Coming Home

My favorite part of traveling is coming home.

I tried to think of a way to explain this without sounding like a boring and ethnocentric ass, but it’ll be easier to just tell the truth.

I like America, a lot. Not in an overly patriotic “God Bless America” kind of way (I’m pretty sure millennials aren’t allowed to think like that) but in a lifestyle kind of way. It’s the little things that make me defend my nation to naysayers (who are, by the way, often American): 24/7 grocery stores, air conditioning, big cups of coffee, etc. Nothing idealistic or political, just the things that make my life as I know it easier and more comfortable. Do I think America is the best country on earth? No, of course not. Do I think it’s the best country for me, a happy American? Yes, I do. Continue reading →

God is For Cities

My church is in the midst of an initiative that we’re calling For the City – an effort to pray and raise funds for the renovation of the historic building that we recently purchased. The name of this initiative is based on our motto “a church for the city,” and (bias aside) I love it. My interest in urbanism and place-making has been pretty clear on this blog. This is something that has developed in me over the past few years, which is why it’s important for me to be a part of a church that aims to be for its city. These interests of mine are in part just dorky and academic. But ultimately they are rooted in something much more substantial: God is for cities, so I (and the church) should be too.

This might be a strange concept for mainstream contemporary Christianity (especially evangelicalism). We know that God is for individual people and for churches. God is for the poor and for the broken. “God loves you, Alyssa.” “For God so loved the world…etc.” But growing up, I never really heard much about God being for cities or places. So let’s unpack this a little bit. Continue reading →

Developing a City-View

Well-educated people who move to cities are expected to become rather cosmopolitan. Literally rubbing shoulders with dozens of cultures while simultaneously participating in our global economy, these people quickly surpass the limitations of their youth. They learn to interact and live peacefully with people who are quite different from them. They eat stuff that their mothers can’t pronounce, which contain ingredients not sold in suburban grocery stores. Their worldviews are stretched, shattered, and reformed to fit the big world in which they are now a part.    5TAMgojTx

It’s been a little over a year since I started living, working, shopping, socializing, relaxing, and church-going almost exclusively in Philly, and in some ways I’ve become or am becoming one of these cosmopolitan people. However, more than this, I’ve noticed my worldview not expanding as much as it is contracting. What might have once been a worldview has gradually developed into a city-view. Places shape us deeply and affect our paradigms – Philly is affecting mine.

Anyway, given this realization and my recent Philly-versary, I thought it would be fun to reflect on the various ways that this place has warped my logic. In no particular order:

1. I sometimes forget what it’s like to be in a building that is less than 10 years old…

2. …or on a street that was built after cars were invented.

3. I’ve developed a deep mistrust for strip malls and chain restaurants.

4. I’ve gotten pretty good at the transportation logic puzzle (“Should I drive?” “Where will I park?” “Should I bike?” “Will it rain?” “How will I carry my stuff?” “Should I take the subway?” “Do I have enough tokens?” “Is walking an option?” “What about a cab?”), but sometimes I wish that I didn’t have to play it every time I leave my house.

5. I’ve grown accustomed to all of the smells, and all the trash everywhere.

6. My physical comfort zone has expanded, as my standards for what constitutes as a “bad neighborhood” have shifted dramatically (and for the better!).

7. Recently I was outside of the city and hungry. I drove around for a while looking for “something that I couldn’t find in Philly,” until I realized that that’s nearly impossible.

8. When I go more than a day or two surrounded only by white people speaking English, I feel mildly uncomfortable.

9. I think “ugh, tourists” on a regular basis (usually after almost hitting them with my car or bike).

10. It’s become normal for me to regard neighborhoods other than my own as distant or novel, even if they’re literally blocks away.

11. Likewise, my default small talk is to ask people about their neighborhoods.

12. I’ve come to expect and prepare for petty theft. And mice.

13. I can’t remember the last time I saw a squirrel, though I did encounter a raccoon the other night. It made me more nervous than it would have if it was a person rooting through my neighbor’s trash. Wildlife is fascinating, and terrifying.

14. I’m so used to one-way streets that I become extremely confused/apprehensive when cars in the next lane are driving toward me.

15. “Getting away from it all” usually just means going to the suburbs for a few hours.

Rest(lessness)

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This used to be my front yard. Ugh.

