I had returned to visit the surburban American neighborhood where I grew up. After years away, across and on the ocean, I walked my old walk in a drizzle - to the monastery barnyard.
But the little red barn was gone. The dove cages, the henhouse, the goat manger - missing. Only a sloping swath of clover remained where the small barnyard once nestled near theologians' windows. I balked at the unexpected erasure of my memories.
An oasis in my youth, the monastery hinted at a world beyond our American dream. As a boy, I dodged the icons of suburbia - lawn mowers, dishwashers, disposal units - and ran up the monastery hill to the muddy barnyard to feed the goats a carrot, or the roosters crumbs. The elderly German groundskeeper would peer at me with disapproving affection, mutter through a thick accent, and go back to sweeping.
On my return, I felt betrayed, and cast about for an indication that my memories were real. I saw only the groundskeeper's shuttered shack and scanned my memory, in vain, for the old man's name. As I turned to sketch a fading farm mirage back onto the barren slope, a figure emerged from the mist. He was young, bespectacled, bearded, and wearing an odd foreign cap. I asked about the animals.
"Gone a while ago," he said. "After the old German died."
"That groundskeeper. What was his name?" I remembered just as the words came off my tongue, and we said in unison: "Francis."
We walked together in the rain. I was surprised when he told me he grew up here, a few blocks from me. Like me, he'd returned recently from living abroad. Trolling for a kindred spirit, he vented opinions simmering since his years in the Czech Republic. Guarded, but sympathetic, I mentioned my years in China. We lamented the hardships of poorer nations, and compared the chaos of post- communism. We marveled at the extremes of wealth in our own society, and admitted that in our plush neighborhood we feel like misfits. He was floundering, unable to reconcile the luxury of his upbringing with the gritty face of need in Eastern Europe. He was shocked by what our sheltered suburbs take for granted. He wanted to leave again soon. I knew the feeling and recognized the irony. The privilege of our upbringing gave us the option to travel, the latitude to sniff out perspective and return with critique.
Reconcile yourself to your home, I wanted to tell him. Stay here with your knowledge to mediate, to teach understanding and moderation, I presumptuously want to urge him in the place from which I myself had fled. Preaching the avoidance of self-indulgent alienation is my moral responsibility.
But, my own moral ground was too tenuous, and I failed. So I proffered a halfway solution. Since returning to America I had been up north, on an island, on a fishing boat, kept afloat by working-class concerns and a lot of ocean. At dawn I woke to the call of roosters, and for breakfast I ate eggs from my neighbor's hen. After a day at sea, I stopped to feed carrots to the store proprietor's horse.
"Maybe that's the sort of change you need," I said, my conscience questioning my own advice as I gave it.
"Yes," he nodded, more to the trees than to me.
When I emerged from the monastery woods, alone, the wet suburban road was flooded, like a river - suddenly I yearned to rejoin the flow, get my feet wet again. Maybe he would follow.
Trevor Corson is contributing editor at TRANSITION magazine, the publication of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society