Spiritual Practice

Leaving Familiar, Learning to Love New Places

I’m pretty sure no one calls New Jersey a wilderness, but given that it will be new to me, given that it will be my personal next Unknown, at least for awhile, this piece of wisdom from beloved Wendell Berry has caught my attention:

Wendell Berry

By the time this is posted, I will haven driven away from the familiar place that has been my home for these past two-plus decades.  I will have driven away from Paradise (so declared in 1851 by a visiting Swedish opera singer).

It has been a good place to be.  Not milquetoast good. But deeply, profoundly good.

A good place to raise my children. To be part of Community (big C) and communities. To find my faith. To deepen my spiritual practices. To ground and strengthen my voice.  To be rooted here. To call this home. To let become part of my soul.

I don’t know if that last part always happens: that the place where you are becomes part of your soul. Or maybe it does, but not always for the better. Without a doubt, this has been for the better.

During these years of being in the Pioneer Valley (aka Happy Valley), I have not always lived in Northampton/Florence. There were those eighteen months in Leverett at the base of Mt. Toby – beautiful, but too far away. There were those nearly two years on Maple Street (that coincided with my meeting my children) and six months in an apartment over a pizza shop on Union Street  in Easthampton – a time of deep loss and transition for me.


Northampton/Florence is not an easy place to afford, but with gumption and help from a beloved great aunt dying at just the right time, I have always returned to Florence (more so than Noho or Hamp) and been fortunate enough to be able to have my home in this small town with its own zip code within Paradise City.

I have sat in reverence at the foot of the statue of Sojourner Truth, been thankful for those community members who made this bronze tribute happen. I have delighted in the amazing work of Steve Strimer and all the folks at the David Ruggles Center who have made come alive the history of African Americans in Florence (10% of the population until the damn Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 sent them north to Canada or elsewhere for their own safety). I have loved walking the trails at Fitzgerald Lake, such an easy way to be near water.

Image by Lynne Graves
Image by Lynne Graves

I used to live in an old farmhouse — one that was closer to the village of Florence than the one we just sold, which is kinda in the outer suburbs. In that old farmhouse, I would climb the stairs to the attic and I could look out at the Mill River, which bounded my property. Each spring, I watched the generous snowmelt make wild that quiet flow of water that hardly earned its title as “river.”  There was the time, though, when a hundred-year flood came, covered our backyard with a current of water moving of its own accord, taking our trampoline with it, depositing it in the yard of a home several lots away.

Oh, so many stories that I leave behind, that will likely go the way of all memories: faded into forgotten. It is a practice in letting go, a practice in non-attachment.

Which I welcome, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve got other plans. Becaus

Rocks from the Mill River
Rocks from the Mill River

e even though I am leaving this place, this ground, this earth I have called home, I have decided to bring some of it along with me.

These past few weeks, I have collected rocks from here to bring to there (Central New Jersey).   This is standard behavior for me, with which my spouse puts up most of the time.  I’ve blogged about it.  I recently conducted a wedding at which the whole wedding party created a rock cairn in the backyard of the two women getting married; I ended up donating most of my rock collection to that delightful endeavor (though I did keep the very special one I have from the ruins where the medieval Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen was a novice).

Just over a foot wide, round and heavy, from the Chesterfield Gorge

So in the back of my car, along with some plants,  I have rocks from the Mill River (including a quite worn and rounded red brick that now looks like a stone). Last week I walked the Chesterfield Gorge with my mentor, as we have often done over the years.  I asked him (and he happily obliged my request) to carry a rather big rock from the Westfield River for the two miles left of our walk together.  And, of course, there are a few utterly nondescript and homely rocks from my garden.

But then there are these beauties from Goshen:

That long thin one? It is about six feet tall!

I did not collect these.  These, I paid for (like many people do around here — they make beautiful walls and flagstones for pathways).  I went to the quarry — twice! — and picked them out myself, anticipating these visits with great verve.  I’ve got some ideas about what I will do with these hunks of place, but first I will let the land in Central New Jersey have some say about how and where these rocks will become part of what is the earth to which I will return day after day, evening after evening, night after night.  Some will be at my new home, but I won’t be surprised if some of this hearty, heavy earth shows up on the land and in the building that my new congregation stewards.

Before I came to this place I am now leaving, I loved the place from which I (and generations of my family before me) came. I did not feel than anything could compete. I still feel that way about certain aspects of that long-ago-left place: the landscape of ocean and mountain, the moistness of air that grows moss from the trees.

Though it was not immediate and it was never guaranteed, I have come to love this place, this landscape, these people.  I have let it into my soul.  I have come to know it as home. As I move into this next part of my life, moving through thresholds known and unknown, my heart open to the unknown and grieving what I leave behind, as is often true in my life, I am counting on this truth:

Anne Michaels quoteI have loved this place of Paradise through and through. I will bring this deepened capacity to love place with me, so that I might root myself in my new place, learning to love it, befriending the earth where I will stand, walk, weep, and delight.

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