Today I’m glad to host author Ashley Hales in this space. She writes about home, belonging, and how to find God, even in the tract homes of the suburbs in her book, Finding Holy in the Suburbs.
Finding the sacred in the midst of everyday things may not be a new conversation, but we always need new voices telling us old things. I wrote the foreward for this one and can say with confidence that Ashley Hales is one of those important new voices and I’m thrilled to share her words with you here today.
I rush through my bedroom: scooping up stray bobby bins, putting away the earrings I’ve left on my dresser, scowling at the rogue sandal who’s mate I’ve already given away but haven’t bothered to do anything about this one that turned up unexpectedly. The laundry is folded but stacked on top of drawers. The odds and ends I stuck in a brown paper grocery sack still rests at the bottom of my bed. Suddenly, the mess has become too much. It must be tamed.
Perhaps if my bedroom is picked up, my soul will quiet down too.
I rearrange the tottering pile of books on my bedside table. I think: It would be nice to slip into bed with one of the books, shirking my mothering and writing duties for the day. I’d ease myself into a world of words, like slipping my sore body into a hot bath. And yet, here I am — the rush and hurry leading the way.
I stop to look out the window of my suburban bedroom. The tract home roofs pile up, I look to the hills and see a tinge of color in the trees. My arms full with stuff — I ache, then, for the changing seasons of Salt Lake City — how I’d lay down on the grass of our front yard and watch the yellow trees sway overhead, brilliant against blue sky.
I loved watching how a particular plant would change season to season, framed as it was from our bedroom window. I remember our city walks, the hiking in gloriously golden aspens in fall, the bundling up and the skiing in winter, the way the city awoke each spring and how people said hello on their porches on hot summer nights.
But I am here now, my arms piled of books and clothes to put away in my suburban bedroom.
My soul is cluttered.
Like practicing scales, I rehearse a familiar story. It’s easy to wish for a different time, a different landscape. That somehow “over there” or “back then” or “when I’m…” will satisfy all our longings for home and belonging. It’s tempting to idealize one bite-sized piece of geography — city, suburb, countryside, small town — and not learn how to love a place. Will I be able to take this long slow walk in the same direction of belonging?
I look all of it in the eye. I let myself fall into nostalgia and I repeat suburban tropes — that suburbanites are shallow or only care about their safety. Yet, upon second glance, I see how I, too, will rifle through the dollar spot at Target to try to be seen. I understand how granite countertops might make us feel like we belong. I understand this search for beauty and how I want it to be as easy as fitting into a smaller pair of jeans.
Yet, I know the God of the cosmos welcomes us into a belonging that isn’t contingent on the size of our home, our bank account, or our dress size. It is this spaciousness of God (which, as C. S. Lewis wrote, is bigger on the inside than on the outside) where we will find home.
And yet. There is still the ache of all the lives we have not lived. There is the ache of goodbye. And there is the ache of unknowing. Most of all, perhaps, there is the tasks of the day — the washing up, the picking up of bobby pins and laundry piles, the walking to and from school — that orient not only our bodies, but our hearts.
I know places form our loves.
How do I — how do you — begin to really belong to our places? How might we love our particular streets even while seeing the ways we’re unconsciously turned in on ourselves? How do we learn to be open, broken, and given for our places? Where might we feel free to drop the weight of pretending to have it all securely gathered up in our arms?
We embrace gentle and slow disciplines of staying put and starting small.
So on a day when my soul is as frenzied as my bedroom floor, I choose to learn how to belong here. I walk my walking paths. My husband and I clutch coffee mugs and walk our children to school. We meet neighbors. We welcome people into our local church. We show up. I look at all the quirks of my suburban setting in the eye. I name the beauty and the brokenness.
Now, this is my one precious spot of earth I am called to be poured out for. This cul-de-sac is where I will see the glory of God. Not in the golden aspens or green mountain glory; no. Yet, I will choose to find God in the glory of this ordinary making of dinner, in our soccer schedules, in the grace of another day, in people’s faces who are broken and beautiful images of the God who wrapped himself in flesh to be near us.
We start small and we stay put. We do the things we always do — we wake, we do our good work, we make the coffee, we pray to the God who sees, the God who embraces and clothes our failures and preening. Here, in the middle of a suburban tract home, I’ve come to the end of myself and it is very good.
I put the bobby pins in their drawer, I name the loss and yet pray for the grace to live well right here. Might finding holy in the suburbs start right here in the ordinary, and lead into a spaciousness of body and soul that’s bigger on the inside than on the outside? I straighten the teetering piles and pray it be so.
Ashley Hales holds a PhD in English from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. She’s a writer, speaker, the wife to a church planter in the southern California suburbs and mother to four.
Her writing has been featured in such places as The Gospel Coalition, Books & Culture, and Christianity Today. Her first book is Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much (IVP). Connect with Ashley at aahales.com or on social media at @aahales.