One of the things that has always struck me about the Christmas story is that Mary and Joseph had no sense of “home” when Mary gave birth to her baby. They were travellers, transients, really. I bring this up because I’ve been mulling over the many questions you were kind enough to send in response to my post on questions. Here is an excerpt of the question in particular that has me thinking about “home, homelessness, and belonging.”
“Paul McCartney once sang, ‘Once there was a way to get back home …’ Is there a way to get back home? When will I settle down into a peace filled life with a strong sense of home again and a job that is more than a ‘job’ but feels like a vocation? I live in a nice home with a good man with whom I am happy but I do not feel like I am quite “home” again nor quite arrived.”
This really resonated with me, probably because it is something I perpetually struggle with. My family all live on the east coast, and while I never really had an ideal place that I wanted to live when “I grew up,” I never imagined that we would end up in this little midwestern “city,” 150 miles from Chicago. I remember when the only friends we had when we got here took us out for pizza our first week. I looked out the window and cried, silent tears dripping down my cheeks. Peter Jennings, my favorite newscaster, was still alive then, and I thought, “Anything could happen to the world, he could report anything, and we would be out here in this barren no-person’s land, and never know it.”
I don’t know what “home” really means or feels like, though I have always had one. I remember as a small child seeing that my mother used to write “Home” on the calendar that hung in our kitchen and it took me a long time to understand that meant we were going to see her father and grandmother. Sometimes when I write “home” in my own calendar (meaning that I will be working at home that day), there is a milisecond when I don’t remember what that means.
I’m much more familiar with restlessness, escape; as a former therapist once said to me, “You are a person prone to discontent.” As if that was news to me. And definitely worth the $80 per hour.
I don’t like being this way, but I’m trying to learn to accept the gifts that it holds. In the meantime, I’m jealous of people who love and feel settled and centered in their homes. The home I live in now is quite beautiful, open, welcoming, a perfect place for our family. We have invested more hours and more dollars in making it so than I can even count at this point. It’s a lovely, lovely place. And I’ve also come to deeply love the landscapes at all times of the year, and it never feels barren anymore–it’s stark and still in the winter, gloriously red and yellow in the fall, fertile and greening in the spring, and riotously, insanely lush in the summer.
There is a longing in me for all the lives I know I will never live–I will never have been born in Moscow, never know what it felt like to have lived in London in 1855, never have grown up in Africa or Guatemala, never be a true city girl in the 1950’s in Paris or New York, never have lived on a farm and learned how to grow things. All these lives, all these possibilities, all these human experiences that can shape and reshape a life, and I get one.
This attitude goes directly against my truest belief and that is, in the words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel, “Just to be is a blessing; just to live is holy.” I feel like what I wrote in the paragraph above is very close to being a sin. Ungrateful, at the very least, sinful, at worst.
I have a beautiful life, and yet I also happen to have a deeply unsettled spirit that doesn’t ever seem to “land” anywhere. One summer at the beach my family were all playing a game where you had to say what animal you thought the other person would be [note: these games are always, always, always a tragically horrible idea]. My sister told me that she thought I was like a mother bird, flying to the nest to make sure that the babies were okay, and then flying off again (I’m assuming she believed I would come back but I don’t know for sure; see note above). But that stuck with me, even though it was just a silly game.
What does this have to do with Advent, with waiting, with home and belonging? If I think about the story of the night of the birth, all the characters are transients: the pregnant mother, the supporting father, the shepherds in the fields, the three kings, even the baby, safe for the moment in the womb; but he would never have a real home. Not really.
But what also strikes me is that never once in the story does one feel alone. The angel Gabriel is my favorite character in the Christmas story because his first words, shouted out across the entire sky are, “Be not afraid!” And I imagine that these people were quite, quite afraid; unsheltered, confused, wondering. And there he is with his huge sheltering wings, calling out, “Do not be afraid! I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” ALL the people. That means us, Christian or not, religious or not. Because it means that at a time when we are out there, alone, no roofs over our human heads, in the dark cold of our lost frightened souls, with really, really important tasks to accomplish and no one to help us, there is indeed, help.
I needed help the other day. My car is in the shop and I called a cab, and the driver and I got to talking about lying and cheating (I have found that cab and tow truck drivers have a special kind of wisdom about relationships that is not to be encountered anywhere else). Turns out that his 18-year-old daughter’s boyfriend just threw her and their 8-month-old son out on the street. “Do they have somewhere to go?” I asked. “Oh yeah. I took them into the motel room with me. Not gonna let that baby be out on the street.” We talked more about how people can be such tremendous disappointments, ourselves included. “Do you believe in God?” I asked him (and NO, I am not one of those insane evangelicals who go around asking people if they are saved). “Yes indeed, yes, I do,” he replied. “Well, here’s the quote that keeps me going: ‘every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.'” “Yeah” he nodded, “yeah.”
When the driver, whose name was Chris, picked me up to go home, I asked if we could make a quick stop to Walgreens. I ran in and got some money from the ATM to pay him, and then raced through the diaper aisle, trying to remember what size diapers an 8-month old would wear. An 8-month old baby and his mother, and this man, living in their hotel room at Christmas. Is that where they belonged? When he dropped me off, I gave him the diapers: “take these for your grandbaby.” It was all I could think of. A plastic bags of diapers. He took them, making a sound I had never heard before. Then he gave me his card and said, “You ever need someone to talk to, you call me.” Then he drove away.
In the song “Geodes,” Carrie Newcomer sings, “God walks round in muddy boots, sometimes rags and that’s the truth, you can’t always tell but sometimes you just know.” I’m not sure which one of us was “God” to the other in that scenario, but God was there, that’s all I’m saying.
I don’t know much about home or homelessness, though thank God I know a lot more about one than the other. All I know is that I have somewhere to go and people to love. If I’m lucky, they love me back. And I know that we are never, ever, ever alone, even when it feels like we are standing out in the pitch-black freezing field of confusion and lostness. We are never alone. And that indeed, is good news of great joy.
This poem is about journeying, leaving and arriving. Finding who you are through what you see around you in the world. Being brave enough to look up into heaven and ask, “Is there something there for me?” And finding that even in leaving, there is a coming home.
Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again
on an open sky.
has to be
so you can find
the one line
Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out
someone has written
in the ashes of your life.
You are not leaving
you are arriving.