I recently spent the evening with some old friends, watching videos and reminiscing on the four months that we spent in Italy during our junior year of college. We laughed a lot as we watched ourselves on the screen, seeing and doing things for the first time all over again – things which are now videos and memories. And with those memories came a flood of emotion. As I watched my past-self, I felt once again how she felt in that time and place.

Nostalgia can kind of be like a drug, but I don’t think that’s entirely what was going on that night. As I watched myself, I remembered how much more content I was. During those months, I wanted the days and weeks to drag on – I never wanted to leave. Our lives in Italy consisted of cooking, drinking, dancing, adventuring, reading, and occasionally going to class. We had no real obligations or responsibilities. In the years since, I haven’t been so carefree.

Experiencing some of those feelings again that night, I wanted to go back. And at some point it occurred to me: I can. There’s nothing significant keeping me here. I could quit my job, drain my bank account, and head back to Europe for a season. I could spend my days writing and adventuring, not worrying about my household or career. It would be the most irresponsible thing I’ve ever done, but it – and I – would be so interesting.

I have significant theological objections to transience, so I don’t entertain these ideas on a whim, nor do I take them lightly. Still, the temptation is there.

Driving home that night, I tried to digest these feelings a little bit and move on. My city’s skyline came into view, and I felt that familiar rush of pride. (I’ve seen so many beautiful things, yet I’m such a sucker for Philly’s skyline). The radio played in the background: “we’re far, far from home and we’re so happy,” and the juxtaposition of sight and sound was striking. I just kept driving. What else was I to do?

That was two months ago. I’m still here.

St. Augustine begins his Confessions beautifully: “For Thou has made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until the rest in Thee.” I remind myself of this often, because restlessness is easy and popular, but also unavoidable, and inescapable. We will never be fully content, fully happy, in Philly or Europe, as a barista or a CEO. Outside of the Kingdom, our hearts are restless. All we can do is wait until we rest in Thee.

Home & Identity

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Photo courtesy of Philly.com.

Last week, the iconic diner in my hometown burned down. This was one of those places that is central to small town life, where people of all ages would gather day and night to linger over mediocre food and coffee. The Crystal Lake Diner sat perched on a hill overlooking one of Haddon Township’s main throughways. Driving in from Philly, it was one of the first things to greet you, no matter what time you got home. For many people, this was a place loaded with memories and meaning – the public reaction to its untimely demise reflected this. For me, the days following the news of this loss were met with a distant but lurking sadness, much like that which would accompany the news of the sudden passing of a childhood acquaintance.

I’ve been thinking about my hometown and what it means to me since before I left it over five years ago. When I was graduating high school, I thought that I would get over it. But I haven’t. Being away from it – on the Main Line, in Italy, back on the Main Line, and now in South Philly – and experiencing this big world, reading the great books, asking existential questions, has only made me appreciate it more deeply.

A couple of months ago, I returned home to Haddon Township for something random. It was an ordinary trip. At the time, I was experiencing a season of millennial angst, unsure about myself and what I was doing with my life. Full of questions and an ironic desire for instability, I found myself in Haddon Township. And for the few hours that I was there, I felt exceptionally safe, and sure, and okay with myself. This will sound strange, but I think that some of that comfort comes from physically navigating the town. I know Haddon Township so well – the buildings, stop signs, curves in the road – that when I’m driving around it I have no doubts. The act of moving about my neighborhood is second nature. These familiar places are a part of who I am, in a very bodily way.

Haddon Township has always been a part of my identity. I’ve understood this for a while now, but I’m beginning to realize just how important that is. Who I am is rooted in a tangible place – a place that has meant something to a lot of people for hundreds of years. It’s not going anywhere. It will continue to be home to many people no matter what I do. A significant part of my identity is entirely external to me, my job, my relationships, my achievements. For an angsty, unstable, and introspective millennial, this is so comforting.

I suspect that I am not alone in this. Many people never leave Haddon Township, and those who do often return, bringing with them their families, education, and experiences. There’s a reason for this. There’s nothing particularly exceptional about this mundane little suburb, but for those that live there, being “from Haddon Township” tends to be much more than a piece of personal trivia.

And this is why, when a tangible symbol of our town and its community suddenly perishes, it genuinely hurts. That mediocre diner, like the town itself, was a part of many lives and identities. It ought to be mourned it like a childhood acquaintance.