I read Southern Living from the back. That’s where you find Rick Bragg’s column, tucked behind pages of recipes for black-eyed peas, skillet cornbread, and layer cake smothered in buttercream frosting. I read Bragg’s column first, because his words conjure up the tastes and smells of my childhood home—Juicy Fruit gum, Chick-fil-A waffle fries, and my grandmother’s Aquanet. I honestly can’t recall if he’s written about Aquanet yet, but if he has, I can guarantee your nose will burn while you read about it and you may even get a little lightheaded recalling the number of seconds you held your breath while your Nanny or MeMaw locked in the day’s helmet-hair.
Once I’ve read Rick Bragg and scanned the recipes, the rest of the pages get a cursory glance. But I have been known to linger over the holiday gift guide. Fifty items for fifty dollars or less—or whatever the copy promised that year. Monogrammed luncheon napkins? Floral print gardening gloves? Aviate hat?
Aviate hat. Yes. I had to have one—a baseball cap embellished with my home airport code. This small apparel company headquartered in Birmingham, my childhood home, designs hats and t-shirts to “evoke the memories of journeys past, the anticipation of adventure ahead, or the satisfaction of heading home once business is done.”
The choice seemed simple. Of course I would choose BHM, the place I called home for twenty years. But they had a GRR hat, too. That’s where I have lived the past six years. And they had hats for other cities I had known and loved—MCI, BNA, ORD. (They did not sell an SPI hat. Maybe the city is too small. No matter, I don’t want to wear those memories anyway.)
BHM and GRR were the obvious choices. They were the two places I had lived the longest. But what if we moved again? What if we were on the verge of calling a new city home and flying into and out of a new airport? Since we married, my husband and I have lived in four different cities. Would God let us stay a little while longer? Or would he call us to go?
I wanted to wear my hat with a measure of integrity, a measure of authenticity. Then the reality sank in: neither Birmingham nor Grand Rapids felt much like home anymore.
I can’t remember when Birmingham ceased to feel like home. Perhaps it was when I moved to Chicago for seminary and married a Yankee, as my grandmother called him. Perhaps it was seeing my home through a Chicagoan’s eyes. Perhaps all that I had learned in college and seminary—not only through my classes but also through my classmates from every corner of the globe—had changed me. I think it was a slow fade, like my Southern drawl.
I visit Birmingham once or twice a year. Every blood relative of mine lives there. But each time I return, the city feels strange to me. Known and unknown, remembered and forgotten all at the same time.
For the past six years, I have come to know Grand Rapids. I give myself a gold star for how quickly I acclimated. Within months, I had learned to how to use a snowblower, dodge potholes, and tell people where I live by pointing to the end of one of my palm lines.
We have been renovating a century-old house, uncovering its beauty and making it our own. I’ve befriended neighbors, hosted book clubs, invested in our neighborhood public school. And yet the feeling of home eludes me here. Somehow seeking the welfare of the city does not necessarily translate into feeling at home in the city.
Like Abraham, I find myself rarely settled. Even though God promised him and his descendants all of Canaan, Abraham did not stay there long before relocating to Egypt during a famine. Even while in the promised land, Abraham and his family lived in tents, which signals to me they were ready to move at the call of God.
I don’t live in a tent, but I have lived among packed boxes and unhung photographs, afraid to commit fully to a place that lacks the feeling of home, afraid to purchase a hat connected to a place where I feel like a stranger.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that Abraham “made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country” (Heb 11:8-9). I think the sense of home eluded him too, for he was said to be looking forward to his true home, a city designed and constructed by God. With the promise of an eternal home, Abraham found peace in the midst of temporary unsettledness. He resolved to live as a stranger in the very place God called him to.
Thomas a Kempis advises, “if you wish to achieve stability and grow in grace, remember always that you are an exile and pilgrim on this earth.” Instead of stranger, exile, and pilgrim, I want welcome, home, and belonging. This stranger, this exile, this pilgrim struggles to look toward a home that, for now, is less geographical and more theological, more teleological in nature. How do I live as though already and not yet at home no matter where God calls me?
Cover photo by Alex Plesovskich.