My heart raced and my throat tightened, two of my trademark anxiety symptoms. I had no appetite for breakfast, so I downed an instant breakfast protein shake. No, I wasn’t getting ready to go skydiving. I was driving my kids to school, and I was thinking again, “I just don’t like this place.” My discontent festered in my stomach, making me nauseous. My daughter whined from the back seat, “How come the heat’s not on?” I don’t like this place and I don’t like these ungrateful little people and I have to spend my whole day driving around a city that’s not my home with people who never say thank you. I pressed play on the CD player only to remember that the music wouldn’t play unless the car was warmed up. My son expressed his disappointment in the lack of music by kicking the back of my seat. I sighed and drove on.
We moved to Buffalo from a city that was small and Midwestern—just how I like cities to be. When my husband got the job offer, I said, “You know, let’s just stay here.” It didn’t make sense to stay where we were, though, so we ventured east, to a part of the country I was unfamiliar with. I thought we were just moving to Buffalo. Little did I know that within the greater Buffalo area were many towns I’d have trouble getting my mind around: not just Clarence but Clarence Center, not just the City of Tonawanda, but North Tonawanda, and also (you may have to see it to believe it) the Town of Tonawanda. The most famous narrative of Jesus’ birth, in the second chapter of Luke, also begins with a detailed geographical description.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. (v. 1-5, ESV)
We get so much information here about Joseph’s home and family background. In this census and at this time in history, where you were from and who you were related to defined you. Today, very few of us know so much about our land and lineage. We are a society of self-made people, defined by our work much more than our geography. And yet, we all long for home. We see this starkly in refugee camps, where people have to wait until they are given permission to move on to a new country where they hope to settle. Perpetually waiting and possibly separated from family, these refugees have high rates of mental illness.
My own feelings of unsettledness pale in comparison to the plight of refugees. Even so, we all feel stronger and calmer when we embrace our place, so I have started changing some of the ways I talk about Buffalo in my mind. Instead of saying, “I just don’t like it here,” I’ve started saying, “This is my home, and every day is an adventure.” Instead of sitting still and feeling cramped in a big city, I try to travel to some of the smaller towns where I feel like I can breathe better. Perhaps even one of the Tonawandas.
Where are you from? It seems like a simple question, but it’s not. Are you from the place of your birth, or the place you’ve lived the longest, or the place you currently live? Are you from the place where you have the most friends? Or family? Where you went to school? Or where people look the most like you? In this globalized world, many of us don’t live in the place where we feel like we’re from, so we do our best to adapt and put down roots where we are. While we create homes and nurture families and bloom where we’re planted, let us remember that our true home—both now and for eternity—is found in a tiny baby who was born into a specific geographical place but whose love is vast enough for all of us who struggle to be where we are. He is there in refugee camps where nobody is home; he is there in the car on the way to school; he is there in whatever Tonawanda I find myself in. He is our home when we are transient or stable, homeless or sheltered, anxious or at peace. He is Immanuel, God with us.