(Note: I started a new and lucrative career this month as a “community columnist” for the Holland Sentinel, the local newspaper. My first column is below. Look for my florid prose on the editorial page on the first Friday of every month. For those who’ve read excerpts on the blog from my new book, I’m happy to report that The Truth About Who We Are: Letter to My Grandchildren will be out next month from Wipf & Stock, a fine publisher based in Eugene, Oregon. I’ve seen the page proofs, and it looks great! Lots of photos and a Brouwer family tree dating to the 1700s, or about as far back as I have looked so far.)
Home is a complicated idea, one that gets harder to describe the older I get.
For anyone who has lived in as many places as I have, home becomes more than a place, more than a memory. Frankly, a description is best left to music or poetry. I can’t quite put my finger on it.
As soon as I got off the plane a few months ago, having retired and flown back the U.S. after several years of living and working in Europe, I realized that I was home, the place I had always wanted to be. No one had to tell me where I was. I had to resist the temptation to get down on my knees and kiss the ground. I had the happy feeling of familiarity. Not in a street address, but in the smell of the place, the scenery, and of course the people.
Forty years was for me a long time to be away, but no one ever forgets what it means to be home.
I see myself in these western Michigan people, especially the ones of Dutch descent—tall, with broad features, not beautiful, except in the way the American West is beautiful (best observed from a distance). These are people who were born and bred to farm, even though most of them these days have only set foot on a farm once or twice in their lives. They look sturdy, built for hard work and long hours in the sun. They always look to me as though they have led serious and sober lives. I know that because I look that way too, born to work on a farm, certainly not what I have spent most of my life doing.
But home is not just the people. It’s the landscape, the geography. I’ve seen gorgeous sunsets all over the world, but none has brought tears to my eyes like a sunset over Lake Michigan. Why is that? It’s the same sun. I suppose it’s the sense that I’ve been here before, that I’m seeing something I know and can count on. It’s the sense that this is somehow mine. Those other sunsets, as beautiful as they were, as breath-taking in their own way, always seemed to belong to someone else.
I love the sound on an August night of people up and down the lakeshore clapping their hands as the sun disappears over the horizon. I’m pretty sure I learned how to offer praise to God not in church but by listening to that sound, responding to that beauty, caught up in something too wonderful for words.
I’ve lived most of my life somewhere else—for the last four years in Switzerland, a place of indescribable beauty and postcard views in every direction—but this place still feels like home, this odd-shaped state that looks to some like a mitten. I don’t mind saying that I’m smitten with the mitten, not only its odd shape and its peculiar beauty, but all that it represents.
Whenever I came back to it, as I did most summers, for a couple of weeks at a time, I would remember who I was. I would feel restored, as though I had needed to be put back together again, as though only one place on earth could do that for me.
I think of home as a spiritual thing. This longing that I feel to be home is really, it seems to me, a longing for God. It’s a longing that all, or most, of us have. It’s a longing, I dare say, that God has placed within us. It’s not western Michigan that I long for so much as the place where I belong, where I am wanted, where I am loved, where I will spend eternity.
It’s just that this place, this side of the state, is as close as I’m going to get to home before I die. I’m glad to be here at last.
(Photo: The shipping container arrived last week. We’re under one roof again.)