"There and Back Again" is the title that Bilbo Baggins gives his memoirs - a familiar staple of "Lord of the Rings" knowledge to any Tolkein fan. The past week, I've been "there and back again" - more Midwest than Middle Earth. It's been a peaceful time. I've written little and thought a lot. Mostly, I've just soaked.
Shrinking bank accounts and unemployment kept travel at bay for the most part during the past year. Finally, we loaded up the car, arranged for a friend to watch the dogs, and headed north. I was finally going home.
Home has always been both flexible and constant to me. Moving around as a pastor's kid kept home from being only one place. But nonetheless, home has been kept anchored firmly in a couple of places for my mind. Central Indiana stretches flat in my childhood memories, and remains home in part because extended family still drives the straight roads and lives among the cornfields. Central Michigan rolls hidden among densely wooded areas, teeming with wildlife and Mennonite buggies. It remains home in part because extended family still drives the sandy peninsula and lives among the hunters and fishermen.
When all else fails - and it will - see your family.
When all else fails - and it will - visit the old haunts. The familiar landmarks - a towering courthouse, a red slide at the park, a crumbling old theater - a grassy cemetery, an oddly named road, a fresh deer hoof print - all call out affirmation of who you are, of where you've been.
Losing a job you love is painful. It shakes your identity, depresses your enthusiasm, discourages your plans. If your job is an extension of your vocation, it especially stings. Driving down familiar streets, past houses you were in twenty years ago calms the spirit. It soothes the soul. A family member's laugh sounds new and familiar at the same time. Neighborhood kids have grown up, but the steeple still stands.
Place and people seem inextricably linked to me. Perhaps God called the Hebrew children out of Egypt in part because of this: if you want to start something new, there is a deep connection between people and land. I will always associate a small town in Indiana with my grandparents, and my grandparents with it. They've lived there all their lives. White's Meat Market still makes the same ham salad it did when it was called McGraw's twenty-five years ago. Rhubarb from Grandma White's garden still holds an alluring tang in her strawberry rhubarb pie. And while the Bible is full of stories of God continually calling his people out, to be separate - change, he says, stop eating the old food and frequenting the old haunts and participating in the old traditions - the reverse is also true: to reinforce an identity, eat heartily of the old food, frequent the old haunts, participate in the old traditions. When the walls of Jerusalem are rebuilt in Nehemiah, we see this hold true. Place and identity go hand in hand.
As I settle in after travel, I'll mull. I'll reflect, and think, and soak. You'll get to see photos of a homemade egg noodle-making session, encompassing three generations. I'll tell you a bit about the hat I wore as guest speaker at a banquet in Michigan. Perhaps I'll throw open the window on a sermon I gave up there. What's harder to put into words is the deep calm welling up after walking mom's dogs on dirt roads, seeing the familiar slant of hunting blinds, hearing hilarious stories of ancestors while sipping tea, and finding the hardware store exactly where I left it.
It's good to know your place.