When I was young, I had a recurring dream. I’d be walking home from grade school—it was a walk of only a few blocks—and I’d pass the house that sat next-door to mine on the school side. I expected to see my home beyond the neighbors’ tall hedge, but it wasn’t there. My home had ceased to exist.
It was only a dream. But as I think about places in which I’ve spent periods of my life, I do sense a disturbing trend. The hospital outside Sacramento where I was born is gone, replaced by a tidy subdivision. My elementary school is no longer an elementary school, and my junior high school is no longer a junior high school. In a few years, my high school will move to a new location. My college dorms and classrooms have been torn down and rebuilt.
The small newspaper chain at which I held my first real job was bought out by its daily metro competitor, and the office in which I worked is now an auto-parts store. Even that metro paper has moved to a new, less expensive location. Another paper for which I worked has since closed, and its building, celebrated as technologically advanced when it was built in the 1960s, was torn down—ostensibly for a grander development, which has yet to appear more than a decade later. A Fortune 500 company for which I later worked, a company with a long and proud American lineage, has since been taken over by foreign interests that swept in, ransacked, and restructured the office and its culture. Only the governmental offices that employed me, such as the State Capitol, seem resistant to change—for good or for ill.
Our throwaway culture has come to include entire buildings. Everywhere one looks, one senses the impermanence of place.
My work responsibilities took me to New York City in 2012, when St. Patrick’s Cathedral was undergoing renovation. I shared a picture of the scaffolding on Facebook, with a quote from Chesterton’s What I Saw in America: “There is a sense in which New York is always new; in the sense that it is always being renewed. A stranger might well say that the chief industry of the citizens consists of destroying their city; but he soon realizes that they always start it all over again with undiminished energy and hope.”
Chesterton found a certain charm in this material impermanence, but I can’t help noticing that newer buildings are not so attractive or well-built as their predecessors. This was not the case back in the early 1920s. Within a decade, New York would see the construction of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. Today we may be able to build buildings taller, but we struggle to build them better.
I recall a conversation with a friend in college in which we discussed living in a mobile home as a recognition that earthly existence is transitory and that our true, permanent home is in heaven. Yet as tempting as going mobile may be at times, I crave stability and permanence. My wife and I have lived in the same house since moving to a new state in 2000, and I feel no desire to move again, even as our children have left to start lives of their own. We want our grandchildren to enjoy and remember our home as much as their parents did.
I confess a certain envy of people who work long careers in one place. A friend from high school and college has worked in state government all his life, doing well for himself and his family while doing good work in the position he holds. An older friend has worked for the same company for more than forty years. The trend for younger workers nowadays is the opposite—to change jobs as often as they change their Facebook profile pictures.
When one thinks of monks or nuns, the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience come to mind. But many also take a vow of stability. In The Sign of Jonas, the journal that traces the time around his ordination as a Trappist priest, Thomas Merton describes that vow: “By making a vow of stability the monk renounces the vain hope of wandering off to find a ‘perfect monastery.’”
St. Benedict had little respect for monks who lacked stability, and he applied to them the perfectly fitting term “gyrovague.” His Rule states: “These spend their whole lives tramping from province to province, staying as guests in different monasteries for three or four days at a time. Always on the move, with no stability, they indulge their own wills and succumb to the allurements of gluttony.”
We all need to learn that “perfect” doesn’t exist on earth; the greener grass is probably artificial turf. Stability is a commitment to life as it is now: the relationships, the places, the joys, and even the sorrows we deal with each day. It is a refusal of the temptation to run away from our lives when they get dark or uncomfortable. And it is a recognition that the places we know will change.
The home down the street from my school, the home that disappears in my dreams, will someday in fact be gone. The memories will linger, of course—memories of work and play, love and sadness. These experiences shaped the person I am, and perhaps in the end that’s what the dream pointed to: a gentle lesson that there is more to life than lumber, drywall, and stucco.
The maps of our lives beckon us to explore new places while urging us to take along those things that have shaped us and made us who we are: the memories, the people, the ideas, the beliefs, the virtues and values we hold most dear. Stability keeps all this intact when the world of matter outside wants to make us think it is more important than it really is.
K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who works in corporate communications.