I. The Impeded Stream
According to a study from LinkedIn, people who graduated between 2006 and 2008 worked for nearly three companies on average in their first five years after graduation. Those who graduated between 2001 and 2005 worked for an average of four companies in their first ten years after graduating. This fact has led Fast Company, a popular business and career magazine, to advise their readers to plan on switching jobs every three years for the rest of their professional life.
This attitude toward work and career isn’t limited to work and career, however.
In other areas of our lives as well, millennials embrace a conspicuous level of mobility and agility in how they live. There are many explanations for this behavior. Crucially, most of these reasons have nothing to do with some sort of besetting generational sin that defines the generation of people born between the early 1980s and late 1990s. Rather, they have to do with the material conditions that have shaped the world that millennials have lived in for their entire lives.
To begin, we have seen the transformation of the American economy as the steady, long-term blue-collar jobs that many of our grandparents worked have disappeared. The prospect of being in the same job for more than ten or, in some cases, even five or six, years has seemed increasingly remote.
Alongside the collapse of the industrial economy we have seen an attendant collapse of many of the towns and cities that we grew up in. The term “Rust Belt” first emerged in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until the 80s that we really started to see the collapse of the industrial economy in cities like Cleveland, Youngstown, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. As the industries that propped those communities up failed, so too did the communities. This is an important lesson: When the economic basis for a community’s life disintegrates, the community inevitably follows. And this truth applies as much to families as it does cities.
As we witnessed the divorce epidemic of the 80s and the general disintegration of working-to-middle class community, many of us also lost confidence in home and family life. One (totally adorable) young person (who is somehow less self-aware than Donald Trump) has observed this break down and deduced from it that marriage is a failing product and that humanity can do better:
But as a child of divorce and an aspiring designer-entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, I was suspicious of marriage. Out here, we’re data-positive and solution-oriented and if your product (i.e. marriage) is failing for 50% of your customers, then you need to fix it or offer something better. So when I discovered polyamory and non-monogamy as I headed to Burning Man in 2013, I realized I’d stumbled onto another way.
To be sure, young people determined to answer the question “can I become a real-life version of a Portlandia character?” are probably at least somewhat fringe on this, but we shouldn’t be too dismissive of our intrepid Burning Man correspondent. He is hardly alone in his assessment of marriage.
Though also somewhat fringe, the popular sex columnist Dan Savage coined the term monogamish and was featured in the Times as far as back as 2011 calling for a different understanding of marriage. Dismissing Savage as being too fringey would also be a mistake: His It Gets Better campaign was a huge viral success and he’s a popular public speaker who has appeared all across the United States and in the UK. His beliefs might be fringey, but he’s quite popular and his beliefs are more mainstream, particularly among young people, than most Christians realize.
Back in 2013, Slate was calling for legalized plural marriage. It was also in 2013 that the Washington Post published a story arguing for the introduction of “wedleases,” which are exactly what you think they are based on the name.
Taken together, what we have is the erosion and collapse of given forms of identity. These forms, place, neighborhood, family, marriage, profession, and so on, are being replaced by free choice. But it is not simply the domain in which our choice has been expanded; it is across time as well. I don’t make a decision at a single moment in time that I am then bound by, as I would in a Christian understanding of marriage. Rather, I make the choice every day about whether or not to stay in all my relationships, whether or not to stay in my place, whether or not to stay in the same job.
Material necessity will still place some constraints on this, but the nature of our assumptions about the world are such that we aspire toward building a society where everyone has this sort of “freedom” rather than a society where everyone is bound by something more powerful and compelling than the threat of starvation or homelessness.
The rhetoric of the left on abortion issues is a good example of this, but the debate about the childcare tax credit amounts to much the same thing. We’ll happily subsidize the choice of parents who wish to pursue their career; we’re less keen to subsidize the choice of parents who wish to stay home with their children.
We have fully internalized Hauerwas’s idea of modernity, which is that it is a state in which each person believes that “I have no story except the story I chose when I had no story.” To Hauerwas’s helpful definition, we might add “and no story except the one I continue to choose even while having other stories I have chosen.”
In one of his essays, Wendell Berry says that “the impeded stream is the one that sings.” If that is the case, then our age, which resents even the idea or possibility of an unchosen imposition, is a silent one.
II. Regarding C. G. Fredstrom
If the first thing you knew about Carl Gottfred Fredstrom—C. G. to his friends—is what you saw when you walked into his room at a mental hospital and saw the burns on his hands, what you knew would be true.
