Kathleen Norris wrote a book called Dakota about how the land where she grew up and the land where she lived had affected her spiritually – not necessarily religiously, but in her spirit. This got me thinking about the oddity of my own spiritual geography.
The question I hate more than “Is that your real name?” is “Where are you from?” because I have no idea what one or two-word answer is accurate. Technically, I guess you could say that I’m from Grand Rapids because that is where I was born. Or, you could say I’m from Cedar Springs because that was our address while I was a kid. Or, you could say I’m from Morley because that is where our address was when I last lived under my parents’ roof. However, the truth is closest to saying that I’m from a mixture of Algoma Christian School and Lakeview, but try explaining that.
Okay, I will.
My brother and I went to Algoma Christian School while living in Cedar Springs. I was never connected to the actual city of Cedar Springs because we went to school somewhere else, and the only real interaction we had with Cedar at all was at First Baptist Church…which was educational enough about the Cedar kids that I was perfectly fine keeping my distance, for the most part. Anyway, despite going to church in Cedar Springs, the only sense of community that I had growing up was from Algoma Christian School. And although the school’s address is Kent City on Sparta Avenue (which always confused me), the school was in the middle of corn fields so that there was no connection with either Kent City or Sparta. ACS was its only little bubble world (in more ways than one, but I’ll stick with the issue of geography), so spending so much of my childhood there ended up creating for me a sense of being “from” there. Even after we moved to Morley, my brother and I continued to go to ACS despite the 50-minute commute. So, even while living in a land far away, ACS continued to be my home in a daily way — I feel “from” there.
But Lakeview holds ties as well. My mom grew up in Lakeview, and most of my mom’s family lived three miles down the road when we moved to Morley. We have always been very close to that side of our family, and I can vividly recall whole chunks of my childhood that were spent at my grandparents’ house, at my aunt and uncle’s house, or at the local church in Sylvester (a bustling village consisting of the church, King’s Trading Post, and a blinking yellow light). That church specifically holds a special feeling of home for me. I can remember being very little and looking up during a sermon to stare at the chalk picture of Jesus hanging on the wall, and I can tell you that there are 198 tiles on the sanctuary ceiling. Even when we lived in Cedar Springs, the church in Sylvester always felt like my home church. Once we moved to Morley, we joined that church and it became the one place – besides our actual house – that felt like home. See, because we continued to go to school down at ACS, I had less social connection with the town of Morley than I’d had with Cedar Springs. I literally can name only one other family in Morley, and that’s only because they go to church in Sylvester. This disconnection from our surroundings may have been a drawback to our continued ACS education that my parents hadn’t considered – we were isolated by 50 miles from our only friends while living in a community where we knew no one except family. But, Lakeview is very homey to me for reasons of family — I feel like I’m “from” Lakeview/Morley as well.
So, basically, I feel that I’m “from” an area with a radius of about 30 mile.
What does this have to do with spiritual geography? Every place I’ve ever called home has played a part in how I’ve developed. This means the lands, the buildings, the quirky cultural aspects, everything. I have traveled around much of America and I’m sure other geographical locales have influenced my view of existence, but “home” is always a major influence on a kind, and I can see how each geographical home of my life influenced my spiritual development.
When we lived in Cedar Springs, our house was built in the woods. I grew up surrounded by wild nature – almost literally, because we barely had a yard. My mom would turn us outside every day during the summer, and I don’t think we ever came inside except to eat or sleep or tell on each other. I developed a deep appreciation for nature, for color, for animals, and for the way our imagination can take us just about anywhere. I saw God’s creation every day and loved it. Because of this, I think I am happier around simple things. Nature has always been my sanctuary. I’m a minimalist, a mystic, and a conservationist, and I know that this is cuz of the natural environment I grew up in.
At Algoma Christian School, the building I know affected me. ACS is what has been referred to as “the pole barn school” and it really did feel like we were cattle sometimes. More to the point, we were isolated. Whereas I lived in a forest at home, school was plopped down in the middle of fields. There was no way to escape, and we had to become fairly reclusive because we had no other choice. When you go to such a small school, being in close quarters with the same people everyday can be dangerous. (This is the real reason I think cattle stampede. They’re not easily startled or driven by the herd mentality – they see an excuse to run from each other and make a break for it. However, we had to cope – the teachers didn’t have lassoes or cattle prods, but they did have detention slips.) We had to learn how to deal with people because there was nowhere to run. I think that the ACS building and that place forced me to learn how to be a person in a community. I’m sure growing up and getting an education helped shape me considerably, but the actual place had an impact too.
