Lessons Learned from John Kaag: Re-Route, Re-Root.

Salvation can’t be accomplished in isolation.
-John Kaag, American Philosophy: A Love Story

Words have a tendency to change meaning from profession to profession. In the world of  university adjuncts, for example, you may hear the words “professional development.”

We adjuncts hear “do this or ELSE.”

51Ek3onp4tL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Such was the situation to bring John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story into my hands. I had to fill at least an hour of professional development OR ELSE, and I was tired of “how to keep students focused” kinds of webinars. A different department was holding a monthly book club, with Kaag’s latest being May’s choice.

I had “studied” philosophy in college, and by “studied” I mean I audited the 400-level course without any previous credits in philosophy courses. Yeah, not my brightest move. But it promised deep discussions with at least two really cute guys and the teacher was one of those rare men who by all appearances balanced philosophy and faith with ease. I was intrigued then. Don’t remember a lick of it now. But Kaag’s title brought that old intrigue back. Why not? I liked stretching my lit boundaries, and it would earn me a PD hour in the process. I contacted the PhD in charge: I’m in.


At one point, philosophers like Pierce could determine the very language we use. They had the power to define reality. (25)

“So yeah, I guess it was pretty good, but I had a hard time sympathizing with the narrator.”

“It was informative, but I just couldn’t root for the guy, you know? I mean, he left his wife. Why should I cheer for that?”

The Google Hangout felt way too much like grad school for comfort. It was the dust bunny-addled classroom all over again with cracked plastic chairs and classmates declaring a book unworthy of them solely because they didn’t like the main character.

I was stymied, and conflicted. Why such shallow comments? Why wasn’t anyone looking past this need to “cheer” a hero and not see the journey Kaag risked showing us? Because I understood this kind of journey. Any one buckled under by depression would.

“Yeah, I mean, talk about a first-world, white-privilege problem.”


May was not a good month in my house. Family crashed upon us in waves for not one, not two, but three parties for Blondie’s birthday. The church threw some extra duties my way because apparently no one thinks anything has to be done until mere hours before a major retirement dinner. Friends got married upstate, which meant more family gatherings to butter up the baby-sitting and to travel and to get back and to grade final projects and to START a new term and and and AND.

And, it was not a good month. When you’re an introvert, and would love nothing better than a few uninterrupted hours to read and write, this social storm nearly drowned me. Many nights ended in tears. My children noticed: on the “My Mommy” cards Biff and Bash made with their teachers, it was revealed that this is what Bash remembers more than anything:


How did I respond? With sobs on the front porch. Fuck the neighbors, let them watch, it’s not like they have yet another conference about their sons kicking and fighting the teacher again, Mrs. S forgot this at church can you get it again, Jean we need to talk about the party food again, I need to clean the house again I need I need I need

I. Needed. Out.

So did Kaag. He does indeed leave his first wife, and he does indeed write about his alcoholism. Yet while my colleagues saw these as reasons to put the narrator down, I couldn’t help but think of my own postpartum depression, how my own marriage struggled with the arrival of children. Unlike Kaag, I couldn’t fathom writing about the purgatory my marriage wandered in for years.

Maybe another well-meaning American philosopher would find the library, but not the books. Maybe, on the drive back to my unhappy marriage, I’d get in the fatal crash I often imagined. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to find my way back. (38)

I thought nothing of salvation and immortality at Durgin-Park, opting instead to drink myself senseless. At the end of the night I stumbled home and tried to convince my wife I wasn’t drunk. I was looking for help in all the usual places, all the wrong places. (14)

Motherhood: some days, it just fucking strangles the soul.

When that kind of feeling wraps round the heart, I knew I had to get out. If I didn’t, all the poison inside would dig itself in and suck my love dry. I lived through that once. Not going back there.

I envied Kaag his ability to simply uproot and begin again. What started as a small conference away from Harvard diverted to an exploration of self and of William Ernest Hocking, himself a philosopher who gathered thousands of books and letters that together charted the roots and growth of American philosophy. In Hocking’s library, surrounded by old lives and skittering rodents, Kaag felt something new:

Alone in an empty library, in a deserted wood, in a nearly forgotten field of American philosophy, I felt momentarily at home. (32)

I’m betting that, for the first time a long time, he could breathe.

I’m familiar with such a moment.


But eventually I came across, quite by accident, what I desperately needed to find. (31)

Another fun piece to May was the road work that cut off my town from the town where Blondie’s school is located. Thank God for Google Maps–a new road to the north, and a cut through hilly farmland. On the way out of town I passed this sign: Charles Langer Family Park.


A park? Where? Farmland as far as the eye could see. For the kids, invisible = nonexistent, so we continued in our new ruts.

