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The Wonder Report: March 4, 2022
The Limits and Benefits of Place
When I mentioned a month ago that I might be absent during my move, I had no intention of taking three weeks off from sending the Wonder Report to you! But as those of you who’ve moved recently know all too well, the details to keep track of, the manual labor to perform, and the mental exhaustion to recover from in moving are difficult to prepare for.
That’s why it’s my delight to tell you that all of that is mostly behind us! We’re still waiting for our custom-made curtains to be installed, and we spoke today with the plumber about setting up a water softener — oh, and there’s no grass in our yard since it’s ill-advised to lay sod in the winter — but mostly we are moved into our new home and so grateful to be here.
As you can imagine, as we’ve been getting settled, I’ve been thinking a lot about this new place, both the immediate space inside the house and the larger area of neighborhood, town, and county, that we are adapting to. It reminded me of the deep influence our places have on who we are as humans.
So to continue our series of what it means to be human, today we’ll talk about the limits and benefits of place.
Let’s jump right in!
1. The Scandal of Particularity
The first couple of days in our new house felt like we were guests in someone else’s home. Every time I turned on a light, I had to try three switches before I found the right one. When I attempted to make dinner, not only could I not remember where I stowed that one spoon I like or the olive oil I needed for the skillet, I wasn’t sure where to do the chopping or how to arrange multiple pans on the cooktop. In the mornings, I walked laps through the house grabbing the things I need, unable to rely on habit or routine.
Even the dogs were out of sorts, not sure which door to go to for walks and potty time. They walked their own laps through the house, checking out unusual scents and surprised to find their beds and toys in an unfamiliar place. When we let them into the garage to get their leashes or dog food, they headed straight for the car, certain they were about to go home. To their old home. Their familiar home.
Maybe I knew this already—surely I did—but the past couple of weeks have taught (reminded?) me that our lives our intricately connected to our places. We know that on a grand scale—we often introduce ourselves by where we’re from, we think and talk in ways that belie our geography, we fight for our own places when we’d quickly surrender over others—but we experience it on a small scale. Often without even realizing it. I’ve been getting out of bed, feeding the dogs, and making a cup of coffee in the same house for seven and a half years, and on the first day in the new house, I had no idea how to do it.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been talking about what it means to be human in the language of belonging, introduced to us by Alan Noble in his book You Are not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World. We’ve explored what it means to belong to God, rather than ourselves, along with those other kinds of belonging that naturally result: belong to our families, our communities, our friends, our churches. In all of these ways, belonging is defined by relationships … to God and people.
But Noble suggests there’s another belonging defined by a different kind of relationship, our relationship to the places we inhabit. "We belong to where we live,” he writes.
“I don’t have the freedom to alienate or separate myself from my physical environment any more than it has the freedom to deny me. There may be situations that justify leaving home and recommitting to a new place, but like leaving church or distancing ourselves from our family, we should approach such decisions with extreme trepidation and prayer. God has created us as mobile beings. There is nothing inherently wrong with moving for work. But if we belong to Christ, our default ought to be that we see ourselves committed to our families, friends, communities, places, and the church. This is where we belong, even when it is difficult.”
And our places often are difficult for us. When I was a teenager, I felt stifled by my place, not just the normal constraints of home and parents that I was eager to escape from, but also the landlocked fields and the endless stretches of highway. I grew to resent the oaks and maples and locusts that had become so familiar, and I tired of the trickling creeks and rolling hollows (“hollers,” to us) I’d waded in and walked along since I was a young girl.
I wanted oceans and mountains; I wanted skyscrapers and city life. So when l left home as a young adult, I sought out new environments and marveled at exotic vistas. I spent summers in New England and lived briefly in Atlanta and Chicago. I visited friends and family in Florida, Texas, Montana, and California. I vacationed in Tuscon and Seattle. I traveled to Lisbon, Portugal, and Guiyang, China. But every time landed back at the Indianapolis airport or crossed into Indiana on I-70 or I-65, I looked around at the fields and the trees, at the creeks and hollows, and felt something move deep within me.
“I’m home.” For better or worse, this is my place.
In some ways, our places feel like constraints, and in a world filled with technology, we’re tempted to live above them. Over the past two years, we learned that we could be anywhere, nowhere even, and still carry on with work and family life, friendship and church. We shopped online and place-less products showed up at our doors. We avoided crowds and streamed movies online. We had “face-to-face” meetings with people we’d never otherwise run into in our places, and whose own places were blurred or obscured as if they weren’t important either.
But can we actually be from nowhere? What if God’s plan for us includes the places we find ourselves?
