You can’t go home again.

This is my spiritual autogeobiography, a reflection on particular places that have been significant contexts for spiritual or theological reflection in my life and how the physical world has shaped my understanding of my spiritual development.  It’s based on a piece of writing I was assigned this week, that I thought I would share here.

Somewhere in Canfield, Ohio, near Youngstown, there is a point in the woods where I first came to believe in the existence and power of magical creatures.  In the spring, the area is surrounded waist-high with a liquidy green plant whose name I never learned but whose smell is like lemons and soap and earth, a pungent scent I will likely never forget, one of those smells like the perfume of your kindergarten teacher that hits you in the face at the mall one day, slapping you gently back to the Letter People and your fifth birthday.  Walking away into the woods behind my grandparents’ house, a hiker finds herself slipping into a glen paved with large smooth stones covered in low heavy moss, the light in the afternoon sliding through the leaves of large deciduous trees and the small growth of old forests.  The peak of the point always reminded me, looking down on a winding creek pushing itself across gray and rust-colored clay, over fallen tree trunks, and around the layered detritus of leaves fallen years earlier, of the edge of the world. As a child, until I was about twelve years old, I would strike out for this point to abandon the jabbering chatter of my extended family, the discomfort of avoiding my creepy uncle, and the kerosene smell of the bonfire over which my grandma habitually spit-roasted entire lambs during our visits.  Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go… in my experience of my family, this song was sung in reverse.  At the foot of the trees overlooking the creek were little beds of luscious moss, and I routinely found myself nestled on one of them, legs crossed, the seat of my pants a bit cold and wet, mindlessly playing with the sticks and flowers there, closely attending to the tiny white buds poking shyly out of the bryophyta.  It seemed only reasonable that my tramping noisily along had frightened away all sorts of creatures, as I never saw any on these trips, and I imagined that more than squirrels and owls lived in that green space.  My family on that side is Irish, and I grew up hearing the songs and legends of the Old Country, most of which danced around the unseen reality of Little People, trouble-makers and blessing-givers for whom we left milk in bowls outside the back door.  I always thought that they would appreciate more than little saucers of fresh milk, that they would prefer to stay away from our loud house and fighting sounds, and so using the resources of the woods, built piece by tiny piece moss tables and sofas, miniature spaces for living, places I hoped would be signs of my benevolence, gifts for allowing me to temporarily rent their home-woods while escaping the madness of my family.  As I constructed these tree-homes, I dreamed of living there, side by side with the little people, thought of their little families, imagined they would appreciate visiting one another, comparing the variety of décor they had unexpectedly been gifted.  The complexity of greens and browns, of natural textures, of bounteous opportunity, could be perceived only with my face pressed almost entirely into the mosses and stones.  I found diversity, I found quietude, I found a brilliant hospitality there.  Resilience, too, when I carefully tore up pieces of moss and carefully replanted them, to find that they had rooted themselves the next day, looking for all purposes as though the sofas and tables had emerged silently out of the soil of their own accord.  Invisible, the leprechauns were present to me, and I kept with me forever an understanding that a perception of absence is not the same thing as actual non-existence, only the presence of mystery.

From the time I was eight, every summer my family traveled twelve hours to Topsail Island, North Carolina, leaving on my birthday and returning two weeks later.  Topsail is a little spit of island south of Jacksonville, named such because settlers there could spot the top-sail of a pirate ship before anyone on the coast.  Blackbeard supposedly used the island as a stopping point.  Those vacations to the island, with its warm sea-salt smell, boggy inlets, and wildly strange fauna were the first time in my life I had the feeling, “I am the shape of this place.”  Before picking up the keys to our rented house at the realtor’s agency those June Sundays, my dad drove us straight to the beach next to the Surf City pier, and my brothers and I would jump out of our Suburban, screaming and laughing, plunging straight into the Atlantic surf in our smelly car-clothes.  Covered in salt and sand-encrusted, we were entirely freed by the simple enjoyment of having found ourselves in the ocean.  The dunes at Topsail are protected, as years of construction and tourism have worn them away so that the homes are unprotected from the terrible hurricanes of the late summer, the native turtles finding no safe place to encase their soft eggs on a direct path to the sea.  The waters, cold so early in the summer, lapped up against the soft tan beach, leaving evidence of picnics and swimmers, ancient shark teeth and broken shells, purple and orange seaweeds dislodged from the deeper waters beyond the sandbars.  It was there, in that murky water, that I learned balance, literally, when my father taught me to surf.  It was there that I learned to take risks in the riptides, trusted to swim and body board alone in the heat of the sun while my family lingered on the beach, my body rolling with every third wave, pushed over the edge down under into the roil, where I could either find myself lifted out, up, into the air or slammed down into the sand, not knowing which way breath was.  It was there that I learned what it meant to absorb the spirit of a place from the very air, comfortable with the light breeze but also with the terrifying summer storms that raged up unpredictably at sunset, lifting struggling, sucking cochina mollusks out of the wet sand and throwing waves down beyond the edge of the normal tides.  It was there I found that beauty sometimes first requires the introduction of ugliness or fear before its full potential could be realized.  Nothing is so striking, so visceral, jolting, as red lightning over the surging, usually peaceful, Atlantic as the sun which had warmed my shoulders during the day settled over the horizon, sinking into purple oblivion and leaving behind uncertain waters and unpredictable footpaths.  I cannot escape this place, and honestly, I do not have any desire to escape it.  I carry Topsail with me everywhere, during the times when I feel entirely out of place, when I find myself doubting the possibility of the existence of meaning… I remember the heart-sense of belonging in the water, and I grasp again for at least a moment the knowledge that there are some things larger than self in the world, but shaped around and including that self, even when there is no possible way to be present there in time and space.