Then one day–in May, for like I said, all things happened in May–Blondie had to attend yet another birthday party, but this one was rather short. It wasn’t worth going home just to rile the boys up with “WHERE’S MOMMY GOING!?” when it was time to retrieve the girl. I could drop Blondie off and–gasp, read! But where to read? The library was packed with their book sale (not worth it). The riverside park was packed with geese, who don’t much care for human beings.

And then I remembered. And knew.


I watched the tractors work before driving on.

Where would this road take me? Considering the proximity of Madison, a small part of me hoped that I, too, would discover a forgotten library, or at least some literary treasure of equal awesomeness.


I parked. The place looked popular, but…no playground? At least the nature trail looked promising. Once again, I’m out before spring’s taken full effect. Oh, Wisconsin, you are so temperamental. Yet you cannot dim the sun’s magic cast upon the water and the leaves, nor can you silence distant birds, calling together. Perhaps that’s why these rocks were set up as an auditorium: for nature talks.


I think nothing of the goofy metallic noises and watch the river.


I walked on.

The point, if one could call it that, was to experience the sublime in the mundane. And this experience, so common yet so rare, had intrinsic value, the sort of value that made a life worth living. (70)


What the–



You mean to tell me that my town, unable to support a grocery store or a pub or any normal amenity, can maintain a large, gorgeous disc golf course?

I couldn’t stop laughing. Yes, I pissed off one couple, who seemed to be doing this as a date (she sure looked thrilled) and a group of hipsters from Lord-Knows-What-Suburb.

I kept walking, and laughing, probably looking a little crazy, surely feeling a little crazy, but the more I walked along old tree roots, the less I felt like drowning. I was on dry land after all, with life still moving forward if I didn’t clean that day, if the retirement table wasn’t ornate enough, if the cake wasn’t to my in-laws’ preference. The kids would fight, but they’d hug, too. They’d wrap their little arms round me so tight, so strong, and hug until I laughed myself out of breath.


And it occurred to me: I was breathing.


For all the love and wonder we hold for words, there is a time when words are the last thing we need. Sometimes we just need to pull ourselves up and away to a place so utterly outside of our normal, we can’t not take it in.


Salvation is revealed in the long road of freedom and love.
-J. Kaag

56 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from John Kaag: Re-Route, Re-Root.

  1. When words are the last thing we need is generally when they turn up. At least that’s how my lyrics mostly arrive. Do you think that philosophers often decide the end game of a thing when they start writing? When I was studying philosophy it often felt like that.

    Liked by 2 people

      • It’s always worried me that it’s easier to prove a point knowing what you want to prove, rather than seeing how thoughts travel and come to a conclusion by just roaming free. Philosophers seem to do it a lot. Politicians are guilty of this as well.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I agree in re: to politicians, but I can’t help but think philosophy used to be different. And I suppose this could go both ways: those who don’t want to see God feel a need to fill that void with something, and those who do want to see God feel a need to NOT see the voids that others can see. Ignorance of perspective never does any one any good.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You are 100% right. I don’t believe in any God yet I’d never lay that belief on any others or try to prove my case with a bit of structured philosophy. It doesn’t matter what we believe in so long as we are, that simple, most easy word just ‘kind’ human beings. I’m off early in the morning, I’ll catch up after next week.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Now you see darling when I say awesome, I really mean it. I am not just waving it from a cross the pond. Jean is awesome. We are all awesome…I mean it. This is a wonderfully placed post. In that you really go over each detail, you make your point, You take that walk and it is a lesson learned xxxxxxx

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Oh, how I remember these days, like someone is holding you just below the surface of the water. I alternated between hyperactivity and craziness. There was ALWAYS something to do and someone standing there demanding attention. You know what? It doesn’t really change all that much. It’s just that they learn to feed and bathe themselves and can get off to school on their own. But they are still there and still need attention and when you watch them start to peel off to college, one by one (I still have one in high school), you start to miss the crazy like a prisoner misses his captor. I don’t know if you can ever reclaim that sense of being able to live life for yourself once you have children, but the time off afforded you gets bigger as they do. So hang in there. Friday’s coming. And if you can get a nap in once in awhile, that would probably help! 🙂 oxo

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, thank you. Fall seems so terribly far away, when all three kids will be in school every day (though not all day). There are some things I know I’ll miss, like the cuddling and silly voices and the giggles, but there’s also a lot I don’t, and know I won’t–like yesterday’s trip to the ER for stitches to sew shut the split face from running into a wall. Sigh… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh my gosh! It is always something and it’s rarely your something, but these will become the stories around the dinner table in a decade or so. 😘

        Liked by 1 person

      • True! We’ve already been joking about Blondie’s ER trip last year for stitches gotten by, of all things, jumping on the bed. (She has a daybed with a metal frame.) “One little Blondie jumping on the bed. She fell off and broke her head. Momma called the doctor and the doctor said: NO MORE BLONDIES JUMPING ON THE BED!” She has indeed ceased jumping on the bed. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Sweet friend, I’m so sorry May was an awful month! 😢

    I sure hope June has been MUCH kinder to you compared to May despite, well everything!!!!!! (Although I just noticed you had to go to the ER for stitches – ahhhhhhh!!!!!!) I’m not digging June mainly because the kids are out of school. They are bored as hell, we don’t have $ for fancy camps/ activities, and I tell them, “Read a book!” Their responses are about as enthusiastic the expression one has when given a big bowl of mush to eat. In prison.