It also would be incomplete.
The burns, you probably knew, were the result of his grabbing a power line at the edge of town during a particularly dark period of depression in the summer of 1926, something he struggled with throughout his life. He had attempted to drown himself a few months before that but was unable to find a ditch deep enough during a bad rainstorm.
After electrocuting himself, C. G. would move to a mental health facility in a nearby town where he would stay for four months, only returning to the farm that November. I don’t know how they managed harvest that year. Whatever they did, it took a toll on them—you can see it in this family photo, and especially on the face of Elise in the bottom right corner, taken two years later in 1928:
If you see pictures of him, as you can above, the expression on his face almost tells the story on its own. On his wedding day you see both C. G. and his bride Elise standing stiffly for the camera. Elise’s face has a peaceful quality to it, something that seems to fit the meaning of her new surname in Swedish—quiet stream. C. G.’s look is more austere and stern, like an old world patriarch somehow already staring down through the ages at his descendants.
Later in life the same qualities announced themselves in other photos of C. G. and Elise, though they seem to have become more complicated after his two suicide attempts. Even after she had become a widow, lost the use of her legs, and was mostly blind, the pictures of Elise Fredstrom in her 90s still show that same calm spirit that was evident seventy years before in her wedding photos.
The last photo we have of C. G. is from shortly before his death in 1948. He still has the same mustache, but now has many more wrinkles. The eyes still have the austere, stern quality about them. But there is more to them than just that, in this picture at least. If you look closely, you can just make out a slight twinkle in them as well, a glimmer that suggests deep reservoirs of delight stirring beneath the surface and at war with his darker moods.
C. G. was born in Sweden in October 1865. When he was born, a still-new republic on the other side of the world was in the midst of mourning the loss of a president and beginning the hard work of putting itself back together after a devastating Civil War. The nation then recovering from the war would, 30 years later, become C. G.’s home.
He crossed over the Atlantic with his two brothers in 1882. But while the brothers would go north to Minnesota, C. G. went to Nebraska. In 1892 his family would move to North Bend, which is where he met his future wife, Elise. She had come over from Sweden in 1888. They would marry in 1895 and spend the next several decades working as tenant farmers on a small farm at the edge of town in Oakland, NE. In 1896 they would welcome their first son, Carl Joseph. Everyone would know him as Joe, though. After that seven more children would follow—Martin, Ebba, Emma, Arvid, Ray, and Rudy. Finally in 1912, they had their eight child, the baby of the family, a boy named Bertil Clifford who would be known as Bert later in life.
Though C. G. was a stern man, you could not have the measure of him if you thought him exclusively morose or gloomy. He had dark times, one of which landed him in that institution with burns on his hands. But it was not the fullness of who he was.
C. G.’s was a bright, piercing, and fiery mind. He was a deacon in the Lutheran Church and a man deeply convinced not only of the truths of the Gospel, but of the particular theological convictions of the old Swedish Lutheran church he had been born into. He was, according to multiple people, ready and able to argue over finer points of doctrine at a moment’s notice and was, by all accounts, a formidable debater. On Sundays when the pastor was unable to preach, C. G. filled the pulpit. So this man, given to periods of despair, was also a man devoted to the Scriptures, to the defense of orthodoxy, and ready to give of himself in significant ways because of those loves that he had.
There were other qualities he had as well. He had a hobbit-like delight in simple food that he made or grew himself. Later in his life, Sunday afternoons were taken up with hosting his children and many grandchildren at his and Elise’s home in south Oakland. They would eat vegetables from his much-praised backyard garden and, at 5 o’clock, they would listen to the Lutheran Radio Hour, broadcasted by WOW out of Omaha.
He also loved “properly made” coffee. Nearly 45 years after his death, his son-in-law wrote this about C. G.’s love of coffee:
“Were one to find him in serendipitous, carefree moments, it was not unlikely that he would spontaneously fix a real cup of coffee on his own, hot as fire, and darkly rich. It had to be Hill’s Brothers, the red can with the bearded gentleman label on the front, standing nobly there in, of all things, his long nightgown sipping coffee from a saucer. This he would serve with twinkling eyes to his guests. In the privacy of his own S. Thomas house kitchen he would pour a little cream (milk would not do) into the cup, place it on the saucer, pop a sugar cube in his mouth and then pour the hot coffee from the cup into the saucer to cool just a bit, but not too much. He would blow, exhale, and then, schluupp, inhale that coffee into his mouth, inadvertently strained through his ample mustache. If it were just right, that Swedish gasoline would assuage most enduring problems of the world, except twice, poor grandpa. Rarely were there exhibited excesses of the bodily appetites, but C. G. loved good food and adored good coffee.
