When I was younger, I thought I’d like to move east. I went to university in the United States, but I still looked at the admissions requirements for Queens, for McGill, for the big Canadian schools. And then, when I thought about my life after school, about how writers must live, how a writer must create, the places where writers go, I thought of New York City walk-ups, of Montreal cobblestones and the longed-for perfecting of my French accent, I thought of London flats, of Paris lofts, I thought of big cities, and crowded streets, old architecture, late nights, I thought of moving back east.
I never did any of those things. Now, all of these years later, I’ve never even visited most of those places.
There is something addictive about change, about moving. We made several significant moves when I was a kid, back in the days before Facebook, before email, before kids were allowed to use the phone for long-distance phone calls. When you moved, in those days, you moved, you were gone, perhaps for a few years there might be Christmas cards with the awkwardly cheerful family newsletters, but unless you were family, we lost touch with you.
And I liked it. I liked reinventing myself, even at 12, I liked being able to start over as the person I knew I was becoming, instead of having to plod along as the person that I wasn’t yet. And when I moved to the States for university, at 18, I shook the dust of Calgary from my feet, I never looked back. And again and again and again, I remained the new girl, the new-in-town one, the expert box-packer, the one without a past that could be verified or known except by my own admissions, always certain I’d be happier somewhere else. My solution for discomfort: let’s move.
Of course I didn’t move to New York or Montreal. How could I breathe there? The older I get, the less appeal these places have for me, I long only for where I am right now. I can’t imagine breathing well in the east, I need the place where I am, I need these mountains, I need the ocean now, I need the cold lake water, I need rocky shores. How could I write a single sentence without the silhouette of a pine tree in the setting sun? The years go by and I become more and more aware of my pioneer lineage, I understand the pull west better, I feel suffocated without a bit of a space, without an early morning walk beside the yarrow patch, I need the north, and I need the west in a way that veers towards the mystical, which is just fine to a Holy Spirit adoring tongue talker like me. The pull of it all is somewhere under my skin, and I am always drawn to the open air.
Maybe this need for space, for the western edges, is why I don’t like the rules and restrictions of most modern religion, why I kick back against labels and boxes and demarcations, the wind feels too good on my face for that business of churching.
My husband is a gardener and a farmer, a hard worker, by his family roots. He is the homesteader to my pioneer, now we’re on the edge of the continent together, and the roots are going down here in the thin rocky soil for us both. He dreams not of big cities and moving boxes and sexy locations around the world, he dreams of homesteads, of now-grown-tinies coming home to him in his big garden, of roots deeper than a desert mesquite (has anyone yet preached a sermon on the metaphor of how deserts have the plants with the deepest roots?).
The scrabbling nervousness, the claustrophobic feeling of being known, that I am so familiar with, the urge to pack and move and start over and over and over, rises up now and then for me, still. I want to sell the house, and move somewhere else, anywhere else. But I’m alone in that need, and, to be honest, I wonder if I have somehow been running away, if I have been using moving and going as a cover for my fears of staying put, my fears of being known.
When Brian was in seminary, we were introduced to the phrase “theology of place” – meaning that our faith, our Christianity, our life on The Way, is embodied in the neighbourhood and the community where we live. It means that we believe we are called to the place where we are living, and then we shop, we live, we move, we eat, with an incarnational awareness, an embodiment of Christ in the neighbourhood like we’re here, in this place, in this moment, on purpose. We don’t live out the hope of the incarnation in a pod, or a ghetto of other Christians, we live out the hope of glory, the Christ-in-us reality, in a real place, with real people, and it’s not always sexy to stay put, is it?
I feel drawn to the phrase, the theology of place, because it was so different than most of what we had been taught in the Evangelical Hero Complex. We were always taught to forsake all for the Gospel and GO. No one ever mentioned the holy work of staying once in a while. No one really talked about how the places where we live matter to our spiritual formation, how we are shaped by our communities, by the act of roots, our geography, by our families, by our neighbourhoods, by the complex web of connections and history that emerge by staying.
And this place is shaping me, absolutely, the grey and rainy winters, the fields of berries and corn instead of the wheat of my childhood, the mountains, the rivers. I’m shaped by this place, as Luci Shaw wrote about poets, the slender antennae of awareness is always combing the world, and I am shaped by the people here, by their stories, by our becoming-shared histories, what I pick up here matters for my work, my voice, my faith, my family, perhaps it’s not so prideful in this context, to say that it matters for the world.
The radical act of staying is shaping me. We’ve been in this town for nearly three years now. And only just now do I feel the community, only just now do I go to the store and see friends, do I gather at church meetings and services and anticipate conversations with friends, only now am I seeing the holy work of showing up, of praying out loud for real friends in real life. Only now am I living my faith out, in a real way, as an embodiment of the Gospel in a real place in a real context with real people.
In western Canada, we joke around that we rag-tag Christians can play Six Degrees of Separation in two degrees or less; we either know you or we know someone who knows you. Now there is no escaping from your past or from your present, from your parents, you work out your salvation in the context of people that know you.
Staying put, being known, engaging in life with people just as imperfect and weird as me, is changing me to be more like the Jesus I love so wildly. It’s a different kind of fearless, the fearless of no masks, of being known, the fearlessness of engaging in community slow and steady and whole-hearted, the fearless of hard conversations that only come after two years of surface conversations.
The theology of the place is as much about art and life as it is about spirituality and the real unsexy daily work of living, as anything else. As I get older, I am drawn more and more to the simplicity of the teachings of Jesus, the daily examples of Galilee that peppered his teaching, how everything from catching fish to baking bread as a sign and a foretaste of the ways of Christ and his Kingdom.
I like that. I like to think that everything from the gathering of the berries to the raising of my tinies to the feeding of the hungry to the advocating for my local community’s needs is a sacrament, and a foretaste, that we embody the Gospel by our roots, too, by our transforming love, by our unhurried community development, by our friendships, by our casseroles, and our wanderings.
I used to live the Gospel beautifully in my own head, I thought about it all the time. But the radical act of staying put, the theology of place, is teaching me, the over-thinker, that thinking isn’t the same thing as doing, my intentions and beliefs and pontificating about community matters not one iota if I am not engaged in living out the reality of it.
I can believe a lot of things, I have been convinced of many a good and theological thing in my life (and a few that weren’t so good), but if that belief or thought, however correct or properly foot-nooted, isn’t being lived out in the context of my real-walking-around-life right now, well, so what?