Growing up In Between: Some Thoughts on Formative Tensions and Vocational Discernment

What underlies all of my teaching and writing is a deep desire to hold in tension with one another life and learning, book smarts and street smarts, the Ivory Tower and the Trailer Park. I want these two worlds to inform, resist, and, above all, to speak to one another because each contains good and bad, insight and ignorance, that serve as redress to the other.

In an essay entitled “Place and Displacement: Reflections on Some Recent Poetry from Northern Ireland,” Seamus Heaney observes of the people of Ulster that they live in two places: “Each person in Ulster lives first in the Ulster of the actual present, and then in one or other Ulster of the mind.” Just as the two-mindedness of Northern Ireland shaped Heaney’s vocation as a poet, so the conflicts inherent in my native place and upbringing—a tension between the Trailer Park and the Ivory Tower—have fundamentally shaped my vocation and its trajectory. Indeed, my life could well be encapsulated by the only two diplomas I’d ever hang on my office wall if I ever got around to decorating my office, my GED and my PhD. Between these two lie my vocation.

In my previous post, I explored the virtues of the imagination and the imagination as itself a vocation of resistance, realignment, and reconciliation in personal and civic experience. I used the work of Seamus Heaney and the place of Northern Ireland as a case study from which Americans can profit. [See “When Hope and History Rhyme”: Some Thoughts on Imagination and Vocation” – ed.] In this space, I’d like to look at Heaney’s poem “Terminus” as a model for this sort of vocational thinking.

“Terminus,” named for the Roman god of boundaries and borders (and, for Heaney, the presiding deity in deeply divided Ulster), imagines vocation as springing from the divides, boundaries, and borders of one’s formative place. The poem also suggests that these termini present opportunities for reconciliation. Digging into one’s past and one’s formative place to discover a trajectory for one’s future is a common enough topic in discussions of vocational discernment. What I am interested in is the way in which Heaney’s poem explores the divisions, factions, and competing claims his place made upon him and how Heaney uses those tensions to structure his understanding of himself and his poetic vocation:   

Baronies, parishes met where I was born.

When I stood on the central stepping stone

I was the last earl on horseback in midstream

Still parleying, in earshot of his peers.

From “Terminus”

Northern Ireland in the 1940s was a place both rural and quickly industrializing. It was marked by intense religious experiences and intense religious conflicts.  And, of course, there were and still are the competing cultural claims of Nationalists and Loyalists. The terms “baronies” and “parishes” remind us of Ulster’s deeper historical strata and the contending political narratives that constitute the divisions of Heaney’s childhood geography. [For more on the idea of vocation, geography, and cartography see Erin VanLaningham’s “The Cartography of Vocation” – ed.]

The poem imagines its speaker, a figure for Heaney’s understanding of his poetic vocation, as immersed in the flowing stream of history, yet not drowning in it nor swept away to one side or another by the force of its current. Rather, the speaker inhabits the middle.The stepping stones on which the speaker stands allow passage between conflicting political and religious narratives. This stance is not one of centrist compromise or fear of taking a side (as a Catholic and constitutional nationalist, Heaney takes the side of “parishes”) but instead one of “suffering the limit of each claim,” of “parleying” in order to negotiate fluent dialogue between sides.

Growing up in such a divided place leads to what the poem calls “second thoughts”: “Is it any wonder when I thought/I would have second thoughts?”

Rather than a source of paralyzing inner conflict, however, Heaney’s poem imagines second thoughts as scale arms that allow for deliberation upon both sides of an issue or situation.

The boundaries and parameters of my vocation were established by the competing claims I grew up in and between. My white trash bona fides are impeccable: I was born to a trailer park in a county in Appalachian New York that, according to data collected by the Appalachian Regional Commission, competes in poverty rate and unemployment with many other areas of Appalachia.

We eventually moved to a house about 50 feet away from the trailer park. There was the requisite generational alcoholism of the most severe sort. My “cracker vitae” also says high school dropout and first generation college student.

View from Michigan Hill in New York; nearby is the site of the birthplace of John D. Rockefeller. (Photo by the author)

Yet for all of this I grew up 20 minutes from Cornell University, an Ivy League institution in Ithaca, New York, one of the most progressive and literate cities per capita in America. Long before they were mainstream in America, organic and vegetarian food (see Moosewood’s), new age spirituality, gay pride, Birkenstocks, Volvos, and falafel were par for the course in Ithaca. Ithaca boasts a luminous constellation of “notable persons” (largely affiliated with Cornell). At one point, the city developed its own currency, Ithaca Hours (founded in the same year as its EcoVillage), and, more recently, Svante Myrick, Ithaca’s 31 year old mayor made the New York Times for his proposal for a supervised heroin injection center in an effort to reduce the amount of fatal overdoses surging with the opioid crisis.

So, to quote “Terminus,” I grew up “in between” and I suffered “the limit of each claim.” The claims of hillbilly poverty (it’s very hilly in New York’s Southern Tier) and ultra-progressive college town politics (Ithaca College sits on the hill on the other side of Ithaca from Cornell) were like the proverbial brain halves facilitating two very different types of thinking.

Photo of the author with his father.

I can also see something of this split between the high and the low all through out my life. I see it in my father, who struggled severely with alcoholism, but who had a Mensa-like IQ and is still in my top three for most hilarious, witty, and charming people I’ve ever known. Spiritually, ours was a Manichean household. My mother’s Christianity provided the light while my father’s bleak naturalism was darkly hostile to her (or anyone’s) religion. Despite the odds against ever achieving much of anything in life, the four of us kids grew up to become an engineer, a historian, and two English professors.

I am not surprised, looking at these patterns, that such competing claims and allegiances have led me to see my vocation less as a journey and more as a scale of the sort Heaney imagines in “Terminus.” What underlies all of my teaching and writing is, at the end of the day, a deep desire to hold in tension with one another life and learning, book smarts and street smarts, the Ivory Tower and the Trailer Park. I want these two worlds to inform, resist, and, above all, to speak to one another because each contains good and bad, insight and ignorance, that serve as redress to the other.

I like to invite students into the example of my vocational story and encourage them to begin to seek out and deliberate upon competing and conflicting claims that formative places and larger cultural forces have made upon them. I hope to help them think into the complexities of a place or an issue, and, above all, I hope to help them see that to begin to imagine the possibility of reconciling divides quickly ripples out from the personal to the much needed work of entering into and facilitating dialogue between the increasingly entrenched divides of our civic experience.

Most lives have competing claims that might offer themselves as possible outlines of vocation. Helping students uncover and reflect on formative tug-of-wars, whether between different (or indifferent) cultures, languages, races, classes, genders, faiths, geographies, parental personalities, etc. is a good way to help them begin to think into boundaries and parameters that can give shape to vocations. Assignments that allow students to research and articulate formative tensions are also a good way to get them to see that academic research can be a gateway to the most intimate kind of self-knowledge.

The value of “second thoughts” (in Heaney’s sense) in discerning vocation only increases with age. As we return to and revisit our sense of vocation, new experiences and claims can be weighed in the balance with formative ones so that past and present are active in the ongoing process of revising, deepening, and clarifying the space of calling that has shaped and is shaped by our lives.

Jason Stevens is an Associate Professor of English at Cornerstone University. He is interested in the role of the imagination, particularly the poetic imagination, in places of political violence and distressed social conditions. 

Author: Jason D Stevens

I am an Associate Professor of English at Cornerstone University. I am very interested in the imagination, particularly the poetic imagination, in places of political violence and distressed social conditions.

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