    On a brighter note:

    I had to laugh at the disc golf section you wrote about because every day I walk Lucy alongside a large, elaborate disc golf area! I have mixed feelings towards them because we’d like to walk there too – some of the disc golfers don’t mind when we invade, but some do, so we don’t usually go there, and there’s the risk of getting hit!

    Such stunning words…(and the picture too!)

    “For all the love and wonder we hold for words, there is a time when words are the last thing we need. Sometimes we just need to pull ourselves up and away to a place so utterly outside of our normal, we can’t not take it in.”

    Love you, Java Queen!
    Spy Dy

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! Yeah, ugh, those stitches…I am NOT looking forward to the ER bill. But Bash has been handling it like a champ. We should be getting the stitches out in the next few days, and can get the kids occupied once more with the pool and stuff.
      Summer has…hmm. Spells of busy-ness to it. Right now Blondie’s got swimming lessons, which I’m praying she passes–that girl’s just gotta dunk her head, for goodness’ sake! At least the boys are in daycare during her lesson so they can burn some energy out of the house. My brother and his family are due up from Arizona in a few weeks, so that’ll be a fresh wave of family get-togethers, and then a brief vacation in the North Woods, and then BAM–August!

      I’m with you on that frisbee risk! As beautiful as the woods were, I knew that the second I started into those trees I’d have gotten hit. I know I didn’t even travel the full course, which goes out of the forest and into this endless field. Who on earth donated this land for this purpose? Who loves frisbees that darn much?

      Speaking of Lucy, I’m glad you two are getting out and about to break up the monotony of editing and other book business. Have you done much walking in the rain? I’m not sure Lucy would like it, but I remember in grad school that was always a favorite time to walk. I’ve even done it a few times in the last year when Bo gets home, just to enjoy the sound and the peace.

      And I’m glad you dug the close–yet another line I’m not sure was good, or just really, REALLY cheesy. 😛

      Love you, Spy Dy!
      xxxxxxxxxxxxxx Java Jean

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Sunday Post – 18th June 2017 | Brainfluff

  6. Yet another lovely post- but I’m sorry to hear that May was such a stresser. Remember when summers were ‘boring’? My littles have been having a hard time adjusting to the schedule changes- but over here it’s more the being AWAY from family and feeling the walls of the house closing in than over-stimulation 😛 I just keep repeating Phillipians 4:6- “Don’t be anxious…don’t be anxious…”
    I think I know what you mean when you said you envied the author- that he COULD escape, and I’m so glad you found some time for a mini-escape. Those moments to breathe are essential for sanity- here’s hoping you find those moments tucked away this summer, and that you and Bo find some of them together!
    I laughed as soon as I read the first ‘Ting’- DISC GOLF! We played A LOT the summer before I got pregnant with the first. Seriously, it may be dorky, but it’s fabulous! Something to do outside, the courses are free, and it only costs 6 bucks for a disc! We used to go around finding new courses to play- it was fun. We’re finally revisiting it, and the boy likes it, (and the girls like to pick grass and leaves and things.) Hey! Buy the kids some discs! (They’re cheap at Wal-Mart, and they have fun animal names!) and take ’em throwing! It’s a good energy burner 😉
    Hang in there, lady- you’re amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, thanks, Friend. I’m really hoping I can get out just for a couple of hours a week to write, but that all depends on Bo. Here’s hoping. 🙂 I’ve been trying to write while having a movie on for the kids, but of course there needs to be ice water and crackers and he’s touching me and he jumped on me and she’s sitting on me and so on and so on. That and Bo picked up The Lego Batman movie, so it’s IMPOSSIBLE to write when that’s on. 🙂
      I’ll get there, and so will you! xxxxxxxxxxxxx


  7. Pingback: Conflict of Interest | Jean Lee's World

  8. Yes I get that sitting on the front step looking completely mad thing. I think the neighbours think I’m talking to myself. I’m actually just swearing randomly. Wanting out but fully realising I just can’t get out. Your town sounds so like our village. Can’t support anything we really need but it does have a highly developed Bridge league…….

    Liked by 1 person

    • And we have to do that. We don’t want to lash out at the kids, but we’ve got to get it out SOMEhow.
      Oh, our village now has a campground, did I say? A railroad themed campground. Between an industrial warehouse and a cornfield. Yeah. Because THAT’S what this place needed!

      Liked by 1 person

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