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On Liking Where You Are

No, he said. He hadn't liked Chicago when he arrived to teach there. He was miserable.

He'd rejected Harvard College for his undergraduate study in favor of Dartmouth College because at the New Hampshire campus he would be close to the fishing sites that reminded him of the wilderness West, where he'd been schooled at home by his preacher father.

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Norman MacLean , retired for some years now from teaching English at the University of Chicago, was talking to me in his living room near the campus. It was 1976, and he had just begun his literary career after, he explained, most of what he'd deeply loved - teaching Wordsworth, the young students, the company of his late wife - were behind him. A special Pulitzer for his autobiographical novel "A River Runs Through It" and other laurels were to come, but these to him were of no great notice.

He'd been miserable as a young teacher in Chicago, he was saying. He missed the direct rawness of nature.

"You have to learn to like where you are," his young wife said to stop his moping. So he set about to do so. And forays to the urban sites of Chicago, discovery of the parks and places where wildlife lived, became part of his teaching. Several times he was voted teacher of the year.

He let on that he enjoyed the company of the young more than he did that of his contemporaries. But after the passing of his wife, when he felt a deep barrenness, a group of colleagues who regularly read from various papers they were writing asked him to read something.

To fill up the hours, he had begun finally to write about his brother, a master fly-fisherman who had gone afoul of the law and was killed. He would fill up the bathtub with hot water in the evenings, he said, and soak and think about what he would write the next morning, until the water turned cold. His reading was well received and MacLean finished what became a bestseller.

Learning to like where you are became for MacLean a metaphor for facing his nighttime challenges, again and again, until by a creative process he could give form to the meaning that ran through his experience despite disappointments.

Americans always want to be somewhere else, hence our uprootedness. At the same time we dread, because of a job change or a personal loss, moving to someplace where we will be a stranger. Learning to like where we are can be a useful daytime antidote to itinerancy. After all, we have to appreciate the creation that is put under our nose.

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Recently I heard a young theologian, David Wolpe, comment during a television interview that all the great figures of the Bible had gone through some experience that broke them and forced them to turn completely to God. I tracked Rabbi Wolpe to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and left a voice mail. He returned the call from Washington, where he was about to deliver the invocation at a convention.

Yes, he said, the figure of the broken heart was a theme in his own writing. Within the hour I had several of his books from the local library in my hands. Wolpe's "Healer of Shattered Hearts," published in 1990, takes its title from Psalms 147: "He gathers in the exiles of Israel. He heals their shattered hearts." Jacob's wrestling for example, was a nighttime struggle with the self-absorption that had made him duplicitous toward the brother he was to face the next day. There is a long tradition of learning to welcome the night struggle alone with no one to talk to but the Maker, Wolpe observes. The world is silent.

Like MacLean in his tub, we prepare for the next day's tests of strength.

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