In A Reader’s Guide to 2019, RELEVANT contributor Sharon McKeeman takes you through 2019 book by book, offering wisdom, analysis and recommendations along the way.
Our culture is driven by ownership. We often don’t feel we belong somewhere unless certain things belong to us. Our sense of place can be more affected by dollar signs and roadmaps than an appreciation for the Creator’s design. It can be tempting to feel that if we are not in the right place at the right time with the right people, then we can’t make a meaningful impact. All of this robs us of peace.
In Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace, Christie Purifoy asserts one can never truly own a place, but there are lessons to be learned, good to be done and peace to cultivate wherever we find ourselves. Purifoy’s predecessor to Placemaker, Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons, saw her family create a sanctuary in an old Victorian farmhouse called Maplehurst. Placemaker commences several years later as the Purifoys struggle to care for the home amid its inevitable disintegration. Trees are dying, windows crumbling and roofbeams disintegrating.
In Placemaker, Purifoy takes us back to the beginning of her marriage when she and her husband began to make a home. She shows us their recent investment in Maplehurst is not the pinnacle of a series of well-rehearsed moves, but instead an unlikely step God ushered her family to via many ups and downs. Each chapter in the book is named for the trees that are the constant in Purifoy’s story, and each tells of a different home she lived in as she and her husband crisscrossed the United States: a short-leased, friend-packed newlywed apartment, a restored and well-loved Chicago townhome, a suburban Florida house that never felt like home. There were places that brought a refining wilderness experience of isolation and loneliness. There were homes filled to overflowing and surrounded by community.
Through it all, Purifoy wonders how to justify putting down roots in a day of immigration issues and social unrest. She wonders if placemaking at home is meaningful when there is so much need everywhere. Can peace cultivated at home impact the greater community, even the world, for good? Her answer is yes: “Like the God to whom we belong, we are placemakers.”
As my family has traveled the country with the military, it has been a challenge to reconcile wanting to put down roots with the inevitable transiency of military life. While other friends buy homes their grandchildren will see, my family cannot call a house or even a state our own. However, belonging to Christ makes our ownership irrelevant.
Purifoy’s ancient farmhouse, Maplehurst, is surrounded by tumble-down structures and the brambles of fencerows. The maples that line the driveway are growing old and dying. One day, all the sweat and soul her family has poured into the home will fade back into the earth. But there will be trees that remain, living hundreds of years through the rise and fall of civilizations. When those trees fall, their seeds will carry on the Creator’s story of life and redemption. What humans build will eventually perish, but what God has created in the human soul and the cycles of nature will live on and be redeemed. There is no way to belong to that or own a piece of that. We can only belong to Him.
Purifoy believes we are to take after our Father by shaping places for the better, but we need to allow ourselves to be nourished by those places and acknowledge our placemaking efforts have complex ramifications. This world needs wild places just as our souls need times of spiritual wilderness.
Creation insists on in-between spaces where wildflowers and woodland creatures can take refuge along the outskirts of human development. As forests require some emptiness on their floors so new seedlings can grow and flourish, Purifoy reminds us we too need spaces of in-between. When pause is given to make space for beauty and peace, we create something necessary in this busy world. This can happen in the in-between of taking a year off between high school and college, or college and the workforce. It can happen in the middle ground of trying to decide on a career path, transitioning to singleness after a relationship or a general season of waiting for God’s direction. These aren’t times of treading water, but refinement. The Purifoys used these times to reach out and grow in community instead of waiting for everything to fall into place. We can do the same through something as simple as an invitation to share a meal or studying the Bible with a neighbor.
Purifoy tells of a time she fell in love with a species of tree and immediately began to strategize how to own a home that included one. She confesses: “I wanted to make this tree my own. I was waking up to the beauty of the natural world around me, but I thought in terms of control and consumption rather than responsibility… I did not ask myself what it might require of me to belong to a place where such beauty could flourish, only whether it might be possible for such beauty to belong to me.”
Some transformative life experiences led Purifoy to a different realization about these questions of ownership, belonging, appreciation and responsibility. Her view shifted: “When we release our grip on ownership and consent to be small, we create space—for trees, for animals, for other people.
“We are making a garden. We are making a place for flowers. Only wait and see what will grow in the emptiness,” she says. We cannot consume our way to peace, or insist we are at home. Only God can give us peace and a home. When we receive them, we can then offer them to our neighbor, whether that be a shared meal or a nourishing patch of earth.
We all have some history with placemaking, and it has probably been a mix of experiences and results for most. Purifoy reminds us sometimes placemakers build something new, but often they repair, restore and protect. “Sometimes placemaking is nothing more than the refusal to unmake.”
She goes on to say placemaking is a kind of peacemaking, between people, families, communities and our connection with the earth.
In Florida, the Purifoys found themselves walled off from community by windows shut to hold in the air conditioning, but at Maplehurst they would throw open windows to catch afternoon breezes and invite over the neighbors. This is the fight to keep from unmaking a community. Purifoy insists we make a place by remembering both what it is and who we are. We make a place for peace when we get in touch with who God has designed us to be and step outside our comfort zone to know those around us. We cannot do this inside air conditioned houses with the windows shut tight. It takes discomfort and courage to sow seeds of connection and peace.
Forests and gardens are messy, but alive, and while community can be messy, it is where the lifeblood of human existence lies. In our dreams we live in the perfect place, own what we need, know the right people, work a fulfilling job and see our future all planned out. Purifoy acknowledges we’re drawn to comfort, certainty and success, but she asserts predictable, easy-to-manage things cannot feed our soul. We must make peace with our own soul and acknowledge our heavenly Father is more than enough for us. When we are at peace with our own frailty we can offer grace to others. This is placemaking.
And placemaking props us up even when difficult steps lay ahead. Purifoy’s brother-in-law was killed while serving in the military, and amid the grief her family planted an oak tree in his honor at Maplehurst. “We do the work of heaven when we bring order to the world around us through placemaking.”
At the end of the book Christie travels from Maplehurst back to Chicago, wondering if placemaking endures after we leave. Her conclusion: It is not our achievements that echo the longest. It is the small seeds of kindness and peace we plant. They will not be lost because God longs to make His home within us and Christ came to his friends in a garden. Purifoy’s hope is that “we complete such small tasks, yet with each one, the whole earth moves nearer to a promised future.”
Placemaking will often feel impotent to solve the heartaches in this world, but it will lead us to somewhere trees live longer than we imagine, weeds encroach on gardens, people are messy and brilliant at the same and we are small and completely loved. Placemaking reminds us what really matters cannot be owned but instead must be cultivated. Purifoy calls us to make a garden, share a meal and help a neighbor. In so doing, we prepare a place for peace.
Sharon is a writer, photographer and educator, living in Southern California. You can find more of her work on Instagram @sharonmckeeman and at www.sharonmckeeman.com.