Friday, May 19, 2017

Keeping Place

In my last blog post, I reflected on my own longing for home and simply mentioned Jen Pollock Michel's book, Keeping Place. I've been needing a book like Jen's for a very long time as she addresses many of my own reasons for always longing for home. I believe others will find her book to be a rich read. Today, I'm posting a Q&A with Jen, allowing her to speak about her reasons for writing this book.

Why write a book about home? Is it your experience as a wife and mother that most informs this book or something else? 

There’s no doubt that my experience of making a home for my family these past twenty years has informed the writing of this book. But Keeping Place isn’t only meant for wives and mothers. In fact, I think the longing for home is a human longing. It’s not particular to women. Men feel it, too—even if they might characterize that longing in different ways. 

I’ve spent my entire life searching for home. Partially this is because I’ve experienced so much loss in my life: the premature death of my father, the suicide of my brother, a sometimes emotionally distant relationship with my mother. It’s also true that home has been elusive simply because I’ve been so geographically mobile, somehow ending up in Toronto as an American expat. 

These life experiences springboard a Scriptural exploration throughout the book. I want to hear what God has to say about the longings for and losses of home.

What’s the challenge of writing a book about home for both women and men? 

I recently had coffee with a young woman from church, and at the end of our conversation, she said that she looked forward to my book on “homemaking.” Later, I couldn’t help but wonder if she imagined a book of recipes, table setting ideas, and the best way to organize a linen closet.  

I think that’s the fear: that men will see a book on the topic of home and immediately think it’s a book meant for their wives or mothers or sisters. That’s why the history of home is a really fundamental part of this book (chapter 2). I want to trace how home was once a shared space for residence and commerce and industry up until the Industrial Revolution. That historical analysis might sound sort of heady, but it’s really meant to provide a backdrop for the way that we read the Bible, which never talks about “home” as something which women are solely responsible for.

What books have influenced you to keep a wider perspective in your home-keeping? 

I really do see Keeping Place as having resonance with a lot of the great work that’s being done on theology of place. In particular, I really appreciated the early chapters of Craig Bartholomew’s Where Mortals Dwell, because it makes the case for God’s good gift of place. I have also loved books like C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison’s Slow Church, which I believe help us see the role that the local church can play to “keep place” in our cities. And a perennial favorite is also Kathleen Norris’s The Quotidian Mysteries. Beyond that, it’s always been important to me to read outside of my own experiences: books like Kent Annan’s Slow Kingdom Coming and D.L. Mayfield’s Assimilate or Go Home would be two examples.

How do you combine motherhood, writing and speaking? How does your home-making life practically work in the day-to-day? 

A lot of my day is taken up with the practical care of my family, especially because I’m the primary parent for our five kids. And even though I’m the first person to try and find help when I need it (I pay someone to clean my house, someone else to do virtual assistant work for me), there’s also something irreducible about the labor that love requires. I have five kids and a very busy executive husband, which means that my work life is sometimes more constrained than I would like it to be because of my responsibilities at home. I can’t accept every speaking invitation I want to. I can’t write on every topic that interests me. I can’t stay connected on social media (even if truthfully, I don’t really want to). But I think this is what it means to be human. We are limited.

Who do you hope is reading this book, and what do you hope they will gain? 

I suppose it’s fair to say that women like me will probably read the book, and I hope that they’ll come earlier to the realization that their home is a shared responsibility with their husbands. This “sharing” benefits children, for sure—who need both mom and dad fully engaged at home. It also gives women permission when other God-given callings sometimes call us away from home. 

But I hope it’s not just women like me reading the book. I’d love to see women and men who aren’t married, who aren’t parents, find ways they can have and make home today, especially in their local churches and communities. I’d like for people to catch a vision for justice in the world—to see that the gospel isn’t solely a spiritual endeavor to save souls but that it also inspires practices of caring for physical bodies and environments. 

And if I could just dream a bit, I’d love for someone on the margins of faith, maybe even on the outside looking in, to read this book and start making sense of the life and death, resurrection and return of Jesus Christ. Sadly, when we get to telling that story, we often use a vocabulary that people are not familiar with. But what if we could talk about the promises of the gospel through the lens of home?

Last question: isn’t there a DVD video series to accompany the book? 

There is! It’s meant as a teaching companion to the book, and what I especially love about the videos (and something I can claim NO credit for) are the personal stories shared in each of the five sessions. Women talk about their dreams for home, their disappointments of home. I think it makes it really relevant to our everyday lives. You can watch the trailer here or buy the DVDs at


Buy: (30% Promo code for book/DVD: READKP)

Tuesday, May 16, 2017


Our family loves to drive past our old homes in Massachusetts and Virginia, trying to catch a glimpse and a memory of the rooms we once inhabited, the place where we loved and laughed, cried and fought. We critique the changes the new owners made, wonder why they took down that tree fort built by our sons’ young hands, cut down the tall trees out back, or why they changed our favorite paint color.

