Fathom Mag

Keeping Place

An excerpt from the new book by Jen Pollock Michel

Published on:
May 10, 2017
Read time:
4 min.
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It almost feels like December in New Zealand,” Caleb exclaims, taking off his shoes at our front door. Having recently moved to Toronto for a neurosurgery fellowship, he visibly mourns that his family’s first Canadian Christmas, celebrated together with our family and other members of our church, is not the white idyll of greeting cards. Several months earlier, he, his wife, and his three children crossed continents and oceans, expecting to return home to a prestigious position at a renowned hospital. But the future ominously shape-shifts, dims. Blurs. Professional doors close in New Zealand, and opportunity dries up.  “We’ll consider Australia next,” Caleb explains. “Then Singapore.”

Judith arrives next, bearing her promised plate of delicately decorated Christmas cookies in the shapes of angels and camels, bells and trees. Nearing seventy, Judith was widowed in middle age and left to raise her three boys without a father. She eventually remarried, though she and her second husband have recently separated for reasons she leaves silent. Alone, she bears the weight of a present that is neither divorce nor marriage. Her future pitches with uncertainty, even if her faith acts as admirably as sea legs.

But the future ominously shape-shifts, dims. Blurs.

Hannah and Solomon follow behind Judith. Born in Ghana, the couple grew up in London, living there until they moved to Canada, one week after their wedding. Six months after their international move, Solomon was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer; two years later, he lives a merciful and miraculous stay of execution. If Christmas marks a holy birth, it also signals, for this couple, God’s gift of ongoing life. I ask the young, childless couple about their plans for the future, whether they’ll stay in Toronto or return to London. Hannah hesitates before answering. “We’re at home here. At least for now.”

Andrea is last to arrive. The only Canadian to join our cosmopolitan group for Christmas dinner, like Judith, she comes alone. Her parents died months before her high school graduation; weeks later, her older sister, executor of the estate, ordered her out of the family home, refusing to pay her university fees. At eighteen, Andrea was marched forcibly into independence and solitary self-sufficiency; at forty, she’s returned to Canada from Asia where she spent the last ten years, her future buoying on the hope of reconciling with her siblings. “I’m giving it a chance,” she says softly. Home, that is.

Around our dinner table at Christmas, these are the stories that home tells. Each inhabits a fragile in-between. Even our family, host of the occasion, lives a rented, expatriate life in Toronto, the city where we chose to make our home after my husband was offered a corporate transfer. Like that of our guests, our future shimmers like a mirage. If we extend our arms, reaching for clarity, we grasp at the wind.

How did we get here?

It wasn’t difficult to move five years ago. My husband, Ryan, and I were raised in churches that valorized missionary service as the zenith of Christian devotion. In our mythologies of faith, uprooted trees were the most virtuous kind. We grew up in the incandescence of names like Lottie Moon, Amy Carmichael, and Hudson Taylor. As children at Vacation Bible School, we pooled our pennies to send the good news to the jungles of Ecuador, Papua New Guinea, and the heart of Africa. At missions conferences and revival services, the plaintive notes of “Just As I Am” wooed from the front, begging us to surrender all to Jesus. After all, even God’s Son had no place to lay his head.

In my moments of in-between, I let myself wonder what it might have been like to cherish something other than change.

At twenty-two, a year after having served a summer together in Mali, Africa, with a team from Wheaton College, Ryan and I married under the banner of Psalm 67.

May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face shine upon us, Selah,
that your way may be known on earth,
your saving power among all nations.

We committed ourselves, as newlyweds, if not to vocational ministry, at the very least, to the ends of the earth. We believed that the nations bid us leave, not stay, and after several geographic moves, the nations eventually embraced us in Toronto. The winds of God’s diaspora have blown us here.

God’s holy story is written in the lives of people and their places.

In truth, I want the nations to impose a divinely linear line on our serial displacement. But I can’t help also feeling like we are failing terrifically at stability, especially at the time when our oldest daughter, entering high school, is supposed to be needing it most. Every year, we depend on the Canadian powers that be to renew our visa and extend our stay, which, of course, is nothing like staying and everything like visiting. In my moments of in-between, I let myself wonder what it might have been like to cherish something other than change. What if we had stayed put? This book grows out of that anxious curiosity, if also the inevitable homesickness, which Frederick Buechner describes as the innermost heart of human desiring. To be human, whether having moved or stayed, is to long for home.

Many of us seem to be recovering the sacred, if ordinary, beauty of place. Perhaps we’re reading along with Wendell Berry, falling in love with Berry’s small-town barber and Jayber Crow’s small-town life. As Troy Chatham fells the final grove of trees on the family farm, destroying hundreds of years of memory in unrestrained greed, we discover the grief in losing connection to the land. Or maybe we’re simply reading our Bibles better, discovering that while we might wish to flatten Scripture to serve our didactic purposes, it rises up in flesh and sinew, muscle and bone: God’s holy story is written in the lives of people and their places. Whatever the reasons, I hope that Keeping Place will have a part in the place conversation, offering hope to the wanderer, help to the stranded.

Jen Pollock Michel
Jen Pollock Michel is the award-winning author of Teach Us to Want, Keeping Place, Surprised by Paradox, and A Habit Called Faith. Her fifth book, In Good Time releases in December 2022. She is the lead editor for Imprint magazine, published by The Grace Centre for the Arts, and host of the Englewood Review of Books podcast. You can follow Jen on Twitter @jenpmichel and also subscribe to her substack, Post Script.

Cover image by Clem Onojeghuo.

Taken from Keeping Place by Jen Pollock Michel. Copyright (c) 2017 by Jen Pollock Michel. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA. www.ivpress.com

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