Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Following and Straying: The paths of my ancestors

From Toledo, IA
"Foggy Morning Frolic" by Mike Gilchrist & his cat, Wink
(used w/ permission)
My grandfather, Dale Mullins, started his adult life as a farmer. This wasn't a "start" so much as it was a continuation of what he was born into on his family's farm outside of Monroe, Iowa. Born in 1915, his father passed away when Dale was only 24 years old, at which point he took over full control and care of the family farm. He was born and died in the same house and lived out and worked most of his 77 years on the same 80-acre piece of earth overlooking and rolling down into the South Skunk River bottom that meanders nearby.

My other grandfather, Max Gumm, started out much the same, having grown up on his family's farm about an hour northwest of Monroe near Jefferson, Iowa. Unlike my maternal grandfather, though, Max altered course a few years into farming. He felt, as us church folk say, "the call"...

So around 1960, at the age of 25, Grandpa Max uprooted his young family and moved them to McPherson, Kansas, to attend college. From there it was on to the Church of the Brethren seminary, then located in suburban Chicago, and then on again to his first pastorate in North Dakota. After a few years there, he accepted another pastorate in Prairie City, Iowa, which would become my hometown less than a decade later.

By the time my father graduated from high school at Prairie City in 1972, he had attended 9 different schools in 4 different states. This wandering lifestyle of course had a profound effect on my dad's worldview and it became a conscious decision for him early on that, when he had his own family, he would not subject them to that kind of life. They would be rooted. And so there I was in Prairie City, for the first 18 years of my life.

As for farming, the way of life for my ancestors, it ended with my parents. They went to community college in Des Moines and on into professional jobs in the city. So while I grew up in a farm town close to Des Moines, was often babysat by my cousins on a farm just outside of Prairie City, grew up in a country church south of town with a smelly cow lot right across the road, and spent most of my weekends in childhood running around with my brother on the nearby Mullins farm, I was already a generation removed from real farming. I enjoyed the rural landscape and cultural trappings without having to do the work. In town during harvest time, I grew up falling asleep to the sound of the grain dryer fans at the local elevator and watched from the adjacent town square as tractors line up to drop off their hauls from the surrounding fields. Meanwhile, the hardest manual labor I had to worry about was mowing the yard.

And professionally/vocationally, I merely continued in the steps of my father and his father, kind of synthesizing their two winding paths. Out of two-year college, I followed in my father's path of technology work in corporate settings. Then like his father I sensed "the call," finished my bachelors in Iowa, and uprooted my family to live in Virginia for four years for seminary/grad school, before returning to Iowa a year and a half ago.

In what's been a kind of homecoming, I find myself once again, for the first time in 15 years, "back" in a small Iowa town about an hour from where I grew up. But now we're in the land of my wife's ancestors. About five generations of Thiessens have called Tama County home, and most of them were farmers. Yet like my own family, the agrarian way of life is likely going to die with my wife's grandparents. None of the four boys in my father-in-law's family continued farming after leaving their family farm, and only my in-laws still live here, just outside of town. Our generation's worth of Thiessens have scattered far and wide, though my brother-in-law is still in town.

What our new-ish place means for me, vocationally, is a topic - perhaps the topic of late - of endless brooding on my part, given my present circumstances: living but not working in this rural community, and working for a university and a church in roles that have no local presence (other than me) or bearing on the local community.


Gracy Olmstead, associate editor at The American Conservative, has a nice essay disguised as a book review up on their website: A Millennial's Agrarian Anomie. She's reviewing a memoir, A Farm Dies Once a Year, by 31 year-old Arlo Crawford. The book (which I haven't read) documents its author's restless journey from early adulthood urbanity back to his childhood rural roots and then ultimately back to urban life. Olmstead uses her review to comment on individualistic careerism and vocation-as-self-actualization one finds in American culture, and - in the case of the book under review - its impact on agrarian life in rural parts of the US.

In light of the author's journey described in his memoir, Olmstead makes this observation:
...the idea of vocation is no longer rooted to any permanent sense of duty or place. In countless graduation speeches and motivational talks, children are told to “pursue their dreams,” wherever those dreams might lead. It’s an idea rooted in individualism, urging kids to “be their own person,” or to “chart their own course.” Today, children are no longer expected—nor are they usually encouraged—to follow a particular duty, calling, or path. They aren’t to be saddled with the burdens of their forebears.
Olmstead later attempts to offer a corrective to the understanding of vocation/calling that's primarily individualistic:
What if vocation does involve using your talents—but also involves tying those talents to a particular duty, or a particular place? This would mean that family, community, and talent all have a direct bearing on the career we choose. And it would mean that, even when we feel “unfulfilled” in our work, we must persevere, knowing that we serve some place, or someone.

What I continue to wrestle with is the jumble of "sticker and boomer," rural and urban, professional and churchman - that I find within myself. As much as I resonate with Olmstead's observations and reframing of vocation, I struggle to envision what it might mean for me here. My duties are and purposes are scattered hither and yon, and so I'm faced with the reality that, for as much as I desire to be a rooted and whole person that honors, as Olmstead points out, the "work and wisdom of those who came before us" - I'm finding myself in unfamiliar territory and in search of a "true foundation for the future."

To Christian eyes, that phrase should of course conjure up a scripture passage like 1 Cor. 3:11 - "For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ." Yet even that, even for a minister such as myself, proves to be an elusive reality in daily life.

So for now I'll seek to pursue a "micro-vocation" in our local community, constrained as it is by my vocational commitments elsewhere. I'll seek to be content with the fact that I do have gainful employment that I find fulfilling and helps provide for my family's security and wellbeing. I'll seek to know and perhaps come to love my actual neighbors, and hope that in the four more years we have with our daughter living at home with us, we'll have laid down at least a somewhat sturdy legacy for her to step out from, drawing as we have on those who came before...

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