Then there’s Morley. Talk about the middle of nowhere. Our family’s Haymarsh home is on a hunting preserve, where open land stretches all around for well over a thousand acres. As a kid who loved to run around in nature, this was heaven. As a kid who needed social development, it was not. But I was happy. Kathleen Norris describes the open skies and vast stretches of land in Dakota, but there’s a mystical beauty to the wetlands of Michigan too. There was something to be discovered in every corner of our Haymarsh. It was wild land, and it is from the land that I understand the need for conservation. I also understand, from hours of lying on the star-watching bridge, about being still and knowing that God is God and I am just a piece of…creation. The Haymarsh showed me openness and gave me a sense of something bigger than me, wilder than me. Because of the Haymarsh, I go barefoot constantly and am most comfortable when covered in mud after a physically exhausting day outside.
For the college period of my life, I called Grand Rapids home. Grand Rapids has been coined “GR-usalem” because there are probably more churches here than restaurants – and there are a LOT of restaurants, so that’s saying something about the number of churches. Grand Rapids has always felt safe and comfortable to me, despite the fact that I’m a country girl at heart. It’s not too big; not too small. It’s trying to grow and be artsy, eclectic, and mean something bigger in the world; it also seems to know its strengths and not try to be more than it is. In these ways, it was a good place to live while experiencing all the change and growth that college brings. I think that is how Grand Rapids affected me most spiritually – it showed me a gentle alternative to my country reality and made me appreciate potential growth.
My post-college home was Clawson, which is a suburb of Detroit. I moved there for six months for reasons I’ll get into later, but suffice it to say that Detroit had an impact in my spiritual growth as well. The Detroit area has a feel unlike anywhere else I’ve lived – talk about opposite extremes, Morley to Detroit. Detroit is somehow up-tempo and bored at the same time. My theory is that because the whole area is pretty much one big city, people can spread out and get used to the sprawl rather than congregating in certain hot spots and feeding off of momentary bursts of excitement. They’re just too used to a multitude of options. Through my own adventures, I soon found that I could be the kind of person living in Detroit encourages, and this chameleon change in me was affected by the fast-paced, brazen, monotonously sprawling urban-ness around me. And gosh it was fun – which was exactly what I needed at that point in life. It was like a great RESET where I remembered that I liked things bigger than the world I’d settled for previously. But I didn’t like it enough to stay. I came to the conclusion that maybe, since our souls grow so much from our environment, we’ll never feel “home” in environments that are so absolutely foreign. Maybe all geographies aren’t meant to change us, but rather strengthen in us the things that are already there, untested. My spirit could be shaped by Detroit’s environment, but I didn’t want it to be. I’m not built for clubbing; I like to hear myself think, thank you. I’m not designed for sales; I am too laid back and low maintenance to push something on people just so I can make a buck. I’m definitely not capable of faking an affinity for Kid Rock, even if one of my friends did make out with him for her 25th birthday (you know who you are).
So, I moved back to western Michigan. Although I plopped down in Grand Rapids, I can’t say that this one city itself feels like “home” any more than any one place ever has. But it’s a good base, and I now know for sure that my 30-mile radius area is where I feel I fit and where I feel fits me – there are things in me that just are that way, and they’re there because of the homes I’m from. Of Cedar – I don’t require much to entertain myself. Of ACS – I can deal with people where I’m at if I have to. Of Morley – I like escaping to the country to roll around in dirt every now and then. Of Grand Rapids – I like being close to social interaction/options.
I may not have a good answer for “Where are you from?” but I have a better sense of it than I used to. Maybe this was all a natural process of maturing that a normal, sane person or even Michael W. Smith would recognize as a process of “finding your place in this world” (I just threw up in my mouth a little bit), but I really feel the geographical/spiritual connection played a part in my conclusion that this is where I am from. I may never be able to narrow down where I’m from any more than to say I’m from an area with a 30 mile radius, but the wideness of the area pretty well illustrates the wideness of my own personality. I am from here-ish, and no matter where I go next at least I have a solid home base somewhere that I know has shaped me, however difficult it is to explain.