Vol 13, Num 9 :: 2014.05.02 — 2014.05.15
I’m in an airport, waiting to board a flight across the country, which is a funny spot to be writing about place. Rolling my carry-on through the terminals, I think about all of the places I’ve flown in the past couple of years: the U.K., Italy, France, New Orleans, Los Angeles and, of course, Sioux Center, Iowa. For a habitual traveler, it’s no big deal, but for someone who values rootedness, the list feels a bit strange. I’m struck by the privilege of choosing to stay put when I want to, or to travel far and wide, collecting cultural experiences like rare LPs.
And yet, I also feel like the place I’m committed to may have been chosen for me.
I sometimes say that if I were one of those talking dolls with a string in my back, the first phrase I would say would be, “So I had an idea…” The second thing I would say: “I had a dream last night — I was at the cottage…” Whether summer camp or a summer home, the places where we spent our vacations as children often make their way into our personal narratives in a mythological sort of way. Something about the combination of access to nature and freedom of movement, marking our stages of development, embeds itself deep in our psyches.
For much of my life, the setting for the majority of my dreams has been my grandparents’ cottage on Pleasant Lake in Three Rivers, Michigan. I had a vivid dream when I was about 12 years old that convinced me I was going to die from being run over by a speed boat when I was 14. I can still picture the fictitious boathouse that appeared on the shoreline in another dream, and a more recent one had interesting relevance to a major decision I had to make. Being in the water of Pleasant Lake with a sense of dread is a common theme when I’m anxious about something in my waking life, but the cottage isn’t just about being afraid — it’s the setting for a number of symbolic scenarios that, when I pay attention, have taught me things about myself that I didn’t yet understand.
Were these dreams somehow a communication from the place, calling me to it? Were they communications from God, telling me which direction to go? Or did they merely soften my heart to the idea that maybe Three Rivers was a good place to settle down when my husband Rob and I found ourselves living at the cottage for a sabbatical of sorts? Though the story of my grandparents “accidentally” happening upon the cottage in the 70s could be the introduction to a neat little story about divine intervention, I’m content not to know the answer. The bizarre mystery of it is too sweet for anything other than simple enjoyment.
Today, over ten years into my relationship with Three Rivers as a resident, I realize it would not be faithful to any interpretation of the story for me to have continued living here as a tourist trying to recapture the carefree bliss of my childhood summers. To do so would be akin to stringing along a lover for years in an attempt to live in the first blush of love forever, instead of exploring the richness and depth of a committed relationship.* I treasure the moment Rob and I said “I love you” to each other for the first time (yes, at the cottage), but I would not choose to spend my entire life in that moment. For all of the hurt and confusion along the way, I am so grateful for the ways we’ve grown together, in relationship with each other and with our place.
And so we’ve dug in. We’ve pulled that string again and again — “So I had an idea…” — and some of those ideas have taken on flesh and blood — or rather, bricks and mortar. We’ve worked to love our place for who it is, not just who it could become, while also longing for its flourishing now and in the future. We’ve sought to learn and appreciate all of the contours of its landscape, both the natural beauty and the scars. We’ve asked about its story and tried to understand what our role is in the next chapter. We’ve expected doubt and frustration, and we’ve expected joy.
Married or single, younger or older, no matter what part of the world we find ourselves in, we are in relationship with a place — its flora and fauna, its people and pavement, its structures and creatures. Let us be gentle and kind as we would with any human being who might well become a lifelong friend and partner in the good work of shalom for all.
Two films that do a beautiful job of exploring the interconnectedness of place and committed relationship are Up in the Air and Away We Go.