Today from my front porch I can see the farthest range possible, so often obscured by the smoky haze that earned these mountains their name. My husband and youngest son are on the far side of those mountains, unloading the pickup and preparing to have dinner with our older daughter and her family. A part of my heart longs to be with them, playing with the grandbaby and sharing the joys of new motherhood with the grown child who has become one of my closest friends.
Yet the peacefulness of this moment has been a need for some weeks now, and my regret, while real, is not enough to spoil it. A warm wind blows my hair about my face. The ornamental pears in my neighbors’ yards, solid white three days ago, flaunt their spring green, while our dogwood appears afraid of another late frost, its blooms still closed and brown. A robin hopping beneath its boughs challenges it to faith.
The dense, bright clouds rimming the horizon look almost as solid and unchanging as the mountains and the sky they rest between, reminding me that while change is inevitable, it is not always obvious or immediate. I will look up in a minute or a year and see the difference.
This is where I live, and I love the landscape and, more importantly, the people whose lives have become enmeshed with mine. Yet it will never be home.
Oh, I know that no place here below the heavens will ever fully satisfy heart and soul. I am a pilgrim in the earth, made for something beyond this immediate reality, and I realize that my deepest longings have to do with eternity. But on this peaceful afternoon, looking out over the mountains, I am contemplating earthly longings and the vitality of place.
In the Southern literature I love, place seems almost a sentient being, a character, not mere setting. Raised in Kansas by Southern parents who longed for home and returned almost the day my father retired, their sense of place took root somewhere deep inside me, to blossom only after home was no longer the place I lived.
I love the Smokies. Majesty clothed in towering pines, laced with the delicate pink and white of innumerable dogwoods, punctuated with sudden bursts of wild color in every clearing and valley, they tell me much of nature, God, and man. But they are perhaps too rich for me, too lush. Raised in the gently rolling hills and austere plains of Kansas, I was made for a life more grounded in the astonishing vastness of the ordinary.
I learned the majesty of God in expansively variegated sunsets and endless starlit skies, in swaying fields of ripening wheat and golden sunflowers stretching to the horizon, in redbuds and poplars and dutch elms, in solitary oaks centered in acres of roughly woven pasture lands. These images have shaped in me a sense of limitless possibility and unexpected beauty in the midst of the most mundane and simple affairs of life. I do not experience heights and depths of emotion so much as immense rushes and minute intensities. I move easily from focus on a particular face to awe at the magnitude of friendship. A single daisy expands to hold the universe; the universe exquisitely contracts into the welcome-home hug of my son as he eagerly describes his day.
As beautiful as these mountains are, as much as I love them, still they enclose me, cut me off from the horizon. Perhaps my longing for home is simply my need to be surrounded by possibility again, to physically see the horizon expanded beyond eternity . . . to remember and embrace my own unique perspective without comparison to others that may seem richer and more desirable merely because they are not mine.
The day is closing, one more day spent in a bittersweet exile. The clouds have stretched and grown to mosaic the sky, the farthest range once more obscured by their haze. Yet I somehow find myself content to know that the distance contains home even as it lives within me, that home, however far away, is inevitably part of the ever-changing, ever-growing mosaic of my life.