Essays by Shana HutchingsThe Open Table Discussion Topics for January & February
My parents bought the house in 1987. It had been built, along with the other houses in the neighborhood, in 1976. The curved street a block from Dimond High School was filled with identical 3-bedroom ranch houses. We bought the house because we could walk to Chinook Elementary School and it was in our price range. It was one of two houses on the street raised by the owners to make it two stories. The basement was unfinished, full of concrete and hollow walls.
The previous owners, my parents told us in hushed tones, had to declare bankruptcy. Their missteps were paraded before us. The house was yellow, but half had been covered in cedar siding. The project had been aborted. The kitchen was full of new golden appliances. The bedrooms were each painted a different shade of blue. The carpets were dark brown shag. Each piece of the house represented a cautionary tale of excess. It was like moving into a tomb.
The house was like the neighborhood. In the middle of one of the streets, the houses just stopped, as if the builder ran out of money. Forests lined the streets, ready with signs and house numbers, but no houses. We ran wild in these woods, fallen birches becoming walls for houses and hills becoming bike jumps. When they finally finished building the neighborhood, when I was in high school, we made protest signs and stapled them on trees.
This was the Anchorage of my childhood. One filled with extremes. New churches, new restaurants, new strip malls popped up in the shadow of the unflinching Chugach mountains. A place where the teacher would ask who had been born in Alaska and only one student would raise a hand. A place where people created a new identity, for better or for worse, and where people left as quickly as they came.
I anchored myself to the unchanging landmarks, spending as much time as I could immersed in them. I’d bike for hours on the Campbell Creek Trail, sometimes sitting with a book on its banks. I’d pull over at the Transfiguration of the Lord Orthodox Church in Ninilchik and look out over Cook Inlet. I’d drive the Old Glenn Highway in the fall on my way out to have coffee at Vagabond Blues. I’d sit by Willow Creek, watching the salmon every summer. I’d watch the sunset, along with Mt Spurr and Mt Redoubt from the beach at Whiskey Gulch. I’d walk the downtown neighborhoods admiring the older homes while my parents played softball on the Park Strip. These place-based rituals grounded me in a land of constant change.
I’ve continued to hold this tension as I’ve moved through life. On the one hand, I’ve changed a lot. I’ve lived in five states since leaving Alaska 20 years ago. I earned the nickname Chameleon in college for changing my hair and major so many times. I’m always game to head out on adventure or try new foods. I married, mothered children, graduated from seminary. I’ve been in a state of perpetual pilgrimage. And I’ve held tight to the traditions of grounding myself to my place.
We bought our first house three years ago and moving into an established home and neighborhood has proven to be the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. I’ve grown used the constant motion that has been my life and I’ve been surrounded by others in constant motion. Moving into a home without thinking about the next destination has paradoxically made me feel more unsettled than ever. Being in graduate communities gave me an energy, a purpose. Now my life is filled with literal and metaphorical housekeeping tasks and sometimes seems to lack any sort of coherent meaning.
The stories of our faith tell of exile and rootlessness again and again. As Christians, we profess a belief that our only true home is with God. And I believe that. But I also feel like where we are and how we live in our places is of great importance. Perhaps this is the challenge of our time. How do we live faithful lives in our neighborhoods, jobs, families? It’s easy to feel like we’re on a pilgrimage when we’re literally on the road. But what about the pilgrimages we make daily in our offices, our homes, our churches where the road is more like a labyrinth? How do we remain faithful doing the messy, mundane activities of life and how do we reach out to our neighbors in these places? These are the questions I’m wrestling with as I start to do the hard work of staying put. It’s been a painful transition and I often feel like I’m flailing, but I do have faith the wrestling is not in vain.
“Luminaria, luminaria, in the noche, in the noche”
My daughter Emily had been singing this song as she played for weeks, in preparation for her upcoming winter concert at preschool. I knew the song well since she was in the same class last year and her older sister, Helen, had been in the class the two years before that. Helen had been so captivated by luminarias that she incorporated them into her games. She would be narrating a story at her dollhouse and I’d hear her say, “Helen, Lucy, and Sophia Clark took their luminarias and set off on a journey in the dark,” and off the dolls would go into the forest.
When the day of the concert arrived, I sat in the back row, and another parent offered to give me her program. I said with a laugh, “Oh, that’s okay, this is my fourth time here, so I already know all the songs by heart.” She gave me a strange look and turned around to watch the concert, clutching her program.
Her look matched the feeling I had after I uttered the sentence. Somehow in the hustle and bustle of changes in my life, we now belonged to this place. My children had been in this preschool for four winter concerts. This was our home. But it still didn’t feel like it.
“All of us have a lie that we hinge our entire lives on.”
I read this line the same week as my daughter’s concert. My lie came to my mind immediately. I stood in the kitchen and read the passage to my husband and asked him what he thought his lie was. He said he wasn’t sure. “Well,” I said, “I knew mine right way. It’s that I don’t belong.” He looked at me and we stood in silence for a few minutes, not sure what to say.
This lie has been so much a part of my being that I’ve always believed it to be true. Lies are like that. They only really have power if we believe them and they become truth over time.
As a child, I knew that my parents weren’t married when I was born, so when I had a disagreement with my father, I’d convince myself that he wasn’t really my father. My aunt gave birth to my cousin as a teenager, too, and never married his father, so I thought maybe this was the case for my mom, as well. When things didn’t seem quite right, my primary defense was that I didn’t really belong in my family. I even went so far as signing my name with my mother’s maiden name when I was in middle school as a way of asserting my secret identity. I didn’t really think about the fact that any guy who would remain totally absent in my life probably wasn’t any better than my father, I only thought about my need to feel like I belonged. And my family didn’t feel like that place. And the rootlessness permeated my entire life, making me feel chronically homeless.
“And you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”
In early elementary school, I discovered religion and that became my primary vehicle for belonging. Verses like this one comforted me when I felt alone and the rhythms of prayer and scripture gave meaning to my life. It helped anchor me, but never made me feel like I belonged. Rather, it left me feeling like I was constantly on a pilgrimage to find my home, my place, my people through the lens of faith. It was the catalyst, not the resting place.
As I sat and watched my daughter, several inches taller than her classmates because of her age, ringing her bells to the Ronettes rendition of “Sleigh Ride” I started to cry silently. Most of the parents were either recording the concert with their phones or making faces at their children, coaxing them into participation, but I was lost in sea of memories, remembering Helen, now in first grade, singing the same songs on the same stage. This, I thought, is our home. We belong here.
It occurred to me then that perhaps belonging was something that could happen despite myself. That maybe it wasn’t this magical feeling of connectedness I’d imagined it was. Maybe belonging was simply living life, giving and receiving the good and the bad. I’m still not sure, but I do know that as I watched Emily up on that stage, I knew I belonged in this place at this time. My faith has been like that, too. The moments God has felt most near have been the times I have allowed myself to live life and allow the presence of the holy to find me, usually through the kindness of others.
My hope is that allowing myself to belong to this place will bring about a change in the way I live, that I’ll be more rooted and able to serve others. That I’ll be more open to changes, less sensitive to slights, and an all-around more faithful person. But I know myself too well. It will be a challenge and I’ll fail a lot. I’m holding onto the image, though, of Emily and Helen singing holding their luminarias and singing, “Luminaria, luminaria, in the noche, in the noche” and hoping for that light to keep watch for me as I walk in this place.