The places of our lives
One of the books that I read to our children and have also read to our grandchildren is called “Yertle the Turtle.” The story is of a turtle who wants to be king over all kinds of other things, so he keep seeking a higher and higher perch from which to see. The higher he went, the more he could see and the more over which he could claim to be king. He got other turtles to stack themselves upon one another and climbed to the top of the tower, and he demanded that the tower and his position me made higher and higher until the entire tower collapsed and he was once again just a turtle in the mud. It makes a good children’s story and it makes a good point about the importance of thinking of others and their feelings.
I was thinking of Yertle the Turtle as we were talking with cousins yesterday. We gathered in the late afternoon to talk about community and about our plans for the future and about lots of other interesting things that cousins talk about when they are together. Enough years have passed and we’ve gathered for enough funerals that somehow we have become the elders of our family. There are still three generations around after most of the people who came for my cousin’s funeral have gone home and we are the oldest of those generations. All of us elders are at points in our lives where we need to make decisions about where and how we will live for the next phase of our lives, so we talked about places where we might live and how we might form and participate in community as we grow older.
The cousin whose life we celebrated and whose grave we visited this weekend once wrote about his choice of place. He lived all of his life within a few miles of the place where he was born, but he made some decisions about where to locate his house and how he would live, including choosing the place where he would die and be buried. He once wrote an essay in which he said that at one time he thought he would like to live on top of a hill, where he could look around and see for miles and miles. This is very open country. You don’t have to be on top of a hill to see for many miles, but when you do crest a hill, the view is truly impressive. You can see mountains in the distance in several different directions and the wheat fields roll on from horizon to horizon. The problem with living on top of the hill, he wrote, is that in order to live there he would have to marry the daughter of the man who owned the top of the hill. That would be acceptable, he surmised, but then you would build your house up there and you would always be looking beyond your own fields and beyond the fields of your neighbors. Instead, he chose to build his home in the bottom land next to the river. He couldn’t see the great distances, but over the years he built up his ranch in such a way that he was the owner of all that he could see from his home. He concluded his essay by saying that when he was overwhelmed by the view and the size of the land he could close his shades and limit his view to an even smaller space and feel that he had even more control over what he could see.
I’m not telling my cousin’s story very well, but he developed a philosophy that was the opposite of the ill-fated king Yertle of the turtles. My cousin’s philosophy proved to be a good way of living and viewing the world.
There are many who would say this particular part of Montana is lonely country, but it has never felt that way to me because it is a place of our ancestors and it is populated by family. There may not be many of them, but they are generous with hospitality and quick to welcome us whenever we visit. I love to come to this part of the world, but it isn’t the place where I will be making my home. It was just the right place for my cousin to live and die, but it isn’t my place.
One of the stories of our people is of Abraham and Sarah, who lived long lives and grew old together. They were wanderers and nomads, always following the dream of a promise and a land. What they didn’t realize, at least in the beginning of their travels, was that the promise was to their people, not to a single generation, and when they reached their old lives, the promise still was in the future. Sarah was the first to die and when she did, the family had no land that they owned. Her burial plot was the first piece of real estate that they acquired. The location of that bit of land was determined by where they happened to be when that event occurred. So they negotiated a price and bought a bit of land and and laid her to rest. The family continued to move for several generations before settling. And even then, they occupied the land for only a few generations before time and circumstances forced their people to become nomads once again. We often speak of being a people of the story - a people of history - rather than a people of place.
As we continue to seek the place for the next part of our lives, we are sometimes a bit overwhelmed with the life of uncertainty. We have been enabled to live in some pretty wonderful places along our life’s journey. We have met some really wonderful people and had some very great communities. We feel the urge both to move on and to stay. We experience the beauty and power of place, but we know that our ownership is always temporary. We live in this land for a little time. Time progresses. Things change. New generations are born and gather around the campfire. They keep singing and talking after the elders have gone to bed. It is the natural way of the world.
I still don’t know where we will decide to live for the next phase of the adventure, but as we search for that place we are grateful for the conversations we are having along the way.