The extremely interesting discussion of so-called “crunchy conservatism” continues at National Review Online. These folks obviously have a lot more time for such talk than I do, and I can’t keep up with it, but I was struck by an exchange lamenting the unfortunate tendency of people to move away, often very far away, from the place in which they grew up, which of course in practice means moving away from their own parents and other family. You can read the two initial posts here and here. I should use words like “pressure” or “incentive” rather than “tendency,” because much or most of the time there are strong economic reasons for this mobility.
Some twenty-plus years ago my wife and I were faced with this decision. We were newly-converted Catholics with young children, living in small-town north Alabama where Catholics number five or six percent of the population, and with a growing group of like-minded Catholic acquaintances in other parts of the country. Both of us are Alabama natives. I come from the extreme northern end of the state, where we were living at the time, near my family. She comes from the extreme southern end, three hundred miles away.
We still had a certain amount of the back-to-the-land, commune-founding spirit that was abroad in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. We talked to some of our scattered Catholic friends and acquaintances about forming some kind of Catholic community which would involve, at a minimum, living near each other.
Nobody wanted to move to Alabama, of course. And, parenthetically: it has always slightly amused and slightly annoyed me that so many people, conservatives particularly, who admire rural life and social conservatism want absolutely nothing to do with the Deep South, where those characteristics are more dominant than in most of the rest of the country. No doubt part of the blame for that goes to George Wallace, Bull Connor, et. al., but part of it, too, is that hardly anyone with any interest in intellectual life, which included most of our long-distance friends, really wants to live in Hicksville, however much they may praise its virtues from a distance. I don’t entirely blame them, but the syndrome does cause me to maintain a certain skepticism when city-dwelling intellectuals get sentimental about rural life and the common man.
These talks never got all that far, but they did get far enough for us to consider very seriously whether we wanted to move away from our extended families. It was something that we talked about a great deal, the kind of soul-searching conversation that goes on between a husband and wife after the children have gone to bed. Since our families were not Catholic and there were so few Catholics around, we had to assume we would be somewhat isolated religiously if we stayed where we were. On the other side there was the possibility of living in a seriously Catholic environment, but that was certainly not guaranteed: who was to say that whatever community we joined would last more than a few years? Or for that matter that it would be a healthy place, not a pressure-cooker of eccentricity and fanaticism? And if it failed we might end up with the sort of rootless Flying Dutchman life that I’d long since decided I didn’t want, for myself or my children.
In the end it came down (for me, at least—my wife might remember differently) to the question of whether or not our children would grow up knowing their grandparents. I wasn’t willing to answer “no” to that question, family won, and we decided to stay put.
I don’t intend to discuss the following twenty years or so in detail, but suffice to say things didn’t work out all that well, certainly far less well than we had hoped. As far as raising our children in the Faith was concerned, we were constantly in the position of having to choose between isolation and influences we didn’t want them to have—just to take one dominating example, there was the problem of omnipresent television in the homes of almost everyone except us. And of course the dreariness of the typical Catholic parish didn’t help. I might also mention the sad irony that in 1990 we moved down to my wife’s country, where Catholics are somewhere in the range of a quarter of the population, where we were part of a Catholic home-schooling group which was something of a running disaster.
Still: if I had it do over again, knowing what I know now, but absent some direct guidance from God, I think I’d make the same choice. It just seems fundamentally more sound, more healthy, even more human. And the long run in which all human decisions are measured has a good deal longer yet to run.