Scott Russell Sanders prefaces his book, Staying Put: Making A Home in a Restless World, with this vignette:
On coming to a new place, my father would take a pinch of dirt, sprinkle it in his palm, sniff it, stir it with a blunt finger, squeeze it, then take it on his tongue, tasting. When I first saw him do this, I was puzzled. Why eat dirt? “Just trying to figure out where I am,” he explained.
Oddly enough, I, too, am attempting to taste the substance of this place not because I’m staying put, as Sander’s title says, but because I do desire to make a home in a restless world. I am trying to fashion a life that is firmly grounded in a home and a community. I wonder if that dwelling place is not a physical one since mine keeps shifting.
We spent a few days with our son in New York City during the latter part of the holiday. Today, I am up early reading and writing my morning pages and making a cup of my own kind of coffee in the quiet morning. I have returned to work and the rhythms that are familiar to me. However, I cannot shake the realizations that this is a new year, that I have choices to make that define each day, and that it does matter how and to what I pay attention in the everydayness of my life in this place and beyond.
Beyond the familiar routines, this physical house where I live now is blessed. There is a tangible welcome in these walls that I cannot define, that might require distance to name.
What have I learned from the dirt, the physical substance of the places I’ve called home?
When Mitch and I first married, we were both in graduate school and knew without a doubt that the places we lived were temporary—our tiny apartments alongside others who were perpetually on their way. Never the less, we cultivated friendships, planted gardens, and started our family. Sheltered and encouraged by our common circumstances, we shared meager meals with neighbors, fellow students, professors, and church folk. We felt both the sacredness and temporality of our sparse possessions.
After a year’s CPE residency for Mitch, we moved on to a “real job” for him and added another child to our family. We lived in a changing and so-called “transitional” neighborhood—many long-time residents were fleeing to the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. We stayed put until Mitch’s job ended because the church could no longer support a multiple person staff. While on paper we didn’t have enough money to make ends meet ourselves, somehow we always did. We bought our first house, were nurtured by tall pine trees and planted another garden. When we left, we received two pewter goblets etched with the words “Love” and “Care” that emblematize the spiritual, relational, and physical sustenance we experienced in that place.
The next soil wasn’t so welcoming. The big empty Texas sky belied the lonesomeness of that landscape. The only tree in our yard was a honey locust with big thorns and small leaves that offered no shade from the scorching summer heat and warded off any tree climbing our children did try. The exterminator, our “ant man,” wondered if our new house was indeed built on a sandy anthill. In addition to the thorny tree, the yard was dangerously dotted with fire ant mounds and sugar ants trailed out of the drain in our bathtub and up the walls of our pantry regularly. We unsuccessfully built a raised bed garden and even tried to import dirt that looked to us more amenable to growing vegetables. We struggled to cultivate friendships in the stretched out communities, drove 30 miles to a more progressive church, and never quite fit in between the long distances and distant personalities we traversed.
That Texas dirt and those anthills didn’t let us go easily as we moved back to the tall hardwoods and black dirt of my Midwestern childhood. Since we didn’t actually sell our Texas house until well after we moved, we lived in a ramshackle apartment, again in transition for the time. We didn’t really know our neighbors or have a place to play under any trees or plant a garden. We did have the promise of being in a new community where we could finally establish our home.
And we did buy another house where we all grew to new stages of our lives. We replaced subfloors, damaged by previous owners pets, pulled down green and gold wallpaper, and painted every inch of the walls and ceilings and closets to make it ours. We lived alongside the tall hardwood trees that sheltered us and the perennials that abundantly appeared every spring. We delighted in the yellow finches that took advantage of the profusion of purple coneflowers outside our dining room’s glass doors. Those birds must have known the healing and strengthening properties of those flowers both to the lookers and takers. And from my current vantage point, I see that it was in the dirt of that place that I grew stronger even when I couldn’t actually know what was building up inside me in response to significant challenges I encountered.
The next two places we lived I sensed as transitional… always anticipating something else that I couldn’t define. This dirt produced an almost perfect Oak tree in the center of our yard and my morning gaze. That tree anchored me as I lived through transitions of our “empty nest,” job and career changes for both Mitch and me, and the unsettling of living between communities of people and places. We planted a few tomato plants, breathed in the vibrant blossoms of neighborhood trees not our own, and encountered unlikely friendships that we have carried with us.
And so, not quite 20 months ago, we came to this physical place, nourishing a sense of belonging and staying put. We have a tree in our front yard that has been here for an estimated 200 years. The giant Chestnut Swamp Oak marks the stability and strength that dirt can produce. And amidst all this stability, we have an appointment with a local realtor next week.
Scott Russell Sanders continues,
Traditional peoples distinguish between tales of the everyday world and tales of the spirit world, between history and myth, between profane and sacred. The distinction rests, of course, on a belief that there is a spirit world, an order that infuses and informs the changing surfaces we see. Visions of that sustaining realm may be sought through spiritual discipline, but they may not be summoned. If they come, they come as gifts, unforeseen. By telling stories, we conserve the memory of their passing, and we prepare ourselves for the next illumination…
By telling the holy, we acknowledge that life is a gift. From where or what, and why, we cannot know. All we do know is that it issues forth, moment by moment, con by con, ever fresh, astounding in its richness and beauty. None of this is to gainsay the pain, the suffering, the eventual death that awaits all created things. But we measure that pain and suffering, we mourn that death, against the sheer exuberant flow of things. We can lose our life only because it has been given to us.
It is my true home, I believe, to live and tell the stories of my life and its changing surfaces, to catch a glimpse of a holy dwelling place. For me, the tales are a new creation.