I am glad I escaped from Iowa in 1984.  I think all of us sometimes imagine how our lives would have gone if we had stayed where our lives began.   Some of us have stayed there, flourished and not given it another thought.

But how rueful it might be, too, for those who dreamed of other vistas.  It conjures the forsakeness of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem, “Maud Muller,” about a country maiden raking hay in a field who has a brief encounter with a judge on horseback to whom she gives cold water. After a brief chat, he rides off.  It leaves Maud dreaming of being his bride, yet recognizing her own dreary, humble estate in life. “The sweet song died, and a vague unrest  And a nameless longing filled her breast.  A wish, that she hardly dared,” Whittier writes.    The maiden, the poem continued,  “wedded a man unlearned and poor, And many children played round her door.”   The judge, in turn, “wedded a wife of richest dower, Who lived for fashion, as he for power.”  Both spent their lives thinking back to that epic moment under a tree in the hayfield, and how it could have turned out differently by taking some step, some overture that would have let love develop.

Out of Whitter’s poem comes the classic line: “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.'”

I might have remained in Iowa, closer to family and friends, our farm, the cemeteries. I think back now. I might be newly retired from an daily paper in Iowa where I would have labored 40 years. A different set of news stories, features and columns written. Different outcomes for my children, blizzards, and more.

I remember while growing up how Iowans took pride in being true “Middle America.”  I remember how it was 25th in size and ranked 25th in population — and how its ethnicity was a hardy European mix.  Planted between the two great American rivers — the Mississippi and Missouri — Iowa bridged so much of the American experience. We are reminded of that every four years with the interminable Iowa political caucus process.

I earned most of my early education there — a small town school into second grade, then a one-room country school for the rest of second grade and all of third grade, then to  the town school in Parkersburg in 1955 when the state shut down most of the rural schools for not providing  adequate education.  I came out valedictorian of my class of 1964 with all of 47 students. I attribute that achievement to parents with high expectations and my deep love of books and  reading and all the escape that goes with it for a farm boy.  I got through Iowa State University in exactly four year despite drowning in campus extracurricular programs and commitments that muted my academic work.  Then came three trips to South America, capped by the Peace Corps, two years of the U.S. Army (all spent in Lousiana) and a master’s degree program at Northwestern University in Illinois.  So I launched my career at the daily newspaper in Waterloo, Iowa, in June 1972, leading to a 40-year career writing for dailies.  I moved my family to Arizona in 1984 for a lot of reasons — a better editor job, the weather, a new start, escape from too many community and church commitments, the political landscape of Iowa.

Now in 2013, I sit in amazement that Iowa has not yet elected a female governor nor a female member of the U.S. Congress —  House or Senate.  It holds that distinction only with Mississippi, long considered a back-water state for lots of things. They say it’s because Iowa has a strong elderly population that is less inclined to break the tradition that males hold major public offices.   It is also said that Iowa has sizable numbers of religious fundamentalists who do not want to see women overshadowing men in public positions.

I read much about why some of us stay true to the forces surrounding our upbringings and don’t depart much from the thinking of our families or communities.  Those who have broken free and look back celebrate what they found beyond the prosaic landscape of their formative years.

I just finished “Falling Upward – A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life” by the Rev. Richard Rohr, a prolific Franciscan priest in New Mexico where he founded the Center for Action and Contemplation in 1986.  Much of the book calls on us to take advantage of our years to break free from the past and its safety and humdrum.  He terms it “hating family” and says Jesus directed just that in terms of having the courage to strike out on one’s own and discover the true self.

“…First of all, do you recognize that he is actually undoing the fourth commandment of Moses, which tells us to ‘honor your father and mother?’   He writes, “Many people are kept from mature religion because of the pious, immature or rigid expectations of their first half-of-life family.

“…One of the major blocks against the second journey is what we would now call the ‘collective,’ the crowd, our society, or our extended family. Some call it the crab bucket pulling you back in. What passes for morality or spirituality in the vast majority of people’s lives is the way everybody they grew up with thinks. (Rohr’s emphasis). Some would call it conditioning or even imprinting. Without very real inner work, most folks never move beyond it. You might get beyond it in a negative sense, by reacting or rebelling against it, but it is much less common to get out of the crab bucket in a postive way.”

Rohr says it takes courage, work and self-doubt to achieve a “separation for people to find their own soul and their own destiny apart from what Mom and Dad always wanted them to be and do. To move beyond family-of-origin stuff, local church stuff, flag-and-country stuff is a path that few of us follow positively  and with integrity….We all must leave home to find the real and larger home…The nuclear family has far too often been the enemy of the global family and mature spiritual seeking,” Rohr notes.

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