Spiritual Geography

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.

Yes, that is my real name.

The one constant my whole life has been my name. Wow, that was deep, huh? But, seriously, my name has had a huge impact on my life. Sunshine Marie Somerville. My first name was chosen by my mother because Susan Someone-Famous named her daughter Sunshine around the time my mom got pregnant, and my mom liked the name. My middle name is from my maternal grandmother – more on this later. My last name just happens to fit cleverly with my first name to create a reason for people to frequently ask me, “Is that your real name?”

I sometimes get annoyed by this question, but it is also a great conversation starter. I love the fact that I can spark a conversation with almost any stranger just by introducing myself. And if people don’t have some kind of reaction or at least crack a smile, I judge them. Without being reminded, I often forget just how unique it is. I go by simply ‘Sunny’ so often that I forget how odd my last name sounds behind it. (Honestly, it took me until college to realize why my last name was funny at all…as in Summer-ville.)

I now have the rundown explanation memorized. “Yes, that’s my real name. My parents were hippies (or, as Dad explains, they weren’t hippies because they bathed and didn’t have the commitment, but they did think they were cool). My Dad liked my name because of the ‘Hair’ song with the line ‘let the sun shine, let the sun shine, let the suuuuun shine.’ It’s supposed to be a double meaning: Sun-shine, Son-shine. I usually go by Sunny. No, I don’t know Cher. No, I can’t control the weather.”


