Today I walked to and from work wearing a big pair of hiking boots. Now that I'm relaxing inside they feel incongruous on my feet. I imagine tracking sloppy boot prints on the floor in every room. I wore them to keep my feet dry in the rain, though I could have used the car. I like the exercise of a walk.
I am thankful for the company that my mother's extended family has maintained over the years. The world population is exploding, but my country's history is recent, and written by immigrants. The isolation of starting new in a foreign place, far from ancestors and siblings, with sparse possessions and no access to a homeland is fresh in our collective memories. Even today, an accelerating economy and the convenience of travel are pulling at our bodies, giving us options that promise a more comfortable life, lived somewhere even farther away from our siblings. We take those options all too easily.
So I count myself lucky to have a selection of relatives that I can see face to face, for however limited a time. These are people that I have had contact with for decades, even though I've never worked with them, never lived with them, and in many cases never even been formally introduced to them. Sometimes I ask myself, "Why do I know these people so well?", because it doesn't fit. It's incongruous, compared to the other relationships that I maintain, with co-workers or with friends. These are not people I chose to be related to, and yet they form a collective that answers to a calling older than any economic trend, any law, any geography. They are my family.
There wasn't much to do at work today, so I began embedding pictures in the autobiography and family history that my father started writing two years ago. We've still got plenty to flesh out in it, and many pictures to add, but it's a good start. My father tells the story of how the Birkle family established a home in Oklahoma, working westward from Ellis Island after a perilous flight from the Russian steppes. At first they lived in a dugout at the bottom of a hill -- essentially a cave -- until they built a more solid house out of thick stones. Most of the Birkle family stayed in that area until dust storms and walls of locusts came sweeping across the plains, sucking all the moisture out of the ground and devouring everything alive.
As I read over the history in that document, I felt the conceptual weight of the hard work that my ancestors had muscled through as an alternative to starvation and death. My grandfather probably wore a pair of boots just like the ones I'm wearing now, every day when he went to work. Actually a pair of boots like these wouldn't have been tall enough to keep the mud off his feet, and are probably much more comfortable than any pair of boots manufactured in his time. And still they are incongruous in my house, where I can too easily break things by accidentally kicking them. They don't fit here, but I like them anyway.
These boots grip my feet in a way that whispers, "Somewhere in the world is a field that needs plowing, and a farmhouse in need of repair. If you want us to, we could lead you right to it. Just stand up."
And though I am thankful for the extended family that my mother has blessed her children with, I feel a deeper, more mysterious connection to the legacy that my father's story has evoked in my mind. I have to attribute this feeling to the story because I have never personally seen the Oklahoma landmarks, or my grandfather, or the fields that he stamped with his boots. There are no people I can talk to who remember the details of the Birkle family's escape from the Russian wasteland. There isn't even a local group of people who descended from that family. Economic forces and increased mobility scattered those people like drops into an ocean long before I was born.
Yet, I do have one early photo of my grandfather, standing in a row of grapevines, dressed in a hat and dirty overalls. The photo is fast approaching 100 years old. The first time I saw it I was caught up short, because for a split second I thought it was my father, and then I noticed the outlines of my own face in it too.
I've never had to coax a tractor through a muddy field for pay, or survive entirely on food from my own fields. I've never had to spear fish or shoot birds to keep a homestead safely out of poverty. I was raised with a ghost of these experiences while my parents lived in the woods, raising chickens, ducks, and geese, tending a garden, and keeping a goat. It was fun, and rewarded me with a sense of what is truly enduring in the natural world, and therefore in people. But I chopped wood as much because I enjoyed it, than for keeping a stove lit or warming a house. So it's all too easy for me to romanticize the feeling of a hard day's work, when I can undertake it with the reassuring knowledge that my rent can be paid through other means, and that the refrigerator at home is already stocked with food.
My ambitions for wealth and security are resting on a kind of conceptual see-saw. On the one hand, I am not making the money that I could be making, and I am dismayed that I am not saving up enough to own property. I have adventures to plan, and a home to build somewhere with my strong and diligent wife. On the other hand, I have already exploited more resources and accumulated more possessions than my ancestors ever had in this country, and the hiking boots I wear for recreational purposes haven't endured even the tiniest fraction of my grandfather's life-long toil. By that reckoning, I should have absolutely nothing to complain about.
Either way, I feel that something has to happen. My current job is not challenging enough to maintain my attention, and at the same time it does not involve the skills that I know I must develop to remain competitive in my breakneck profession of computer science. I have a desire to finish my college career, but I'm aware that the skills I require are not the ones that college would demand I study. I also have a desire to do what I've had the gut urge to do for a decade or more, and find a place to live near my best friend Andy and form a team with him. Or, perhaps I should pack up my gear and go hunting for a plot of land in the Sierras, and open an Internet Cafe -- by building it with my own two hands from the ground up on the outskirts of some slowly expanding city.
The network of my friends and my family forms a spider-web, draped irregularly across the landscape. I intend to find a place within that network, but first, I need to know what I'm looking for, and where I can go. This year, change will be wrought. This day, I renew my commitment to prepare for it's inception, and follow it through.
These boots are going right back on in the morning.