Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Place in Sedona

Bell Rock, Sedona, sunset, Arizona

by JaneAnn Kenney

Growing up, I became increasingly aware that places matter, for better or worse. When my first experience of our house in Kentucky involved a man’s demise, it took years for the very physical location of that house not to bring me to panic, feeling that the house and the whole town were overshadowed by death. Conversely, I remember our home in Hurricane as filled with laughter and light, a place of peace to which I wish I could return. A certain dry riverbed in Benjamin, Texas—all red dirt and stars—gives me a similar feeling of familial acceptance.

Studying literature fine-tuned my locative sense. No longer must I base my assessment of a place merely on my own feelings. Rather, I can analyze it—what does it mean for a female to enter a traditionally masculine space (the academy or the work force) or to stay in traditionally feminine space (the home)? What does it mean for a place to be restricted, or dangerous, or uninhabitable? Where are the places which are for all people, and can thus become holy?

Coming to Arizona was a shock to my sense of place. On a superficial level, it is strange that my midnight text goes unanswered because my friends on Central Time don’t have their phones on at 2 am. (Arizona is currently on Pacific Time, with California.) Reds’ games are finished before I wake up, so it seems, and the Spurs/Heat games begin during happy hour. What glorious insanity is this? 

The heat in Phoenix is unlike any I’ve experienced before—dry and close, like the very molecules in the air don’t have enough room or energy to move, made lethargic with fever. Cactuses are real, and if you’ve never seen a bird of paradise, stop reading right now and Google it. (Perhaps the tourism board should give me a job?)

Physically, Sedona has great significance in my family. My parents were married here nearly 30 years ago, in the shadow of Bell Rock. The only wedding picture I’ve ever seen is of them standing in the wind together, back when Mom had shoulder-length waves of hair, gazing (although I hate the word) into each other’s eyes (I guess this is their love story), so excited for the adventure to begin that she didn’t even buy a white dress; Mary Beth found one for her. This place represents a time when I was not. All that existed of me was my parents’ love for one another (to leave out boring biological facts; I would be born four years later, so figure it out yourself).

Bell Rock, Sedona, Arizona, sunset, marriage, couple, loveBeing in this physical location takes me to a place where my own existence can be questioned. I exist (most often emphatically, and if you’ve met me, you know that it’s true), but this land seems so mystical, so otherworldly compared to the rolling hills of Ohio or the old mountains of West Virginia—it feels as though the very place has taken me back in time. The eastern United States are, in my mind, predictably situated, content to remain as they are. They are my context. Should I even exist in this place?

Metaphysical questions aside, the drive up from Phoenix on “the 17” (when did interstates start using definite articles?) and now being here in Sedona at my mother’s best friend’s home put me rather in mind of a journey to some holy land. This is God’s country. The climb up through the mountains, my ascent; the rope lightning of a summer rainstorm in the distance, a demonstration of power and presence. He painted these rocks red and sent them reaching for the heavens, created unobtrusive trees as contrasting accents to the rock and the heights. This is not a useful place—not good for farming, not convenient for industry—and yet it feels purposeful. This place is meant to recall God’s majesty.

We speak sometimes of the thin places, the places where heaven and earth meet, places where we hear echoes of eternity and feel the goodness of creation as though it had not fallen. Being in Sedona, I remember stories which are not my own—of my parents before I changed their lives in Alaska, if you can believe it, and of another people for whom places were important, marked with rocks to say “this is Beth-El”. In this place, my hopes for my life are peacefully swallowed up in my hopes for the future of humanity and the greater creation. My personal goals are subsumed in this larger purpose: that God will one day renew all places so that heaven and earth are permeable and each is made new by the proximity of the other. In that day, our relationships will be renewed—to God, to one another, to the creatures and creation.

Do not hear this as an otherworldly hope. It is very firmly rooted in my 5’6” frame being in this physical location, two hours north of Phoenix by way of interstates and state routes. I arrived in a black 2013 Corolla. I have cat hair all over me from Tony, the friendly striped beast. I am eating a green apple which came with me from Nashville, Tennessee, and I hope soon to have red dirt covering my white sneakers, wind in my blond hair, my purple sunglasses protecting my blue eyes from the fiery setting sun.

The apostle Paul also insists on the importance of this earthly place in God’s plans: “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom. 8:22-25, NRSV). Creation’s pain is not without purpose—not even Paul would describe labor pains as being for naught. Rather, something good this way comes, and the pain itself evidences the struggle for the birth of this good, which God reassures us is coming.

Bell Rock, Sedona, Arizona, sunset, heaven, skyI’m sure if I stayed here in Sedona and made a life, I’d find it is further from heaven than I imagine. The everyday headaches and cyclical heartaches would find me here, as anywhere else. I would experience loss, and the world of violence and hostility would invade my tranquility. 

Today, however, in this place, I need no patience. Hope is being justified right here, in front of my eyes and under my feet, in the red stone distance and the wind blowing through tree branches. To pray “Maranatha—Lord come quickly” is appropriate and yet feels superfluous. He is coming, and he has put this thin place on earth to remind us that the places we love and the people of those places are very much the object of his very real purpose.

You can ask JaneAnn about: Nashville, theology, cats. Baseball. Glacial rivers. Her stance on the color purple, and then again the existence of the word "purple." General frivolity and terrible music (for the DANCING!!). Old Stephen King novels, time zones, and toll roads in Oklahoma. She will not, however, answer any questions about that thing living in her fridge. You can follow her on Twitter @JAKof3Ts.

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