I come from a long line of risk-takers. Though maybe ‘long’ is stretching it a bit.
I am a second-generation American; all four of my grandparents were immigrants who left behind native their lands to make a better life in America. My mother’s parents came here from different parts of Norway in the 1920’s, met and married while living in New York City before moving on to Minneapolis , where my grandfather’s cousin ran a hospital and offered my grandfather a job. Leaving behind whatever they had in Norway was bold enough; packing up and heading to the great prairie from New York City during the height of the Great Depression was something else entirely.
Risk takers, one-and-all.
My father’s parents were a Russian Jews who left just after the turn of the twentieth century and also landed in New York. While the information on my father’s side of genealogical ledger is spotty, history alone tells me that being a Jew in Russia in the decades leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution was not an easy lot. Getting out of said situation was no easy chore, either.
Though what they each left behind was deemed, for whatever reasons, to be inadequate, it still takes a lot of gumption to leave behind everything you know and love to move somewhere thousands of miles away to a strange land.
Risk and reward. Seems simple, but when the reward part is a whole lot of uncertainty…not so much?
So, given some historical context, my wife and I packing up two kids, a dog, and every other aspect of life and moving from small town life on the southwestern Minnesota prairie to New Orleans has a kind of ‘makes perfect sense’ feel to it.
Same holds true for our move to the small town (population about 13,000) of Marshall, Minnesota, six years prior to that. Add in the fact that our move from Minneapolis to Marshall was not only a culture shift, but also a major career move for my wife, and the risk taking aspect looms large to some. Just as both of us chucking the corporate life mid-career to move into the classroom as teachers, helping to rebuild one of the worst public education systems in America was something of a risk.
Sometimes I think that the nonchalant way in which we relate our tale is unnerving to a lot of people.
Old friends of mine are visiting from Minnesota, and at dinner the other night they were asking about our motivations in moving here, and as usual we dutifully recounted the story of wanting to do more with our lives, answering our perceived calling, the trials and tribulations of dealing with teaching kids in poverty, etcetera. This has become a commonplace conversation, as over the past four years we have had a steady stream of visitors from our ‘past lives’ who have found their way to New Orleans for a visit, or just stopped by on their way to somewhere else. (If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear for some people it’s a sort of cartoon mountain-top guru pilgrimage simply to ask us why we are here and how we could pack up and move to a strange place the way we did.)
Our answers frequently seem to leave people confused by its simplicity – like there has to be more to it. After some recent, close together visits from various folks, I am starting to understand that a little better, and I think I know the answer.
We come from a long line of risk takers.
Whenever we relate our story, we include the faith aspect; how we have followed what we felt G-d was calling us to do, and through prayer and reflection, we simply acted on that. Our various church families in Minneapolis, Marshall and now, New Orleans, all know the story, but even many of those that can easily see the faith aspect at work in our decision-making and execution can get hung up on the ‘how’ we could make these moves. What frequently unnerves people is the ‘well we just did it’ aspect of the entire escapade. Maybe it’s because we tell the story fairly frequently,
I come from a long line of risk-takers. So does my wife – her line being a generation longer than mine on one side, two generations longer on the other.
My wife’s great, and great-great-grandparents were Swedish immigrants. Whatever situations they, too, were leaving behind, the whole late 1800’s immigrant-to-America scenario is risk-taking personified.
For the record, though both sides of my wife’s family and my mother’s families all hail from Scandinavia, there is no record of any Laplander blood in any of the lines, so our people are not nomads by nature; a pretty sedentary lot, all in all. Based on the little info I have on my father’s side of the family, the same seems to hold true, though as Jews, the diaspora aspect would seem to put them in the ‘nomads by nature’ category.
If this seems like some sort of prelude to another move on our part, it isn’t. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I felt so…sedentary.
Still, there is more to this whole risk-taking thing than packing a steamer trunk and hitting the open sea. My whole existence is owed to some rather grand limb-stepping aside from that already mentioned. For example…
My dad marrying my mom. Dad was 17 years her senior. He was also divorced with a son and a step son – not conventional sell to a young bride’s family in the late 1950’s, but they made it work, and work pretty well. My mom’s father (Gramps) and my father were extremely close – so much so that many times someone meeting my family assumed that they were a father/son not father-in-law/son-in-law combo.
They made it work well for 28 years, until my father’s death from cancer. Unless people knew the backstory, most of those years were pretty typical work-and-raise-a-family years with little if any obvious risk-taking. Except…
When I was ten, my parents up and decided that we would move from Minneapolis to Denver. Just because. They had been to Denver on their honeymoon in 1958, and in the summer of ’69 we had driven out there on vacation, with Gramps in tow. We returned to Minneapolis, I went to the lake for a few weeks, and then they came there to pick me up and said, “We are moving to Colorado!”
They had no jobs waiting there, and in fact, were both willing to leave behind long-standing jobs, family and friends for nothing more than perceived opportunity in a new place with a (then) booming economy. It worked out well; my father ended up doing roughly the same thing he had been doing in Minneapolis, but for a lot more money. My mom found a better, more lucrative career than what she had in Minneapolis. Me? I spent the next eight years in Denver, graduating from South High School with a diploma, a solid knowledge on how to live life, and a wonderful cadre of friends – many of whom remain, to this day, an important part of my life.
Risk takers. Reward earners.
Following high school, I moved back to Minneapolis, spent a year living with Gramps and going to Brown Institute to become a radio announcer, which I accomplished, and then took a job at a little radio station in rural Missouri, heeding the advice my father gave me: “Take a job wherever it’s offered even if its someplace you never wanted to go. Experience something new.”
Small town radio was an interesting experience for this city kid – so much so that I repeated the adventure in Iowa, then moved on to stations in various points in Minnesota, before I got out of the radio biz and moved back to Minneapolis, where I moved into the hotel business, then into social service and adult training and development, which eventually led me to teaching in one of the worst school systems in America, which I love doing.
Risk/reward. Seems pretty simple.
My wife started her journey in a small town in northern Minnesota, moved to Minneapolis/St. Paul to attend college, became a social worker. Worked on an adolescent treatment unit, ran a teen center for high-risk youth, then moved into the corporate world and became a human resource executive. Along the way, she took the huge risk of marrying a divorced guy with a seven-year old daughter and a bunch of other baggage. (You want to talk ‘risk’? Ask her about ‘risk.) Corporate H.R. gave way to administering special education finances for a school district, and now she teaches special ed kids every day. She, too, loves her job.
So the whole pack-up-and-leave-your-homeland-go-west-go-further-west, go south-go-north-go back- further-south thing has, generationally, worked out pretty well.
Our ‘Family Kerouac’ routine is not without circumstantial provocation or family precedent; we are not quite that spontaneous. I believe there is a life cycle to almost every situation. One of my favorite bible passages is Ecclesiastes 3:1, ‘There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.’
So, with a little bit of context, our rather convoluted life story makes perfect, logical sense.
Why are we now living in New Orleans? Why did we chuck the corporate world and become teachers? Just how much of a stretch is it, really, from leaving behind Russian pogroms to distancing ourselves from corporate downsizings and other shenanigans? From leaving a culture where you have next to nothing because you are not the first-born, or because you are a female, to come to America and leaving a culture you know and are comfortable with to live in a place like New Orleans, where people speak a different language, live a different lifestyle?
You see, we come from a long line of risk takers…