Katy Sundararajan is the Th.M. Program Administrator and International Student Advisor at Western Theological Seminary, and partners with her husband as an RCA missionary with Audio Scripture Ministries. She continues filling in for Tom here at The Twelve.
A few weeks ago, I rushed out the side door of Western Seminary toward my car, hurrying to go on my way and pick up my son from daycare. I was running late and was absorbed in a smattering of thoughts about the emails I had not responded to and the computer documents I had been trying to wrangle for the ThM program’s application process. I was all in my head, and not quite present to the white/gray late-winter, or earliest-of-early-spring sky and the surrounding dismal and dirty, post-snow expanse of the Hope College campus next to me. At least I was all in my head until I smelled Spring. I know you know the smell. Everyone does. It is the scent of cold, watery mud mixed with the promise of new grass and bright flowers. It is a smell filled with hope. And, it is always the first whiff that jolts our senses the most because it comes on the heels of too many mad dashes from warm buildings to cold cars, and lost mittens, and puddles of melted snow inside doorways. None of those things smell like a promise of anything, or like hope, but Spring does, and it jolts us.
I walked out the side door of the seminary, the one with the WTS chapel doors just ahead of me on the left, and the Hope College Chapel doors to my right. And then, that jolt of Spring. But it wasn’t just that. What really got my attention that day was the familiarity that I felt in that place. It was so familiar that it startled me. I had smelled Spring in exactly that place before, and my whole being knew that, and I felt glad. The hope that Spring brings was coupled with the familiarity of a place long-know and well-engrained. This should all be a no-brainer for me. After all, I attended Hope College and also Western Seminary, and then worked at Hope College and now I work at Western. I have spent plenty of time in and around these doors and sidewalks, in and out of many seasons.
My life story is told according to a timeline of places. Who I am has to do with where I am, or where I was, or sometimes where I would like to be. I don’t often think about an age, or a year in which an event took place, but rather a city, a state or a country where it happened. I am not entirely sure if this is just the way God designed me, to identify with places, or if it was the assortment of shifts and moves in my lifeline that have shaped my mind into a map. One way or the other, “place” has become a keystone for my identity.
Some people always have their heart set on a new adventure. They long for places they’ve never been, and they have that “itch” to get on a plane, get out of town. This is not my style. Perhaps I am homebody. Maybe I’m a townie. (Does that mean that I like to live in a town, or more likely, that I live in a town whether or not I like it?) I do have a small-town heart about me, one that likes to know and be known by a place. The idea of growing up in one place, being from one place, having a constant home has appeal for me.
Adventure is not really my style, but it is kind of my story. I mean, I’ve lived in a whole bunch of places, and called lots of places home. After awhile, each new location that presented itself as a new home became a place to conquer, to claim as my own. If I don’t get to call one place my home, always and forever, I will make every effort to claim each new place as mine. I take it hostage. I own it. When the man I married indicated that we’d be spending plenty of time in his home country of India, a place drastically far from any other place that I called mine, I intentionally embraced it, and lived into it with my whole self. I wanted it to be my second home, my home away from home.
I’ve long known this was the case, but the one place that I completely neglected to make my own was the place where I went to college. Somehow I had glossed over its importance in my long history of moving to new places and making them mine. I thought of it as a transitional space. For me, Hope College, or Holland, MI, was a place between the other places where I lived my life in the past and where I would live my life in the future. I came to Hope from New York, and I imagined I would move on to another place after that.
Imagine my surprise when about seven or eight years after arriving on Hope’s campus, I looked around and realized that I was still in Holland. In fact, minus one year in Seattle, I have lived in Holland for a little over 20 years. It wasn’t the transitional space that I had expected. For many, many years I neglected to claim this place, and in the long run, before I ever had the wherewithal to do it myself, Holland claimed me.
It was the jolt of Spring smell in the air that made me realize this all over again. It seems that I, of all people, should be staunchly aware of my place, but instead I had fallen prey to one of the risks of living in a place for a long time and had taken Holland for granted. Our place shapes us, whether or not we are aware of it. So, as Spring reminded me, I am truly grateful for this place that I’ve been able to live into and call mine for twenty-odd years. I have also learned to be immensely grateful for the new places that become mine in my adventurous life. Now, to pay better attention.