  • My brother’s name is Christian, and one of our childhood pastors found it humorous to refer to the pair of us as “Heathen and Darkness.” When I was in second grade, I found that it was much easier to write “Sunny” on my papers rather than the full Sunshine. One of the first times I did this, the teacher’s aide was doing grading and came across my paper. She was confused as to who it belonged to and asked, “Who is Sunny?” Everyone looked at me, and I still don’t understand her confusion – who else would it have been?
  • A friend in high school was fond of saying, “You know, with a name like Sunshine Somerville, you’d think you’d smile more.” This is the simplest way of explaining the irony of my name versus my personality during this time.
  • During one of my first days at college, we had a luncheon where we were to meet with our advisor. Unfortunately, my advisor’s table was already full when I showed up so I sat by myself at her second table. I was perfectly fine, but I must have looked pitiful there by myself. This guy came walking over to me (the R.A. for the male side of my dorm’s floor, I later discovered) and asked me what my name was. I sighed and answered. He broke into an enormous grin and told me that he remembered my name from the admission sheets. I forced a smile and continued to eat my food, hoping to be done as soon as possible before anything else happened. But no, he soon hailed over another guy and explained my comical plight. Loudly, I might add.
  • Another situation that was particularly amusing shouldn’t be funny at all, but it was. I went home for my great grandmother’s funeral, and my entire family was there. We sat in the traditional front rows, solemnly trying to tolerate the pastor. During the portion of the service where the pastor was listing those who survived granny, I could hear people sniffling in the back. All was going well as I listened to him rattle off the grandchildren’s names. Then came the great grandchildren. “Stefanie, Randy, Fran, Tonia, Mike, Ryan, Angie, Sunshine…That’s a great name isn’t it, folks? Christian, Kylie…” I almost lost it as my uncle beside me started to laugh. It was horrible, especially since I’d just blown up at someone back at college over my name that morning.
  • Then there was the weekend when I went home with one of my college friends. Her mother was a very unique individual and extremely…curt. While we were having a pleasant enough dinner, she asked me how I got my name. I answered that my mother just liked it, to which she replied, “Well, I guess it’s something you can learn to live with.” My other friend gawked at her. I ate my salad.
  • Once, Aunt ‘Fifi’ came to my college, Cornerstone University. She had phoned and told me to come to her professor friend’s class around 3 pm. I got there about ten minutes early, and as I was approaching the room I hear several voices asking, “Sunny? You mean Sunshine Somerville? Yeah, I know Sunshine.” I then hear my aunt’s voice saying, “Yes, Sunshine. We call her Sunny but…” Deciding to end the confusion right then, I quickly stepped into the room. My aunt had just finished reading to the class, and she stood toward the front of the room. A particularly obnoxious guy who was already amused by my name (okay, so we ended up being friends and I hate that he didn’t even know me but was completely right about my liking weight lifting class) was about to get into a conversation with her about me. I knew easily half the people in the class, and as soon as I stepped in they pointed at me and said, “There she is; that’s her!” as if it was possible there could have been another Sunshine Somerville. I waved.
  • On another occasion, some of us went to a movie at night, so we used our college ID to get the discount for students. I laid my ID on the counter; the kid looked at it and then at me and then back at the card. He then proceeded with, “Is that your real name?” I answered with a forced smile that this was so. He said, “Wow, you must have a personality to match, huh?” (Keep in mind I’m holding up the line at this point.) The clerk next to him said, “What are you talking about?” so the kid showed him my card and then the girl clerk on his other side. Once they were all informed of the truth, the kid said, “I’m sorry, I should stop but that’s just so cool.” I swiped my card from his hand, smiled, got my change, and went on my merry way with the kid sending me a parting “Sunshine Somerville. Cool.”
  • My name even led to an A in Public Speaking class because I gave an entire speech based around the meaning my name has brought to my life. Thank you, Mom and Dad, for contributing to my college GPA.
  • Working as a scout for a model management company, my name grabbed peoples’ attention so that they smiled and were more compliant to listening to me. Of course, my coworkers came up with the usual “clever” jokes, and they found it incredibly ironic that I drove my mom’s bright yellow car. Out in the field (“field” being bars, clubs, etc.), I often skipped trying to convince people of the truth and instead simply whipped out my driver’s license as proof. “Huh” or “Cool” were the usual reactions. One time, my friend introduced herself as “Sophia” and the guy said, “Oh, that’s a beautiful name” before turning to me. I muttered “Oh, boy…” The best reaction was when my boss finally introduced himself to me, I said my name, and he looked back at me without blinking and responded, “If you say so.” One of my scout friends had a part-time boyfriend who, upon hearing my name, came up with the most original response I’ve ever heard – “Sunshine. You should use a nickname like Sunsh.” New, even if not all that bright. But he was a model, so you can’t ask for much.
  • Or, at my other job in Clawson, the woman who interviewed me was surprised to see me when I first showed up. She told me that, given my name, she’d expected someone born in the ’60s. One of my coworkers there at People’s Pottery thought my name would be the perfect pop band title, and she looked my name up on the internet to find that an author had my exact same name. I admit I thought, “hey, that’s cool!” for a second before realizing it was me and telling her so. Or, then there was Gavin, the autistic man who wandered Birmingham taking pictures of every one of the young shop girls. Once he learned my name, he was hooked. “Hey, Sunshine. This day rocks, doesn’t it, Sunshine? Are you enjoying this day like I am, Sunshine? I’m glad we have two pictures so far, aren’t you, Sunshine? Well, see you later, Sunshine.” (I’m not exaggerating, and he did this with all of us, though my name seemed to draw the most attention from whoever was in the store at the time.)
  • Every bank teller I’ve ever had has felt the need to say something. Possibly the worst: “Oh, when you get married, your husband can sing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ and it will be true!” One bank teller’s name was Star, and I suggested that we should team up and fight crime. I think she was amused. Another bank teller once saw my name and told me how she’d met one other Sunshine – a little boy of 9. What were his parents thinking?
  • While at Panera Bread with Aunt Sharon, I had to say what name they should call and so I went with “Sunshine” only to find the cashier with the usual grin. I turned to my aunt with, “Yeah, people never believe me.” The cashier smiled and said, “Oh, I get it. My sister’s name is Dreary.” I don’t know if he was kidding or not, but I liked him immediately.
  • More than once, while watching the weather news, I have heard the meteorologist say “Sunny” and actually looked up at the TV. This happens every time I’m in public and overhear someone talking about my weather condition equivalent.

So it goes. Now perhaps you’ll understand why I smirk whenever I have to introduce myself to people – or, when I just can’t deal with it, I introduce myself as “Bob” to avoid the whole scene. I’ve heard every clever line that plays on my name, and it amazes me that, every time, people think they are original. And, it is true that there are a plethora of songs that can be sung at me anytime. Seriously, I challenge you to make a list and find every song that has anything to do with my name. Take “Sunny” or the full “Sunshine.” So far, my list is at 109.

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