When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength; you shall be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth [in perpetual exile, a degraded outcast]. (Genesis 4:12 AMP)
His fingers were thick as sausages, calloused and worn as an old barn door. And yet, he held the gemstone between his fingers more gently than a jewelers velvet display pad. Hardened by a bum knee that kept him from finishing his football-scholarship-paid college degree, Grandpa returned to South Bend, to a life in a factory, where his enormous size served him well in brawls and maintaining the stamina to work odd shifts and handle heavy machinery.
In the evenings, he came home to the soft smell of his wife, the quiet play of his two boys, and his rock polishing tools. Hours after the family went to bed, he’d spend cutting and polishing, chiseling and shaping all sorts of rocks collected from western trips. Polishing them like the dreams his grandparents had when they spent weeks at sea, leaving crackling fires and the land they knew how to fight for sustenance, for a new life in a foreign country.
Time lost the exact reasons why my great-great grandparents came to America from Ukraine. But images of their ship, the Statendam, and cavernous gazes of images of children, mothers and fathers arriving at Ellis island explain enough–enough to know the trek was difficult. More difficult than they planned. And their arrival in the foreign place was more frightening, unsure and unsettling than they had imagined.
Still, they settled in communities, found tattered pockets of people in neighborhoods where others spoke their same language. Perhaps they tried to integrate with the German butcher who owned the neighborhood meat monopoly. Perhaps they tried to play with smaller-boned, more delicate Nordic immigrant families, but their thick bones, throaty accents gave way to street fights more than street games; turf wars more than tosses with the pigskin.
Wanderers, my ancestors were.
A trait which seems to have carried down to me through the generations, as I meander through the days and weeks, months and years of life, wondering if what I’m really doing makes a difference. Wondering why I feel so unsettled. Wondering why every time I think I’ve arrived at a place of steadiness or constancy, each time I pitch my tent in a place I think I’ll stay—emotionally or physically—I’m uprooted again, by myself or by chance. The more I try to cling to the security of the stagnant, the more peace falls through my fingers like leaves in the fall, trying to hold fast to the solid tree, but blown off after they’ve ripened to a burnished, thirsty red.
Falling to the frost-encrusted ground, searching for a place to decay or to settle it’s seed until the warmth of a spring sun causes it to rise again.
I am a vagabond, like my ancestors, seeking direction, setting foot on an unsteady steamer full of other vagabonds, searching for a place that is solid, and wondering why, once we arrive to the next destination, the clothes on our backs and the necessities in our treasure trunks gaze up at us, as if to say, in unison, “You’re unprepared. You packed the wrong thing. The journey you thought ended here has just begun.”
And the journey we hope to end never ceases to begin.
Forward into uncharted places until we feel as topsy-turvy as a spinning dreidel which never lands on the side we hope it would.
The shin, hey, gimel and nun of the dreidel.
Our lives topple onto shin, and we lose our turn and our neighbor wins the whole pot of winnings. Spin again, and we come up on hey, winning half the pot, only to come home and find our refrigerator’s died and we have to use it to pay the serviceman. Spin again, and wha-la—gimel! We win the whole thing, wondering what we did to deserve such grace. Spin yet again, and we get shin—kicked in it, too–we lose all we’ve worked for. Forever.
Even so, there must be something to learn in the vagabond life. Some sort of lesson between the spins. Some sort of purpose to the wandering. Lessons to learn in the wilderness. Something to see once the pillar of clouds clears from our eyes, once we can take our hands from our brow, not having to shield ourselves from the heat of the pillar of fire. Something to learn about provision. About whining and complaining. About golden calves and talking donkeys. Stones of help and parting seas. Perhaps those things happened not just for us to remember, but for us to look for in our own repetitive, circling journeys today.
Even as my grandfathers calloused hands, at ninety-three, hold gem stones, perhaps it is not too late for me to grasp the jewels of a wandering life, either: To shake off the setbacks and hold on to the resounding joy from still, small places; from trickles of quenching water after I’ve smote myself against so many stones . . .