“Recovering my fluency in Kansas things, I talked recipes, quilts, and weather with some people, books and poetry with others. I met populists and democrats, poets and farmers, Lutherans and agnostics, and a lot of people who not only loved where they lived but had chosen it.”
How to be at home
“How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it,” G. K. Chesterton observed in his autobiography Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith, (first published in 1908) in which he addresses the problem, “How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?” His Edwardian conclusion is that submission to ecclesiastical authority is the way to achieve a good and balanced life.
Many conservative American 21st-century Christians still agree with Chesterton’s persuasive, influential premise that we are too small to know everything, that cultivating a sense of wonder amidst the familiarity of our lives is the key to a rich life. Ideally, benevolent (loving-parental) authority could serve to remind us that we don’t know all the answers.Yet we now live in a time in which the majority of the population believes that unquestioned submission to institutional authority (church or government) has unwittingly condoned sexist, racist, and abusive—even murderous—institutional systems and behaviors.
This, I believe, is the heart of the painfully contentious conservative-liberal divide in America: Conservatives believe in the necessity of authority as the safeguard of security; liberals see the unquestioning submission to authority as the root of evil. And so we war over who possesses and who controls the key to truth about the meaning and value of the concept of authority. Let’s think about this.
Surely history has taught us that everyone loses in war, that hatred, violence, and force are never the real solutions to any of our disagreements. We’re fighting over an insubstantial thing–an idea. So how can we make peace, how can we come together in unity to solve the real problems and care for the real needs of everyone who calls this land home?
The meaning of home
A born Catholic who became a Bible-savvy Protestant and later a Buddhist, Tracy Seeley explores this question in her memoir Ruby Slippers: The Road back to Kansas. She was living contentedly in San Francisco before a diagnosis of cancer and the betrayal of a lover, who couldn’t deal with her illness, shook her to her roots. Aiming to discover the meaning of home she returns to Kansas. On her first night back she is eating at a restaurant called Chinese Garden:
“My waitress was…a thirtyish woman with dark blond hairs. I asked for stir-fried broccoli with tofu, and she puzzled for a minute. ‘I don’t know if they can do that,’ she said. ‘it’s not on the menu. I suggested that since this dish over here included broccoli and this other dish, tofu, maybe the cook could toss them into the wok, throw on some sauce, and voilà. She shifted from one foot to the other. She’d have to check. She brought back the [Chinese] owner and explained that I wanted broccoli and tofu, in a tone that suggested I’d asked for squid mittens and she blamed herself for not knowing what squid mittens were. But the owner said that’s okay, and explained how to write it down for the cook. When I asked for chopsticks, the waitress left me alone for a very long time. I studied the Chinese zodiac on the paper place mat, which had been laid out with a perfectly good knife and fork.
Waiting for my dinner, I read the story of Sitting Bull and the Ghost Dance religion in Ian Frazier’s The Great Plains. All about how the Ghost Dancers at Standing Rock would gather at Sitting Bull’s camp, which he’d set up as far from the agency as possible. There, they performed the dance that its visionary Wovoka had promised would bring about the end of white people and the return of the buffalo.
But wait. What was that on the Muzak? It had been nibbling at the edges of my concentration for a while; and now suddenly, I looked up, alert, like a deer scenting danger on the wind. Violins, plaintive, had just swept into the second verse of ‘Softly and Tenderly, Jesus Is Calling.’ Nobody else seemed alarmed.”
Seeley believes she is sufficiently educated to have outgrown the provinciality (and blind-faith Christianity) of those who remained in backward Kansas. Here she explores the self-congratulatory smugness we all fall into when we think we know more than the person next to us.
“In China Garden in Goodland, I felt like an inside outside, someone who knew the words, the world view, the winning tricks—but someone who chose not to play. Someone who knew, but also knew better. I felt smugly advanced in my thinking. Besides, I knew how to use chopsticks. The woman humming ‘Amazing Grace’ had nothing on me…
I hadn’t figured it out yet, but that night in China Garden, my chopstick-wielding smugness had met its match. When those small-town, cattle-ranching, wheat-groaning Kansans didn’t marvel over a Chinese restaurant on the High Plains, they were refusing to be herded into my today corrals. Why shouldn’t Kansans eat Chinese food just as I did in San Fransisco? Just because I thought they were supposed to be provincial carnivores?…
In the days ahead, Kansas became a rich, complex place that challenged my assumptions and stereotypes about the state I’d left at seventeen. Of the many people I met, not one was anything but authentically curious, generous, and kind… Everyone one of them listened to my tales of wandering with openness and sympathy, more tolerant of my otherness than I had been of theirs. They seemed to
feel sorry for me, gone so long, and welcomed me home.
Back there in China Garden, I should have been humming “a wretch like me,” right along with the woman in the next booth. Lord knows, I could have used some amazing grace to make me more open-minded and less provincial. Less stuck-up about my passport from Oz.”
Choosing to love where we live
My dream is that every one of us on both sides of the power struggle will come to recognize our own self-congratulatory sense that I-am-so-right-and-you-are-so-wrong. We must know that we are like everyone else–limited humans. And we must resist stereotyping the people we assume are unlike us.
It’s encouraging—how close we are, really, to accepting each other in love. The conservatives’ hero Chesterton and the liberal Buddhist Seeley will always remain in philosophical disagreement about the place authority ought to play in our lives and what our response to authority should be. But they know exactly the same thing about how to live wisely and sanely. They agree that the only way to be at home in our place and in our own skins, is to make ourselves smaller.
How do we make ourselves smaller? We deeply listen to each other. We believing we could possibly learn something from one another. But this can only happen if all of us reject the false (and highly seductive) premise that we are inherently superior to the person whose ideas and convictions baffle us.
Readers of Seeley’s My Ruby Slippers will glean insights into the common bond uniting us even when we don’t perceive our unity. Tracy Seeley shows through her own experience that the people we think are ignorant, and the people we believe are the cause of our suffering, are very often seeking the same authentic goodness and decency in life that we so passionately desire. They probably are also suffering the same sorrows we endure.
In all religions, the common wisdom underpinning all the doctrines is that we are most deeply at home (in the place that makes our lives meaningful) when we manage to be kind to people we don’t understand, who don’t understand us, and who are different from us, whether those people are family, friends, or strangers.
Upon finishing this memoir, which I stumbled upon at the library and knew nothing about, I felt such kinship with Tracy Seeley (although I am not Buddhist) that I googled her. I wanted to write her a thank you note. But…
came up as the top search return. Reading her obituary I felt the same loss I experienced when I received news of the death of the long lost classmate who had once been my friend. I, a committed Christian, am grateful to Tracy Seeley for her memoir. She illumines the truth that Christians and Buddhists, Jews and Muslims, atheists and pagans–all of us all together–can get along. She also opens a window into how to get along despite our differences.
How can we all get along?
By letting go of our damnable, ignorant pride.
Complement Seeley’s Buddhist perspective on a meaningful life with Radical Hospitality: [Saint] Benedict’s Way of Love by Lonni Collins Pratt and Father Daniel Homan, Compassion for Humanity in the Jewish Tradition by David Sears, The Butterfly Mosque: A Young American Woman’s Journey to Love and Islam by G. Willow Wilson, and humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm’s 1956 Masterpiece The Art of Being.