C. G.’s life was a difficult one. He had eight children to provide for, a wife in poor health and who had a life-long limp due to a youth skating accident when she was growing up in Sweden, and a farm to manage—and he didn’t own any of it. He was a tenant farmer, which meant that he was working not only to provide for his family, but to pay a portion of what he made to a landlord who actually owned the farm.
Both Rudy and Bert had vivid memories of growing up on this farm. The boys slept in an attic room that had a pipe running up and through it connected to the wood-burning stove that warmed the house. C. G. and Elise would wake up before sunrise and begin their work, with C. G. going out to tend to the farm and Elise starting breakfast for the family. After getting breakfast started, she would go over to the stove and rap on the pipe several times with a stick to wake the boys. She then would go sit in a wooden rocker, reading Psalms in her native Swedish as the boys came down for breakfast and to do their own chores before leaving for school.
Rudy was in charge of milking all the cows. Bert had a variety of odd jobs. After their chores, the two youngest boys (who were five and seven years younger than Ray, the next youngest) would ride a horse to school during winter months. They relied on the horse’s body to keep them warm as they rode on cold, snow-covered Nebraska country roads.
What is interesting, and a little sad, about Rudy and Bert’s memories growing up is how little they mention their father. The older siblings seemed to have talked about him more, but Rudy and Bert didn’t that much. They spoke a great deal about their mother, but C. G. is mostly absent from their stories. The records we have of C. G. are mostly not from his children, but from his son-in-law Emil and his grandchildren. Perhaps between his suicide attempts of 1926 and his death in 1948 he had a softening that made him accessible to them in ways he was not to his own children when they were growing up.
In any case, the relative silence of his children is interesting. I know a great deal about what life was like in the Fredstrom house for the children. I know that Bert and his three closest brothers in age played on a baseball team called the Oakland Swedes and that Bert played first base—a bit unusual for a left-handed player. I know each of them had their own favorite baseball team. Bert was a Cleveland Indians fan.
Yet for all that I know about the children and their mother Elise, I know very little about C. G.. There’s a silence that exists around him. I imagine this is in many ways a fitting testimony about the man. C. G. was a complicated man, obviously committed to his family and his church, yet unable to shake the depression that seems to have stalked him constantly and which sometimes, as on the night he grabbed the powerline, to overwhelm him entirely. I don’t have first-hand knowledge of this, but I imagine such a person would be difficult to know, that he would likely exist on the periphery of his family’s life in ways that Elise, the serene, Psalm-singing mother the boys saw in her rocking chair every morning, never did.
It would not always be so for C. G., thankfully. But it seems that he needed the quite literal shock of that 1926 suicide attempt to shake loose that laughter inside him which he was able to access more often in those final years than he had in the years of raising his children. There is a tragedy in that, but perhaps also a certain hope that despair and darkness and doubt do not need to have the final word and that fountains of mirth can burst forth from the unlikeliest places.
III. There can be no meaning apart from roots.
Bertil Clifford Fredstrom is my grandfather. Born a week after the Titanic sunk in 1912, he would become the rebel of the family, leaving Oakland to chase a career in baseball after graduating from high-school. He made it as far as the AAA level before giving it up and, eventually, going to serve in southeast Asia in World War II. After returning, he, predictably enough, would marry a fiery Greek woman from the east coast. When he took her out to Oakland to meet his family, his new wife, Mary, had to ask why the family kept so many catalogs in the outhouse.
Bert and Mary would have three children, one of whom is my mother Ruth. Bert would work nearly 40 years on the railroad in Havelock, providing for his family on a single salary while also making just enough to cover his wife’s many medical needs, an echo in some ways of his own father’s story.
Being born with such history behind you is, to borrow a phrase from CS Lewis, a severe mercy. It is a mercy for the simple reason that is captured so beautifully in the epigraph to the film Sweet Land: “Let us hope that we are all preceded in this world by a love story.” In my case, I have not been preceded by a single love story but by many—and not simply by love stories about husbands and wives. I am, and regular readers will know this I imagine, very much C. G.’s great grandson even though I never met him and he, in fact, died almost 40 years before I was born. I am also very much Bert’s grandson even though he died four months before my second birthday and so I have no memory of the man.