 My childhood friend owns a home in the same Cape Cod neighborhood where my grandparents once lived. When I visit her, we walk over to my grandparent’s old house and stand at the end of the driveway. I silently long for my grandmother to walk out the breezeway door and invite me in for her homemade clam chowder and gather me up for one more walk along her beach over to the boathouse—our final destination where we always turned back for home. She’s been gone a very long time.
Once, my twins stood outside our old home in Virginia after our move to Illinois. The new owner recognized them and kindly came outside, saying, “You used to live here, didn’t you?” When they nodded, she invited them inside to take a look. They respectfully declined.
We can never really go home. My twins knew the house wouldn’t be the same. They knew they wouldn’t find our Brittany spaniel sitting by the backdoor, watching the squirrels. Their room would be painted a different color with different furnishings and Godzilla their bearded dragon lizard would be gone. Their brothers wouldn’t be inside listening to music, playing guitar, or reading.

Our home during my teen years in Massachusetts.
Recently, I’ve discovered I can find my old homes online by typing the address into Google and watching the most recent Real Estate ad pop up. In the case of our old home in Massachusetts, I caught a glimpse of the rooms where we lived, the grape arbor in the backyard, the renovations the new owners made to improve the place.

But the irony of longing for these old days, these old homes, is that while I lived there, I longed for home somewhere else. As a young person, I assumed everyone else’s home was more peaceful than my own turbulent home. When my sons were growing up and I had found the family I always longed for, a part of me still longed for a more ordered home, some idyllic place where I would never feel the anxieties of this world and the push of needing something, anything 
I know now that my imagined home doesn’t exist anywhere on earth. I know this because of my skewed thought process when I look into lighted windows on my evening walks in our neighborhood, imagining the lives of the occupants, thinking surely they have fewer problems than me, better health, more robust financial portfolios. Surely they live in the perfect home, that place where I want to live. I imagine their lives with symphonic music playing quietly in the background, the lighting dim and warm, the bookshelves lined with great material. An easy chair sits by an ottoman laden with stacks of books and literary journals. Someone reads there with a cup of hot tea by their elbow while the smell of dinner wafts from the kitchen. In the cold weather, a fire burns warmly in the room. Voices are quiet or silent in this safe, safe place where strife ceases to exist.

This imagined home is a mere fantasy, a mirage in most cases. Many of the homes I pass likely have worries over bills, grief over the tension between spouses when one reclines in the basement watching sports for hours on end and one uses their tongue to slice and dice people. But here’s the puzzling part. Why create this phantom life in my mind when my home today fits the lovely description above, a comfortable refuge for us and for others who visit? My home may not be luxurious or fit for Home and Garden magazine, but it’s the kind of home that just might be the best you can find on earth, despite its small size and simple furnishings. Everyone feels welcome and safe here. We enjoy a steady stream of rich company and great conversation around the table, creating memorable moments.
Yet I continue to imagine home elsewhere as a place where strife truly ceases to exist, where some sort of internal longing quiets. Even as I write these words, I hear the absurdity. Could it be, as Jen Pollock Michel writes in Keeping Place, that we are “hardwired” for a true home? Will our souls only recognize this place when we find it finally satisfies all our longings?
I write about homes a lot, especially old New England homes with their sturdy construction and the way they’ve passed the test of time still standing through nor’easters and New England winters. I long for permanency provided by one of these colonials or farmhouses that when I walk through their doors, I stop searching for a new and different home. Despite all the houses where I’ve lived, I’ve never stopped longing or found my true home here. Yet I hear its call on those evening walks through my neighborhood, on those internet searches to find my old abode, on those visits to past residences, in my longings to move someplace warmer, less expensive, closer to the ocean. C.S. Lewis wisely describes this longing in Mere Christianity: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”  
Some may attribute my longings to my own failing, my own lack of contentment and craving for what others have, and at some level, this may be true. But I know I mostly feel deep contentment in my life, which adds to the perplexing state of my longings.
In the meantime, instead of entertaining fantasies that the perfect home exists in another state or in my past, I will sit down by the fire, relish the good and safe conversation in the home I do have as it images a future home.
I’d love to recommend a more in-depth reflection on this topic. Jen Pollock Michel’s Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home addresses this innate longing uniquely and with far more detail than this brief post. I’m so enamored with her book that I want to buy multiple copies and pass it out to my friends. So many people long for something this world doesn’t offer. I’d love to hear if you are one of them. In my next post, I’ll be sharing a Q & A from Jen’s thoughts on this topic. But for now, enjoy this excerpt from her book:
In the foreword of Jen's book, Scott Saul writes, "Keeping Place is both memoir and rich biblical theology, and is, in all of its parts, an aroma of the Home for which we are made and for which we are destined. With wit, candor, a good bit of humor, and with transparent glimpses into her home, her history, her travels, her travails, her worship, her marriage, her table, her rest, and her longings—Jen offers an oasis for all of us who are homesick."

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