When Jesus came to earth on his rescue mission of humanity, he chose to come as a man to a particular place. I don’t know all the other ways God could have brought salvation, but since He’s God, I’m assuming they are endless. But when God chose Bethlehem for Jesus’ birthplace, and Nazareth for his home. When the region of Galilee became the setting for Jesus’ ministry, and Jerusalem the site of his death, God chose to unfold human history in a way that would have been different than in any other place.
It’s part of the scandal of the particular that makes the Gospel so appalling to some. By choosing that place in that time, God didn’t choose all the other places and times that people have inhabited. The plan started with Abraham, when God promised one man and one family that he would make them a great nation. But the real scandal of particularity is not that God would choose one. He’s God, after all. He can choose who and how many he wants. The real scandal of particularly is that God would choose one to bless all. It’s the essence of his covenant with Abraham, and it was the purpose of Jesus’ death on the cross. God loved the whole world so much that he sent his one unique and beloved son to a tiny town in Judea in the midst of the Roman Empire.
We, too, could feel left out by the details of Jesus’ first century Jewish life. We could feel overlooked by his healing ministry to the son of one royal official in Capernaum or one blind man name Bartimaeus. We could balk that he would sit and talk with just one Samaritan woman, when we’d all have appreciated such a visit. Or we could cry foul that only twelve unlikely men got to spend so much time with Jesus when his time here was so short. But I think that’s the opposite of what God intended by the specificity of his rescue mission.
God sent his one son to one place to show us the riches of each and every place. The details matter. Here matters, wherever “here” is for you.
We’ve come a long way in the nearly two weeks we’ve been living in our new house. I now know which light switches go to which lights. I’ve cooked meals and served them to my family without wondering where I put the potholders. We’ve mapped out walking paths and running trails. And the dogs don’t even notice the car now when we go to the garage.
But more than the ways this new place impacts my routines and habits, I’m curious about the way living here will affect who I am. How will I change because I live here, in this particular house, in this particular town? How will I be different because I live here and not there? These are questions I’ll be asking for a long time, long past the day when we finally get our address changed at the bank and the pictures hung on the walls, longer still than when the sod is finally laid in our yard.
I wonder … how have the places you’ve lived shaped who you are? Not just on the macro level, but on the micro level: how do you live your daily life that’s specific to the place you’re in? How might it be different if you lived somewhere else? What do you think of the particularity of the Gospel? Has it ever bothered you that Jesus’ life and ministry was so specific to the place where he lived?
2. The Joys of Being a Regular by Xochitl Gonzalez
I loved this essay about turning the place where you live into a place you are committed to, into a home, by being a regular.
“Growing up, being a regular somewhere was something that one aspired to. Brooklyn was a place full of common things and regular people, more alike in our day-to-day existences than different. Getting the red-carpet treatment that a regular got—the acknowledgement that you, and your commitment to a place, were “important”? Well, it provided a form of validation that made you feel special while concurrently connecting you more deeply to the community that surrounded you.”
Steve and I used to be regulars at a few places in our old town and are now committed to finding our place here. But like the author says, “It requires thinking of the spaces around you not as backdrops for the life you are living but as integral parts of the quality of life that you enjoy.”
3. Garden Maker by Christie Purifoy
One of my favorite authors who writes about place and how it shapes us is Christie Purifoy. She’s actually published three books about the topic, but her latest book, Garden Maker: Growing a Life of Beauty and Wonder with Flowers*, just released in January. I’ve flipped through my copy, though with the move, I haven’t had a chance to read it. But I loved her first two books, Place Maker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace* and Roots & Sky*, so I feel confident this will be a great one too. It is a little different than her others; it’s more owners manual than memoir, with beautiful photos Christie took herself and a few vintage illustrations. It’s definitely for flower lovers, but if I know Christie, it’s also for place lovers, too.
4. Lenten Thoughts
Lent officially began on Wednesday, of course, and I’ve been thinking about the ways that Lent draws us back to our places even as we fast and pray and anticipate the cross. Mostly, I keep remembering the phrase our pastor repeated as he rubbed ashes on our foreheads: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s a reminder of our finitude, our mortality. But it’s also a reminder that we are connected to the earth, to our places, all the way down to the cells that make up our tissues and bones and blood. Our bodies are from the earth, and they’ll return to it, even as we anticipate a resurrected body some day.
I appreciated this Lenten reflection from writer Margaret Renkl in this week’s New York Times: “The Meaning of Lent to This Unchurched Christian.” I hear from a lot of people who have left their churches for one reason or another over the past couple of years. Some have left for good, or that’s what they say anyway. Many want to find a new church, a place to belong, but they haven’t yet. Whatever category you find yourself in, I hope this essay will encourage you during this otherwise “church oriented” season. I pray you’ll find your place again soon.
We’ve come to the end of another Wonder Report. As always, thanks for joining me here. It’s a privilege to share this space with you and to enter into these conversations together. It’s my favorite part of my writing life.
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Until next time,