This mercy is severe, of course, because inheritances are weighty things. “To whom much is given, much is expected.” But what concerns me today is not the size of the inheritance but the fact of it. Whatever else can be said, the point remains that the story I live today is not one that I chose as a free agent, cut off from all impediments that I have not chosen (and continue to choose).
I was born into a family that has bound itself to a certain way of life. We are faithful members of Christ’s church, even if my Presbyterianism makes me something of an outlier in my predominantly Lutheran family. (Blame Bert—he left the Lutheran church as a young man, married a nominally Greek Orthodox woman, and together they ended up in the Christian Missionary Alliance church.)
We are, many of us, still Nebraskans. My own children are the fifth generation in the family to call this little nowhere place home. And so as I (and as my family) attempts to understand our life here, we are not doing this as free and autonomous agents operating without restraints or operating only with the restraints imposed on us by material necessity. What binds and compels us is something deeper than a fear of homelessness or starvation. It is fidelity. It is hope.
It is love.
IV. When the Rains Come
On December 6 of last year, my parents celebrated their 31st anniversary. They made a quiet day of it as dad was suffering from shortness of breath and wasn’t able to walk around very much as a result. They knew he was having some problems with blood clots due to a recently discovered hole in his heart. But a surgery to patch the hole was already scheduled for December 14, so they didn’t worry too much about it.
They didn’t know the clots had moved to his lungs.
I went to their home the evening of their anniversary and dropped off a cake I had made for them—a peach almond swiss roll that I made on a lark earlier in the day. We talked for awhile and, interestingly, dad stayed awake the entire time. Often when I would go home at night, mom and I would talk until late and dad would fall asleep in his recliner. But on the 6th, he stayed awake until I left.
The next day, mom texted me at about 1pm to say that she was taking dad to the hospital. His breathing was worse and she wanted to have him checked out, but told me not to worry. I went to the hospital around 4pm after leaving work to see him and then came back later in the evening after they had given him a drug to break up the clots. We didn’t know it at the time, but the drug they had given him was an extremely aggressive, extremely dangerous clot buster.
They administered it because they had no choice: The clots that my dad had been living with that weekend were so bad that they were causing him to go into respiratory failure when he arrived at the hospital. If they had done nothing, he would have eventually gone into shock and died. They had to give him the drug. And though it was aggressive, it was still relatively safe. However, in 3% of all cases, this drug can cause a bleed on the brain.
My dad would be part of that 3%. He suffered a severe brain bleed over night with blood on both sides of his brain and a hemorrhage inside the right side of his brain. Later we would learn that there was so much blood that the pressure had forced his brain to move eight centimeters within his skull. Mom got to the hospital before he lost consciousness. My wife and I slept through our phones ringing and I arrived at the hospital where he would have surgery a few minutes before both he and my mom arrived in an ambulance.
After surgery we were swept up into a whirlwind of doctors and nurses and conversations I wouldn’t wish on anyone. We were told that they were cooling his body to 91 degrees to help manage the pressure. We were told everyone responds to brain injuries differently. We were told he might wake up and someday return to work.
We were also told that he might not wake up.
For the next two weeks, he was in a coma. The most frightening days were Friday and Saturday when they warmed him back up to a normal temperature. If things had gone differently, the pressure in his brain might have built back up and there would have been nothing they could have done—at that point we would have needed to figure out hospice care. One doctor broached that subject with us quite early in his recovery.
But on December 23, two days before we mark the arrival of hope in our world, dad woke up. Nearly a week later, on December 29, he moved to a rehab facility. Five months after that he moved back home and continued therapy at the hospital as an outpatient. Now he will be finishing his rehab program there on December 29, one year to the day since his arrival there.
He is walking today. He can do quite a bit with his right hand. The therapists have him using a driving simulator. A couple weeks ago he came over to the home my wife and I just bought and helped talk me through a plumbing problem. He may be able to go hunting with a friend this fall. His left side is still very weak, but even so, the recovery has been remarkable.
I heard a pastor say one time that when we read scripture, the indicatives drive the imperatives. So we don’t just tell people “be holy,” we say, “because you are Christ’s because he has died and rose again for you, be holy.” I’ve thought about that a number of times over the past year.
