Why? Why do we care? And is it possible to keep caring once we know that caring will be hard, when we know that knowing more makes it all the harder to keep caring?
From the most innocent affairs of the heart to the most complex dimensions of life in the world, the most difficult of all questions is this: can we know, and still love? On Saturday afternoon I posed this question to a group of good people in Shafter, California, the town I grew up in. Set in the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, for most of a century it has been a prosperous farming community, known over the decades for its potatoes, cotton, horses, grapes, hay, roses, and almonds.
In the years of my boyhood it was “the potato capital of the world,” and at the same time the home to the University of California/United States Department of Agriculture-sponsored Cotton Research Station. The latter brought our family to Shafter, moving there from Davis when I was in first grade. My father worked with cotton for most of four decades as a plant pathologist, in the years when cotton was the major cash crop of California; that day has come and gone. Marijuana, wine, almonds… take your pick.
One of the early friendships we formed was with the Starrh family, farmers who grew cotton northwest of town; another was with the Penner family who farmed southwest of town, growing a lot of grapes. Over the years of my life, these were my friends and the friends of my family. I worked for both families in their farming of cotton, grapes, carrots and tomatoes. From walking the long rows of cotton as a boy, “chopping” as it was called, to loading boxes and bags of potatoes and carrots for markets across America, to driving a pretty complicated tomato harvester as a young man, I always loved the work, hard and hot as it was.
In a surprising unfolding of history, the sons and grandsons of these families invited me to come home this past weekend to take part in the annual Colours Festival, a community celebration of the arts. I had a small part in thinking about some of this years ago with Larry Starrh who is the principal visionary behind the festival. With seeming tireless energy, he has given himself in every way that can be counted, and not. But David Franz, grandson of the Penner family, is also a principal in the vision for what Shafter could be, and he was a student of mine on Capitol Hill years ago, taking part in the American Studies Program. Over the next years I wrote several recommendations for him as he began to learn to learn in many different places, from Switzerland to the Chesapeake Bay, from Notre Dame to the University of Virginia.
They asked me to come and speak about the book, Visions of Vocation, which has just been published. It was a gift to do so, seeing people who live in a place that is still “home” to me in a wonderfully complex way But given what I think about, what was more intriguing to me was this: why is it that Larry and David care about Shafter?
To press in. Of all the things that might be done, why have they chosen to step into the complexity of their home town—with a changing demography marked by economic, environmental and educational challenges –and seek its flourishing? It would be easier not to care. Given Shafter’s location in California, two hours from almost anything a person would want—from the Sierra Nevadas to the Pacific Ocean to the Mojave Desert to the megapolis of Los Angeles –why would people see themselves as responsible for the way their town is, and might be? And of course a quiet life in a small town is appealing on its own, without any appeal to the glories of mountains and oceans and deserts and cities. Especially knowing it as they do, with generations of knowledge bred into them, there is for them no romanticism about what Shafter is.
So why would a farmer with a full life choose to get involved in more complexity, for the sake of the arts in his community? Plans and people never work out like we imagine, and in Shafter they haven’t either; even on Saturday the local fire chief stepped in with bureaucratic overreach, and made it all more messy than it ever needed to be. We can have the highest hopes, and we will be disappointed. Why would a young man with a PhD from the University of Virginia, a promising academic career set before him and expected of him, choose to come home and create avenues for learning for the youngest of Shafter’s residents, bringing world-class social analysis to bear on the changing demography of the city? It is a great vision, and there is a great need, but it is complicated, more so the more that is done.
In many ways these questions have been the questions of my life. They wake me up in the morning, and they take me to bed at night. I have studied them, and written about them, for years, and I imagine that that will continue to be true. The questions aren’t cheap, and the answers aren’t either.
Whether we live in little towns or big cities the world over, whether our lives our rural or urban, when all is said and done our deepest longings are borne by love. I know of no other reason that is sustainable over time. When we choose to take into our hearts the hopes and hurts of the world, seeing ourselves as responsible, we do so for love’s sake—and in the ordinary relationships and responsibilities of life that love is incarnate in and through our vocations, in what we do and why we do what we do. That is true for Larry, as it is true for David, as it is true for everyone everywhere.
(On a clear day, you can almost see forever…. the San Joaquin Valley, almost a million miles from Los Angeles, and even further from San Francisco, but much more like the rest of America and the world. Not much glitz, not much glamour; a place full of ordinary people living ordinary lives.)