A Michigan Nostos
How does a successful lawyer living at the center of American power decide to give it all up and move back home to Michigan? Conor Dugan explains what happened to him, and why. Excerpts:
What set the journey home in motion was a simple thing. We had rented a house in D.C. on Capitol Hill beginning in May 2010. About a year ago, the owner told us that he wouldn’t be able to extend our two-year lease. Thus, we were faced with the question of where to live in the D.C. area. Attendant to that question were numerous others: Should we rent or buy? Where would our kids go to school? How close would we live to their schools? Where could we move that allowed us to live a pedestrian lifestyle, but also not require Herculean commutes for our children? How much house could we afford without mortgaging away our future? At the same time, several projects at work had left my wife, Laurel, feeling, for weeks on end, as if she were a single mother. I loved my job, but I began to have serious doubts as to whether I could give it the attention it needed and whether I could sustain that sort of effort for 30 to 40 more years. Observing other D.C. lawyers farther along the career road than I, did not leave me sanguine about my ability to “balance” my work life with my family life. I have no idea if I will ever coach one of my children’s sports teams, but I’d like the option to do so. In Washington, I didn’t see how that was possible.
But moving back home to Michigan didn’t seem possible either:
To be honest, moving home to Michigan did not initially occur to us. We had thought about it before and ruled it out. We loved our hometown, but for some reason, when I had considered it previously, it always seemed a bit limiting, crabbed, suffocating. Moving home was good for other people. It wasn’t what I was supposed to do with my life.
Indeed, the culture had taught me from a young age to seek my fortunes elsewhere. In this I was a fairly typical product of the American culture of meritocracy and its emphasis on mobility and possibility. While there are certainly goods that result from that ideal, it undoubtedly lures people away from home and contributes to a sense of homelessness. I had gone to New England for college and returned again to the East soon after law school. The jobs and opportunities that I received were, in my mind, important and heady—much more so than anything I might do or experience back in Grand Rapids—or so I thought. Home seemed small and limited.
But Dugan fell back on the wisdom he had learned from Wendell Berry and the Catholic theologian David Schindler, and their (complementary) teachings on the elements of a truly good life. Interestingly, Dugan’s DC community, most of them practicing Catholics, totally got why he and his wife decided to move:
Our friends in Washington D.C. almost to a person understood our decision—which was a relief in many ways. It was hard enough to leave them; it would have been even harder if they thought we were foolish and crazy for considering the move. I can’t tell you how many people described our move as natural, a “no-brainer.” There also were friends who told us that they wished they had a place to which they could return. These comments came from people happy and successful in Washington D.C.
That was exactly my wife’s and my experience when we told our Philly friends that we were leaving for St. Francisville, as I recount in The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming. People get it. They really do. It’s humbling to know too that my ownnostos (homecoming) journey, detailed on this blog, contributed to the Dugans’ decision to move to Michigan. Read all of Dugan’s excellent essay to learn why embracing a more limited life in Grand Rapids makes Conor and Laurel Dugan feel more free than they did amid the limitless options of Washington.