The thing is, though it is by far the most important indicative description of a person and it is qualitatively different than any other indicative, there are other things that are objectively true about a person and that influence and shape them. My home has been that for me.
There was a day last year while dad was still cold that mom told me a story about him: Earlier that fall he had been having trouble breathing, but he had told a friend of theirs that he would help her move a piece of furniture. This friend was a younger woman who is friends with my parents. Her parents divorced when she was young and her dad basically disappeared from her life after that. As he was getting ready to leave, my mom told him to just call her and say he couldn’t go; he could barely breathe. He told my mom he was going. He told her that he wasn’t going to be another older man in this woman’s life who didn’t do what he said he would do. So he went.
That’s the family I come from. And so during times like the ones we’ve had in this past year (or, perhaps, during times like those facing the American church in the near future) that inheritance presses on me.
There’s a telling scene in Jonathan Merritt’s book Jesus is Better Than You Imagined. I wrote about it in my memoir review, but it is worth mentioning here. He talks in one part of the book about how, when he and his brother were bickering in the car on the way to church, his father shut it down by saying, “We’re at church now. Time for everyone to be on their best behavior. You’re Merritts. You need to act like it.”
Jonathan, a post-evangelical millennial who I suspect is on the whole quite content with the order outlined in part one of this essay, dismissed his dad’s words in the book, saying that all it taught him to do was lie with his behavior. “I became skilled in wearing a mask,” he said.
The possibility that a mask might be a good thing never seems to occur to him. Anything that would limit our outward expression of our internal state is bad. Presumably, that is so because it limits our freedom of expression or, to use the jargon that magically makes such a bad idea acceptable in Christian circles, it is “inauthentic.”
Of course, hindrances to self-expression are often precisely what we need. On the most basic level, we need such things for the reason Mark Twain got at quite nicely when he said that it’s better to be silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt. But if we stop there, we stop too short—which, of course, is precisely Twain’s problem.
The point is not simply that we should limit our self-expression because we don’t want to be thought stupid, although that is a fine argument. For Christians, the argument runs deeper. We are instructed in Scripture to address God as “our Father,” which, of course, is precisely how Christ addresses him. We are told in Galatians that we have been “crucified with Christ.” We are not our own, but we are now Christ’s—and his business is to make us like him.
CS Lewis makes the point well in Mere Christianity:
To put it bluntly, you are dressing up as Christ. If you like, you are pretending. Because, of course, the moment you realise what the words mean, you realise that you are not a son of God. You are not being like The Son of God, whose will and interests are at one with those of the Father: you are a bundle of self-centered fears, hopes, greeds, jealousies, and self-conceit, all doomed to death. So that, in a way, this dressing up as Christ is a piece of outrageous cheek.
But the odd thing is that He has ordered us to do it. Why? What is the good of pretending to be what you are not? Well, even on the human level, you know, there are two kinds of pretending. There is a bad kind, where the pretence is there instead of the real thing; as when a man pretends he is going to help you instead of really helping you. But there is also a good kind, where the pretence leads up to the real thing. When you are not feeling particularly friendly but know you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a nicer person than you actually are. And in a few minutes, as we have all noticed, you will be really feeling friendlier than you were.
When you have a home, when you have a family, when you have ancestors like C. G., Elise, Bert, Rob, and Ruth, these things are all burdens. They limit you: You’re the great-grandson of C. G. Fredstrom, an immigrant farmer who gave his all to his family and church even as he was tormented by depression. You’re the grandson of Bert Fredstrom, a man who went to work on the railroad with broken ribs because he needed the money to pay his wife’s medical bills. You’re the son of Ruth Meador, a woman who has tirelessly supported her husband as he recovers from a traumatic brain injury. You’re the son of Rob Meador, a man who has worked harder than you can even imagine in order to simply be able to walk and take care of himself.
When you have a home and a history like that, you can’t ignore it without doing great harm to your own soul. It’s a burden and it’s a burden you didn’t choose for yourself. It’s a story that is given to you rather than chosen.
But then you realize that even if you don’t feel like C. G. or Bert or Rob, you can still in any given moment choose to act as they would act. And, as Lewis noted, you find over time that you grow into the mask. The princess pretends that the beast is a prince and kisses him—and he becomes a prince.
Home is an imposition. It limits your possibilities in a sense because belonging to a place means that you must say “no” to certain things, not the least of which is your own absolute freedom. But Berry is right: The impeded stream is the one that sings.
It is home that makes us sing.