Listening to Krista Tippett’s On Being this week, I received the gift of a brilliant, timely grace: An introduction to Joy Harjo, U.S. Poet Laureate, crafter of words. Chasing down through the rabbit hole of background and context, I fell upon this article, quoting Harjo:
…all people have a relationship to place. Spirituality and Place are the same conversation…”the intangible sense of personhood is held in the complex tent of body and place.”
Sometimes we’re given just what we need, right?
I spent a few days with my body in the place of of my birth, the small town and rural roads where I was rooted and formed. We left when I was 13, a pilgrimage to better things, it seemed. The tale we told ourselves was that we were getting out and moving up in the world. We left a tiny, dying mill town for the bustling energy of a Texas metroplex. Suburban, fast-paced living; lots of cars, houses close together. Bright lights, big city – it seemed a thing good to us at the time.
But now, decades down the road, I see that perhaps we lost more than we gained. I feel It as a loss, these days. I’m drawn like life itself to the green, cool grass and the soft curves of the stones that form the height and depth and margins of this Northwestern Pennsylvania landscape. And roaming around this town that continues to reinvent itself, where there are more of my blood relatives located by granite markers than by mailboxes, I met this truth head on: My whole life, I’ve been trying to get back home.
And this is home.
I walked last week, a lot; the half mile down the road to the little white church, the crossroads where the lumbering school bus met us each morning. The yard where my people are buried, the same graveyard that prompted a wary glance and a quickened pace when I was 8 years old, on foot, headed home. Back up the hill and through the wet grass to the grove of trees towering over a small spring, the concrete square where my imagination ran wild with visions of Indians and the primitive freedom of the outdoors. The full perimeter of land still farmed by my uncle and his life-long friend, the acres behind the house my parents built, the vast field that still fuels my imagination and the deepest self of my self.
Several years ago, a spiritual mentor walked me through an interesting process; my expectations were rather low, to be honest. but I was open to her ideas. During our conversation, she guided me to relax and allow myself to consider a place where I’d felt absolutely safe in this world. Immediately, I saw myself in the middle of a field, nubs of cut hay poking up through the cool Pennsylvania dirt. It happened without even thinking – she asked me to imagine a place where I felt safe, and there I was. As if it had been a true thing all along, just waiting to be discovered.
Last week, I walked back around that safe space, with the luxury of time to consider the vast breadth of God’s vision of his creation. I was there, decades ago; I was there, in that very moment. I still feel a strong sense of my existence there even now, hundreds of miles and four days away.
How can this be, this sense that I am fully present in two places at one time? I do not have an answer, but I can say this: I believe Joy Harjo when she says that the intangible understanding of who I am is bound up, entangled in, and kept safe by this “complex tent of body and place.”
In the short time I have left on this side of the veil, I long to find a way to inhabit this understanding: That this relationship I have to place is not an unremarkable, romanticized nostalgia. It is more and less than grief. It Is grief, a peculiar loss that invites me into a mourning ritual that may hold more life than I can imagine. The sense of personhood that has called to me through my imagination, through the searing power of prayer, through a longing for the intimacy of creation, through the whisper of God in mountain ledges and tall trees – this is a real, true thing.
You can go home again, I think. Perhaps only for a short time, a moment to sit on an ancient piece of heavy artillery some 50 years after you did the same thing as a child and feel the slow churning of eternity.