Like most people of my generation, I grew up in the suburbs, in a cookie-cutter house in a subdivision with streets of non-descript names that tracked no heritage --- names like Fernwood, Gracewood, Ramblewood --- names chosen more for their marketing appeal than their legacy. In one sense, I could have stumbled into any suburb of that era and found myself among a similar people in similar houses on streets with similar names, just one kid among many, all different and yet all terribly the same. Of course, I thought nothing of it then. I slept out under the stars with my friends, just lying on a blanket in the grass. My grass. It was a life, my life, and a place, my place.
And yet it was my place.
In the vocabulary of most urban planners, suburb is a word uttered with some disdain. And yet for all their well-documented problems, I reject the idea that suburbs are simply places that are lifeless, deadening in their sameness, in their conformity. Why? Because human beings are made in the image of a creative and personal God, our individual personalities --- our beliefs about what is true, good, and beautiful --- always assert themselves. We are not all the same.
In the corner of my backyard, in my corner of suburbia, are two stones. They mark the places where two beloved animals were laid to rest, not forgotten but remembered, even here. If I lie in my hammock and close my eyes, I can see my old dog now, shepherding my then two-year old son around the yard, carrying a stick. I can hear the chatter one makes, the panting of the other, feel the hot breath on my arm and a slightly soggy stick placed on me, a tiny hand on my arm, the question hanging in the air: "Will you play now?" Those memories make my backyard different than yours, as they are rooted here.
There's something to be said for staying put, for letting your life and memories take root and grow in a place. Even in suburbia.
Maybe that's the problem. Americans are people on the move. Maybe most people don't pause in a place long enough to call it home. Or not for long. Our memories travel with us, not having time to attach to place. That's our lack.
And yet it's not my lack.
I live here, not there. The fence that separates me from my neighbor is much more than just a geographical barrier. In many ways, that very similar looking house next door is a different world. Memories are being made there.
Part of this is nostalgia, of course, a middle-aged man remembering fondly another time, and yet the past informs the present. The permanence I seek in remembrance is frustrated, of course, as we are pilgrims on this earth, and yet remembering is a dress rehearsal for a time when past, present, and future will be bound up in one Place. Jesus, after all, said he was going to prepare a place for us. No longer will we be sojourners but permanent residents of a place that is altogether familiar and new every morning.
A friend, Richard, told me this weekend that sometimes he just goes out in a corner of his backyard and lies down and takes a nap in the grass. I'll keep that image as one that profoundly suggests the importance of settling into a place. Of course, in the next breath Richard also said there's "nothing he likes better than a good head-scratch." He's full of profundities.
Next time you're in the backyard, lie down in the grass, will you? It's your place, after all.