What Place is Mine?
Times of transition are tough. We currently find ourselves up to our ears in boxes and and clutter and mess as we prepare to pack up and head back across the Rockies next week to begin a new chapter in our lives as family. We have done this moving thing a number of times now, but it never gets easier. It is simultaneously celebratory, reflective, disorienting, emotionally exhausting, and painful.
This Sunday will be my last one in Nanaimo, and “last ones” aren’t easy. What do you say at times like these, to people who have played such an important and formative role in your story? How do you encapsulate three years into a single sermon? How do you come up with something coherent and meaningful to say in the midst of all this mental/emotional/physical dislocation?
I’ve been spending some time in Kathleen Norris’s Dakota: A Spiritual Geography over the last little while, which has given me much to think about as we prepare to return to our roots. Norris returned to her grandmother’s house in a small town in South Dakota after years spent in more appealing locales such as Hawaii and Manhattan. We are about to embark upon a similar, if less extreme, journey—Vancouver Island is probably less exotic than Hawaii, southern Alberta, not as remote as South Dakota. In both cases, though, it is coming home, with all that this entails.
In one chapter, Norris remarks that “when modern Americans ask ‘what is sacred?’ they are really asking ‘what place is mine?'” As we walk through a week of difficult goodbyes here on Vancouver Island and look ahead to the next phase of our lives in southern Alberta, as we reflect upon how these years away from the places of our birth have shaped us as human beings and followers of Jesus, and as we anticipate what it will be like to re-enter a familiar community, the answer to the question “what place is mine?” seems obvious.
Even the light of an area–its slant, its hue, tugs at the heart when having to leave. Watch for the light in the new places and in the faces that welcome you to your new “home”. Moving and relocating is like digging a plant out of the soil and placing it into a pot for transplanting. For a time, even “home” feels disorienting until the plant takes root in that new soil. Don’t skip the grieving–those tears water the soil for future rooting. May you be treated gently and tenderly until that time. From one who recalls many big moves.
Thank you very much for the wise words.
Eliade associates sacred places with the term axis mundi, center of the world. He describes how many ancient peoples built their homes around a center pole, a pole that connected the home with the axis mundi. Norris may be right about the different association we make with what is sacred in modernity: what is sacred is what is mine. Her writings are themselves narcissistic in the way we are in modernity.
Manhattan, to anyone who has ever lived there, I think, certainly for me, is the center of the world. I cannot think of another city that has equivalent power in this way, at least for an American. I live on the edge here on the west coast rather than in the center.
Sedona is famous for its vortexes. I visited a couple of them, but could not find the axis mundi there. I did find the axis mundi on a butte about an hour or two away in Prescott.
To Frank Lloyd Wright, the center of a home was the kitchen, living and hearth area. I cannot remember well now what he wrote about that specifically, but in my mind, at least, it may have something to do with fire and warmth and family, and with the chimney (something like a pole.) In spite of how much this idea inspired housing since his time, and in spite of the huge sums people spend on expensive kitchens, I don’t think this idea ultimately is sound. Contemporary housing just has no center pole to connect it with the axis mundi.
Here in San Diego, the center pole is, I think, a mountain, the highest point in the city. For the people who live here it does have cultic power. It is our Sinai.
If Eliade is right, and I believe he is, we can find or erect a center pole, a connection with the axis mundi, anywhere. I don’t think Kathleen Norris is right. It is not whether or not a place is mine that makes it sacred, or that connects us with eternity. It is a matter of finding the axis mundi wherever we live, or wherever we visit, if we can.
You found it in Vancouver. And it awaits you in Alberta.
Thanks Ken. I don’t read Norris as a narcissist… I think she is just articulating the basic longing that we all have to belong somewhere. And I think that, as you say, we can find a centre pole anywhere. Perhaps they are just two different ways of expressing similar sentiments or different aspects of the same sentiment.
In the essay in which she wrote the words you quoted, I agree with you about the point she was making and I agree with her that Americans ask “what community do I belong to?” And that they associate this with what is sacred. Many people today seek a tribe, as she describes. Perhaps it is because loneliness is so pervasive and because meanings are so unstable for an individual in the pluralistic condition of modernity and a life of boundless freedom is overwhelming. The price of freedom has been the loss of the sacred. To return to the tribe is to give up freedom to hopefully gain the sacred. This the way of Hauerwas and the way of monasticism in modernity.
It is not essential. The sacred can be found in other ways without an escape from freedom.
I agree with your assessment of the instability of modernity, etc, but I don’t think it’s either freedom or the sacred. One need not give up freedom to return to “the tribe.” I think that freedom can be (and is) exercised in recognizing the need for belonging and for the sacred that is found in community.
Peace to you and your family during these days and weeks ahead. We’ll be thinking of you this weekend and during your move back to Alberta. The first comment does indeed have some wise words!
Much grace, patience and safety to you all as you travel across the mountains. Kathleen Norris is a perfect traveling companion.
Thanks Chris. I have appreciated Norris as a companion as well.
We are patiently waiting here to welcome you. Travel carefully.
Thank you, Ruth.
My mom has seven sisters. They range in age from 63 to 82. They live in several different countries on three different continents. They see each other infrequently but when they do they spend almost all their waking hours in conversation. They reminisce, they comfort, they edify one another. There is lots of touching, hugging, hand holding and laughing. They laugh loud and long like little girls at a slumber party.
Whatever sacred is in human form, it is mostly relational.
May the road rise with you.
Well said, Paul.
Safe travels Ryan
Enjoy being in a land with a sweeping view.
I think I left a bit of myself in Alberta when I that province to return to my home province. I loved to sense and feel the change of season, the brilliant night sky (at times the northern lights) and the cowboy culture.
I’m glad to be back close to family. If you feel 1/2 as nastolgic for Vancouver Island as I feel Central Alberta you will cherish the memories you’ve made the past few years.
Something to ponder. When you came to the Island did you save your moving boxes? When you get to Lethbridge do you intend to keep your moving boxes for your next move? (you may not want to ponder these questions online where your parishoners may read your thoughts 🙂
blessings as you go.
Thanks Larry. I am looking forward to the sweeping view… And after a very emotional and profoundly gratifying morning at church, I can say without hesitation that I will certainly cherish this place and these people.
Having grown up on the Canadian prairies, I have a strong nostalgia for it. A couple of years ago my wife and I were driving back to Lethbridge and we took what must have been a hundred photos. We even bought a calendar of various prairie scenes. We couldn’t believe how beautiful it was driving through the foothills coming onto the plains. My son will not think of the prairies that way. I think where we currently live will be the place he will reflect back upon with nostalgia. Yet I remember thinking how I wanted to share the experience with our family we were going to visit. Paul hit it the mark with his comment on the sanctity of relationships.
Regarding moving: I have a strong dislike for moving. I find it chaotic and painful. In the past year we moved 3 times. Regardless of the distance being moved, the packing and unpacking still takes the same amount of time.
I hope all goes well and perhaps next time we’re in Southern AB, we can get a coffee together.
Yes, I resonate very much with what you say here, Brian… And we will definitely do coffee when you’re back in southern AB :).