I had it all memorized — the way some people memorize favorite songs, Bible verses, or math facts. That’s how I had my town memorized — by heart. I knew which sidewalk bulges could derail a Schwinn bike. I knew shortcuts through alleyways; funny bluish hairdos of hunched old ladies at church; the smell of the Farmer’s Co-op break room, which reeked of dust and cigarettes.
If I close my eyes, I can see it. Even more, I can feel it.
I’m five years old, pressing fingers into hot, bubbling road-tar in July. I’m eight, gripping the creaking, cool chains of swings at our town’s only playground. I’m twelve, diving deep into the depths of our town’s inky pond, flutter-kicking all the way to the bottom to grab handfuls of cold mud.
When you live in one town — one house — for your entire growing-up life, you can’t help but memorize every last inch of a place. In a town like that, your own self is everywhere long after you leave — on every street, library table, and ball field dugout.
I knew the place and the people, and they knew me. And that’s how I knew I had a secure place in this world.
For most of my childhood life, one woman, Kathy, cut my hair. Another woman, Marge, delivered my café cheeseburgers. One suited man, Harry, stood at the doorway of the Sliefert Funeral Chapel in town. He greeted us with soft pats on our backs, because he knew we were nervous about seeing another old church friend in a casket.
I knew where a lot of them would be buried years before they died. That’s because they had their gravestones set in place early — with blank spaces where a death date could be etched.
All that sameness might give some people a case of chronic itchy feet.
Me? I liked the stability. Sure, I had dreams of moving on. And I did move on. But no matter where I was, I wanted to know I belonged, like I did back home.
I confess this: As a child, I naively thought that most people lived like me — in one house, with stability and security. Of course, that’s not true.
Over the years, I’ve befriended women with very different stories that were downright unpredictable. I have asked them, “How did you find stability and security in life, even when things seemed to always be changing?” One friend told me she moved ten times before she was ten years old. “Stability came for me from two things. Dinner together every night (often by candlelight) and a father who always came home at the end of the day.” Another wrote that she had “nothing at all” stable in her own home. She found stability at the dinner tables of friends’ families. A woman who lived in foster care recalled how she was allowed to tape photos of her loved ones across the bedroom walls. It made her feel at home.
All of that, I think, reveals how we want a safe place in this world, in times of upheaval. Even more, we want to know we have a forever place. We long for heaven. It’s built into us, right into our hearts. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon writes: “He has planted eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
The older I get, the more I see it. The only unchangeable thing in life is this: God. “I am the Lord, and I do not change” (Malachi 3:6).
About a dozen years ago, our family began to attend a country church near our home. I learned a contemporary hymn, “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry,” often sung at funerals. Whenever I think of the song, my mind is flooded with memories of sad goodbyes. But it also reminds me of God’s with-ness, from the very beginning of life to the final moment. The song’s verses move from a person’s first “borning cry,” to baptism, to a life unfolding, to a wandering off “where demons dwell.” The song calls to remembrance how God is with us in the middle ages of life, how He guides us through the night, and finally how He is there with “one more surprise”: life eternal with God.
Until we reach that moment of surprise, we naturally reach out to find some kind of stability wherever we are — maybe at a dinner table, with a group of friends, in a church singing the hymns that make you sad/happy.
Or by revisiting the memorized streets of your own hometown.
Recently, I went back to that town. I walked along the bulging sidewalks. I visited the pond. I returned to the swings, hoping to fly once more, to feel that sensation of swinging higher still.
But when I turned the corner, I saw it: my swings were gone. The whole swing set had been dismantled. Even the little things that change can cause a twinge in one’s heart, a longing, and a quiet reminder that there’s only one thing — one Person — who will never, ever change.