Chapter 2.4: Uprooted

Chapter 2.4: Uprooted

 

When when look at our lives in retrospect it is easy to pick out certain points in time that change everything going forward. It’s not always easy to recognize these things when they are happening, but even as a child I was able to discern that what happened next was going to affect the trajectory of my life.

We lived in Santa Clara quite happily until 1981. Then, my dad took a vacation by himself to visit his parents. My grandparents had migrated from Washington to south Texas and bought a shrimp boat which my grandfather captained out of Port Isabel. During his trip, my dad went out on the boat with my grandfather to work the sea, and when he returned to us a few weeks later something had changed in him.

I will never understand what happened to him, or why. The best I could come up with is that he realized he was losing his freedom and it freaked him out. The young man who hitchhiked around the country a few years earlier had suddenly found himself a husband and father with a full-time job and a car payment.

My father is an interesting man. He is perennially youthful and energetic, with a spirit of adventure that is unmatched by anyone else I’ve ever met. He values freedom and cannot stand to be ‘tied down’ economically, socially, or even emotionally. He also can’t stand to be bored, and is constantly seeking new stimuli. My dad is the one who taught me to appreciate music, technology, and nature – all three of these things he consumed and reveled in.

I remember accompanying my parents one night as they shopped for a fancy new stereo system. Up to that point we only had an old 8-track player and a turntable. He purchased a system that played cassettes, and spent the entire evening setting it up. When the stereo was ready to be used he poured himself a drink, sat in his recliner and listened to an entire album from start to finish without moving. The sheer pleasure he got from listening to music is hard to overstate. Sometimes I’d join him and listen, too.

It was the same thing with the outdoors. My dad grew up part of the time in Washington state, and part of the time in Alaska. His own father was often absent, and my dad and his siblings explored the world on their terms. He loved nature in its most raw and unforgiving forms. Whether he was backpacking in the Cascade Mountains, fishing in some remote lake or exploring caves along the Pacific coastline — he wanted to be as far away from other people as possible, completely immersed in nature’s beauty.  This often resulted in some interesting childhood experiences for me and my brother. We were growing up in a very large metropolitan area but every so often dad would drag us out to ‘experience nature’ and hijinks would ensue.

*****

One such excursion was to a remote spot near a lake in northern California. I was probably 6 or 7 at the time. We parked our car, packed equipment on our backs and hiked to a spot next to a lake that really felt like the middle of nowhere.

The first day and night of our camping trip went ok, but the next day it started raining. Hard. My dad was in his element, fishing in the rain in his slicker, while my mother and brother and I played cards in the tent and tried to stay dry. Every so often my dad would poke his head in the tent and report to us how many fish he’d caught.

We all went to sleep that night hoping the rain would stop so we could get outside but in the middle of the night the tent started leaking and my dad announced we had to leave because there could be flooding.

My parents were (understandably) focused entirely on getting us out of there as quickly and efficiently as possible. They loaded me and my brother up with camping gear. Then, carrying a lamp and a flashlight, proceeded to lead us back down the trail.

My dad went ahead on the trail, and my mom was coming from behind with my five-year-old brother. At one point, my dad got too far ahead and my mom was too going slow. I couldn’t see where I was going on the trail. It was pitch black, with rain coming down and I heard water somewhere flowing by. I thought it could be a stream and I was terrified of falling in.

I started crying and yelling for my dad to come back. He called up from ahead and told me to stop crying and just keep going. But I was paralyzed there on the trail. My mom called ahead that she had my brother and all her stuff so she couldn’t carry me. She told me to stop crying and just keep going. But I couldn’t move.

After I spent several minutes hysterically crying and asking for help, my dad grumpily came stomping back with the lantern and grabbed my hand and told me to hold on to the strap on his backpack. I held on for dear life, struggling to keep up with his stride the whole way back. When we finally got to the car, both my parents admonished me for making a difficult situation even more difficult.

To this day I can remember the feeling of terror I had in my heart during that hike. I was afraid of being lost. Of drowning. Of falling down and getting hurt. I was also ashamed because I wasn’t brave enough, and because I’d made it harder for everyone else in my family who were also struggling on that path.

But the thing I remember the most is the relief I felt when my father grabbed me by the hand and pulled me forward.

It’s occurred to me that the same feeling of terror I had that night (I remember it so clearly all these years later–probably because I didn’t have the ability to see my surroundings) is the same feeling I have often had in my heart when I find myself lacking spiritual clarity. A handful of times in my life, when I’ve been truly desperate and vulnerable, my fear of being spiritually lost has overwhelmed me and despite my attempts to keep it contained, has poured out of my heart forcing me into tearful, emotional prostration and supplication. At those times, the same exact feeling of terror I felt years ago on that dark trail revisits me.

After those rare occasions of total spiritual vulnerability, I’ve felt the connection to my Creator pulling me to safety. These are moments that have changed me for the better. The greatest spiritual gains I’ve had in my life have come only when I’ve been able to surrender to the most intense feelings of being lost and afraid; and these are followed by intense relief and shame as I recognize my lack of faith only after regaining my ‘footing’.

*****

After his trip to south Texas, dad decided we needed to move to a place where we had more freedom, and yes, that meant giving up his excellent job with a decent income and move his wife and children from an environment where we were thriving to the wilds of south Texas where we knew no one. He told us that we were going to ‘move where the need was great’ which was a cherished idea by Jehovah’s Witnesses. That is, we would leave a place with a lot of Witnesses and move to a place where there were few so we could help with the ministry and support a small, struggling congregation. To be clear, this meant deliberately choosing poverty and instability. Among some Christians, there is a kind of theology of poverty which glorifies sacrifice, and romanticizes giving up worldly pursuits and possessions to dedicate oneself to God’s work. We read the story of Jesus’ disciples who left their families and their jobs and followed him around during his ministry, and that was our inspiration.

Our Witness friends in Santa Clara threw us a big going-away party in the style of a Hawaiian luau. There was a cake with a volcano on it. We sold our new Ford sedan, packed everything we had into an old station wagon with a rickety old trailer in tow, and headed to south Texas with our Witness friends waving us off from the front yard of our yellow house on Jackson Street.

We left behind everything I’d ever known and drove across the country to find freedom.


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