When Covid-19 disrupted our family vacation plans for the summer, it felt like just one more disappointment to pile on the already big heap of losses. But my wife, daughters and I regrouped and came up with another idea. Since it looked like we were going to be spending a lot of time at home this summer, what if we took up the spiritual practice of placemaking?
So we took the money saved up for vacation and decided to invest it in a couple ways (the latter being a much costlier investment): planting a garden and remodeling our basement. It’s turned out to be one of the most life-giving and meaningful summers we’ve had in a while, even with the constraints and so much stress and uncertainty.
In her wonderful book Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty and Peace (Zondervan, 2019), Christie Purifoy defines placemaking as “deliberately sending your roots deep into a place, like a tree. It means allowing yourself to be nourished by a place even as you shape it for the better” (p.12).
I like that. Allowing yourself to be nourished by a place…even as you shape it for the better. For good and for ill, we play a part in shaping the places we live, which in turn shape us.
Purifoy points out that as creatures, we were never meant to merely consume the gifts of creation. Genesis reveals that our vocation as divine image-bearers has always been to collaborate with and participate in the triune God’s work of tending and cultivating the places in which we have been placed. “Making and tending good and beautiful places is not a dishonorable retreat. It is a holy pursuit” (p.9). Placemaking is essential for our own flourishing, the flourishing of others and the entire creation. It’s God-honoring, holy work.
So I planted a garden for the first time in my adult life. My neighbor Neal, who I affectionately refer to as my “Gardening Yoda,” brought over his tiller and helped me break up the hard, stubborn ground. He gave me some tips on how to plant, and then I went for it. I got down on my hands and knees and started playing in the soil, beads of sweat gliding down my bald head and dirt crammed under my finger nails. Every morning I go out to water and walk the rows and gingerly inspect the different plants springing up—green beans, brussels sprouts, tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet corn (my peas and lettuce didn’t quite make it). And about every other day I’m out pulling weeds (I forgot how everything grows so quickly in the rich Iowa soil and dogged humidity, including weeds!).
So there’s the garden. And then there’s the basement. This one’s been a lot more work, remodeling that tired, old space as we anticipate the arrival of our new granddaughter in October (she and her mother will be living with us). I’m not “handy” by nature any more than I naturally have a “green thumb.” But once more, we decided to just jump in and go for it. Ripping up old carpet, washing down walls and filling in cracks, putting on fresh paint, sanding wood panels and restoring the whole thing with an aura of new creation.
Here’s the remarkable thing about both of these projects: engaging them has truly been a spiritual practice for me. Being a placemaker, tending the soil of a garden and restoring a tired basement, has helped me to slow down, open my eyes, and attend to the physicality and nuances of the place where I am.
It’s been hard work and at times exhausting, but it’s a good kind of exhaustion. The kind of work that has awakened me to God’s presence in this place, nourished my own soul, and strengthened relationships not just with my wife and daughters but with our neighbors (sharing our produce with others in the neighborhood has brought so much joy and connection). It has also reminded me of just how embodied we are as human beings, which is much needed in this season of all things digital where so much feels like “placeless-ness” or what James Howard Kunstler calls “a geography of nowhere.” But we can only exist somewhere, and we really are inescapably a placed people. “To be rooted,” wrote the great philosopher Simon Weil, “is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”
What would it look like for you to embrace your calling as a placemaker, right where you are? It doesn’t need to be a major project and it need not require lots of money or skill and talent. It can involve small steps, little acts carried out with humility and love for the places where we dwell, and a deep reverence for the God who has placed us there and to whom every place belongs.