We lived in temporary quarters for one month, within walking distance of the Brandenburg Gate, before moving to our permanent residence, a curious bureaucratic misnomer because we will live here, at most, for three years. There’s a built-in temporariness to life in the diplomatic corps, and the roots one tries to grow in a new place never feel deep enough at first, but then painfully deep when they get pulled up again.
I am ever looking for signposts that connect the far countries of my life.
My father’s father owned a sizeable amount of undeveloped land in upstate New York, a four-hour drive from the Levittown, New York, house that I called home for the first eight years of my life. As a child, I loved visiting my grandfather in his strange little cabin in the woods. We called him Papa, and his land, Thornwood. I wasn’t close to him, but as his descendant, I still felt connected to his land.
On visits north, our family would take hikes there in the spring, snowmobile through the trees when the ground was white, and drink from a freshwater spring that my dad knew how to find, hidden in the mossy ground. I wouldn’t have called it home, but I still thought of it as mine. In my adolescence I dreamed of mapping the land with paper and pen and making it a creative spiritual refuge. I made plans for it as if it were my inheritance.
Large stretches of Thornwood held tidy rows of red pines, their ruddy-brown branchless trunks stood like uniformed soldiers at attention, with a crowning green canopy of needles far, far above our heads. My dad helped to plant thousands of those pines with his family when he was a young boy. Their organic architecture formed a natural Gothic enclosure, drawing us up, dwarfing us by their stature.
My grandfather died when I was a young adult, married and still childless. The family agreed to sell the land, a wise decision that also brought an end to my imagined dreams for and fragile connections I had to it. On a flight to Albany for his funeral, I wrote about that loss, part of which reads:
I have some land in upstate New York too. Wooded—yes, very. Much more than I ever knew. And now the lights are out. . . .
. . . She in seat 8C says, ‘I think when you turn thirty, you become aware of dying.’ No, I think. Earlier than that.
After tours in various parts of the Middle East, we now make our residence here, in Berlin, within walking distance of the Grunewald, a sprawling, 11,000-acre forest on the western reaches of the city. Berliners come here to walk themselves and their well-behaved dogs. There’s a sixteenth century hunting lodge, Berlin’s oldest surviving palace, in the forest by a small lake. The descendants of the wild boar prized for hunting then still inhabit the forest, no longer hunted but no less fearful or wary.
When my parents visited over the Christmas holiday, I took them into the Grunewald to walk. On our return home, I led them through a huge grove of red pines. Without any prompt from me, looking up in recognition, my father said, “These are red pines. Just like the ones we planted in Thornwood.” We stood silently for a time in that inherited memory, in this far country.
Denise Levertov, a poet, once wrote:
An absolute patience. Trees stand up to their knees in fog.
. . . So absolute, it is no other than happiness itself, a breathing too quiet to hear.
I knew long before our family joined the Foreign Service that there is a built-in temporariness to life. Who among us does not feel the shifts of seasons, or reach out a searching hand in the fog of time? Who does not dream of an elusive home? Our roots, no matter how deep they dive, feel fragile in the soil of this world.
But there are signposts. A forest of red pine conjures memories of a home that was never really ours in the first place. They all point to something beyond themselves. The shifts of time unearth our longing for a permanent residence, unshakeable, immovable, wholly given and wholly ours. Scattered across this great globe, now and then, we stumble across gifts of happiness from a God who, kindly, with an absolute patience that the trees themselves were taught to imitate, guides us up into the security of his own life. In a grove of patient red pines, we breathe in his life-giving breath that is, for all the world’s noise, never too quiet to hear, never too far away.
Laura Merzig Fabrycky is a writer and poet. Her first collection of poetry, Give Me the Word, was published in 2015. Her writing has been published in Books & Culture, Review of Faith & International Affairs, Foreign Service Journal, and elsewhere. She blogs at Hobbes and a Hausfrau, on political theory and theology.
Welcome to a guest series I’m calling, “Home: Musings and Memories.” I’ve invited writers from all over the Internet to share their stories from home—in part, because I’ve just released a book called, Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home (IVP, May 2017). I believe home is our most fundamental longing, homesickness our most nagging grief. Most of all, I believe that the historic Christian faith has something to say about that desire and disappointment.
The story of Jesus is a home story.
Thanks for joining me and these other fantastic writers in our search for home—and the God who makes its hope possible.