High school, only a little later.  The geography is not a particular place, but a way of being in the space.  Sam was a good friend, one of the only other kids my age in our small Midwestern town to whom I could relate.  We both, in the way of small-town kids everywhere, had only one goal in life, and that was to get out.  Sam ended up at Harvard, then Berkley.  I did not go so far and ended up having to come home after a year at University of Chicago.  But from sophomore until senior year, we dreamed together, with our matching SAT scores and Uncommon Application essays, of leaving where we were for something more interesting, creative, and meaningful than Bluffton, Ohio.  Unencumbered by the pressures of high school attraction, Sam and I comfortably and regularly met in the middle of town after sports and band practices, portable cups of tea in hand, and walked up and down the streets, talking about philosophy, God, music, art – the usual intense, angsty late-night teen conversations.  I remember one walk in particular in which we discussed the existence of God.  It was not brilliant, or especially interesting, but the deep questions we asked, the way we challenged one another to think creatively, even though they were questions asked for thousands of years by human beings across worlds and contexts, shaped my thinking from then on, through college and my twenties.  They still effect how I ask questions about the reality of God today.  Those streets, sometimes wet with late rain, sometimes cold and covered in autumn leaves, sometimes three a.m. dark, the sound of our shoes on the sidewalk and our voices reverberating down the road by the football field, were where I learned to ask about the meanings of things.  Side by side with my friend, tracking and circling around the same small-town roads and the same questions, I learned that it is acceptable, even necessary, to try out the possibility of new beliefs, systems of understanding, words for ideas, to do it out loud and in community, and to accept feedback.  When I think about doubt, when I consider questions, I think about those walks.  My questions happen in those streets with Sam, even a decade later.

Wendell Berry talks about “the intimacy the mind makes with the place it awakens in,” and there is one very significant place where this phrase takes me in my history.  It has nothing to do with nature at all, but with the worst parts of the city, the most awful parts of human community.  It has to do with violence.  My first full-time job was at a domestic violence shelter in Columbus.  I was responsible from 3:00 pm until 11:00 pm every weekday for the safety, well-being, and management of a house full of battered women and their kids.  I walked the perimeter and hallways of that shelter incessantly nearly every day for four years.  Its smell, of feet and fried food, cleaning supplies and hair oil, was the most comforting thing, because when I smelled it, I knew exactly what my responsibilities were.  The big square property was a safe haven in the center of a city I learned was dotted with terror, disappointment, anger, and sadness, living rooms and kitchens and bedrooms tainted by human error and destruction.  My work, while ranging across the shelter and across boundaries personal and physical in that building, centered on what we called the “crisis office.”  Here was the practical and emotional center of the work, where crisis calls came in, where relationships began.  There, I learned for the first time in my life about the complexities of evil and what it meant to sin, the difficulties of forgiveness and redemption.  One story in particular comes to mind, from the second year of my work there.  I was running my rounds upstairs where the client rooms were situated and heard, coming from room eight at the end of the hallway, a child’s fearful scream, then crying.  I approached the door and heard one of the young girls staying there with her mom say, “Mommy, I thought you said you wouldn’t hurt me anymore.”   Then, the unforgettable sound of flesh hitting flesh, then silence.  I remember just standing there, wanting to enter the room but unsure of how I was supposed to intervene.  In all honesty, I did nothing, other than making certain that I talked about our rules related to discipline and abuse in the shelter during house meeting that night.  I struggled for weeks with my own cowardly response, with the idea that someone seeking refuge from violence could perpetrate the same on her own child, on that child’s hope for future healing, and on the resources I obviously did not possess to think about and act against evil.  Over the next few years, as I witnessed the awful crimes, ungraspable in their magnitude and creativity, that human beings can perpetrate against those they claim to love – boot marks on women’s faces, bruises and scratches, broken bones and emotional wounds too deep to understand or name – I thought about what an all-powerful, loving God could possibly alter in this fallen world.  I was challenged, in that building, to come to grips with the mystery of a crucified Son and a Father who apparently colluded in his torture and death, with resurrection and wholeness, with the promise of salvation and redemption.  I wrestled with these problems in the literal faces of abusers who had themselves been violated by others and in the bodies of their spouses who would return to the abuse over and over again.  I fought with what it means to be a place of safety and security, a beacon of hope, in the midst of dirtiness, when that place itself may hold demons and fallen-ness, when it is not perfect, either.  I found that I could never go home again, spiritually.  That building, the lives that had intersected with mine there, changed my understanding of God forever, revealing a complex divinity whose power was not the power of bad fathers or even of loving ones, but of a different tenor altogether.  My mind awakened there to the real juxtaposition of goodness and sinfulness, sometimes in the same person standing in front of me with torn clothes and a battered suitcase, asking for help and about to rob the shelter blind of the food in its refrigerator.

The forest, escaping family din and reaching for mystery; the beach celebrating beauty and fear; familiar small-town streets alive with questions and dreams but without solid answers; the darkened, dirty hallways of an old town-house claiming to be a safe haven but holding badness in its walls; these are the places of my spiritual journeying and my life’s shaping.  There are more, of course, but these four tell a good tale and provide a foundation for understanding the way I am in the world today, in the heart of God and as a part of my human family.

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2 Comments »

  1. Robin Said:

    Jules, you continue to amaze me. Thanks for sharing these pieces of yourself and your journey. And by the way, your writing is exquisite, too.

  2. Lisa Withrow Said:

    Interesting. I lived in Canfield. My mom served a church there. I served a church in Boardman. We vacationed in NC. I worked in domestic violence response. Angst was my favorite descriptive word in high school. Interesting indeed.


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