son did move back to town. He is now a tribal judge.

And as can be the way with communities, he has been caught in controversies related to working out local power—and debates about what constitutes abuse of power.

The Benedictines have a Rule; sovereign Native American tribes have systems of governance as well. And both communities have had a history of disputation about what actions are proper, and how to discipline community members. (This was a challenge in the 1990’s in my hometown, after the tribe opened the first casino to be legalized in the country, and a host of abuses of power followed—which landed the tribal chief in federal jail after ties to the mafia were discovered.)

Other friends who were tied to the tribe chose to leave, maintaining various degrees of ties to the tribe.

What does stability of place mean, once you are an adult with your own livelihood, whether or not it is located where you grew up?

Is it a loss, or a gain, or a wash — our country’s seemingly easy geographical mobility?

My new friend from Slovenia says she loves the openness of both place and people in the US.

She also translated early and mid-20th century letters from my own Slovenian relatives, both in Slovenia and in the US and Canada. The themes of my relatives in Slovenia were, she said, common among older generations there:   a focus on health updates; having only potatoes to eat; always needing more money.

A spirit of complaining among those who lived in one place all their lives — that is what predominated in the few letters I heard her translate.

Meanwhile, though, the relatives who had moved around to Canada were complaining of how they felt slighted for this or that reason by the relatives who had stayed in Upper Michigan — wanting someone else to be sent along to be with them.

The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard pointed out that wherever you moved, you brought yourself with you; you could not run from whatever troubled you within.

The Benedictine commitment to stability of place seems to emphasize this point: that running to another monastery, or back to the world, won’t necessarily resolve what you have come to struggle with in your spirit, as you seek to surrender your pathways to God.

But the movement into a Benedictine monastery itself involves a decisive move away from a place of origin – a chosen vocational move.

My decision to leave my hometown for college was a chosen vocational move as well. Of course, college was a temporary place.  But it made everything else possible that I have pursued since then. All the later moves build on that first one; and with all I have gathered, I can imagine moving back to where I grew up.

Indeed, I can imagine living anywhere at this point in my life (though some places are much preferred). Is that perhaps part of what stability of place means, at heart? Finding the kind of move – and a way of moving – that enables all places to become home to one who seeks to build community wherever one is.

Perhaps this is where stability of place touches on hospitality. We do not just welcome others to where we are; we find ourselves fostering tribal ties wherever we are – in one place even when we are on the move.

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