The Indianapolis, Cincinnati, & Lafayette Railroad first came through the town of London, Indiana, in the late 1800s, carrying passengers, freight, livestock, and mail to and from the major cities of central Indiana and southwestern Ohio.
From that time and continuing through the 1930s London was home to a school, a seminary, and a grocery store with a US post office on the first floor and a dance hall directly above. The Cozy Nook Inn was on the edge of town (an interstate highway would displace the Inn in the 1950s) offering reasonably fine dining and clean rooms for its time and location, according to local lore. The town had a touring semi-pro basketball team and fielded an organized baseball squad named (of all things) the London Brooms. There were two train depots, a grain elevator, an interurban rail line connecting with other towns of the area, and a small white clap-board Methodist church.
Most of that was gone by the time I moved there in 1971 at the age of ten. The only commerce that remained was a small market where Ethel Bunce dispensed gasoline from two aging, rusted round-top fuel pumps outside and cold bottles of Coca-Cola, Mason’s Root Beer, and Mountain Dew inside. On summer days and during the baseball season, she sold ice cream bars and Topps trading cards to the children of the community who congregated under the awning that covered the store’s front porch. Nearby, the church was still standing, though I don’t recall ever stepping inside. If on occasion the doors were open as I passed by, I would simply peer in out of curiosity, wondering, What do they do in there on those uncomfortable-looking wooden benches?
The railroad tracks were still there, used at least twice each day by what had by then become known as the Penn Central Railroad. The tracks were about forty yards away from the front porch of my home. I heard the train’s whistle blow as it approached the London Road crossing, and I fantasized about hopping on board, like I’d seen scraggly-bearded men do in movies, and traveling to who knows where—anywhere but where I was, even if just for a few hours.
Many a day throughout all four Indiana seasons I walked those rails past the London Market and west a quarter of a mile to a decades-old wooden trestle that spanned Sugar Creek. I would climb into the underside of the bridge and walk across to a concrete pylon in the center of the creek. There, I would sit for what in my memory seems like hours, watching the water run far below and occasionally seeing the undercarriage of a freight train as it passed overhead, the rails moving up and down with the weight as the cars rolled by amid a thunderous cacophony of sound. With pen and paper I would scratch out my thoughts, a foreshadowing of a discipline that would begin in earnest later in life—journaling in order to be in touch with what I feel, and what I think.
That spot became my home away from home then, just a short jaunt down the tracks.
And in ways that are mysterious and paradoxical, the town and that railroad trestle, which still stands, are in some measure “home” to me still, deep in my bones even though I now live five hours away. In those days, I would walk the rails to give me a “sense of leaving without ever going away,” in the words of the folk musician Brooks Williams. I couldn’t wait to grow older, to leave, to find out what lay beyond the confines of that small town. And yet something about the place beckons to me more than fifty years later.
That paradox, I realize, is not unique to me. Perhaps you’ve experienced it as well?
“To think about home eventually leads you to think back to your childhood home, the place where your life started,” Frederick Buechner once said, “the place which off and on throughout your life you keep going back to if only in dreams and memories and which is apt to determine the kind of place inside yourself, that you spend the rest of your life searching for even if you are not aware that you are searching.”
As I continue to search for home, continue to long to find home—in all its dimensions—in more profound and enduring ways, I am keenly aware God has met me along the way. Those longings for home, some would say, foreshadow a desire for heaven—the heart’s true home. Maybe so, but I understand that longing for home is rooted deeply in our humanity. Our sense of home (or the lack of it) shapes who we are as people.
What do we make of this longing for home? At times I have felt my homesickness to be a curse, something to be avoided. At other times, I’ve received it as a gift propelling me to some new path, growth, exploration.
Returning to the rural central Indiana of my childhood didn’t hold that true sense of home for me. An uprooting and replanting in the home of my youth will likely never happen, regardless of my nostalgic feelings for the place and the people I knew. Two of my six grandchildren live near my current residence. Community has been built in this place amid suburban sprawl over twenty-four years. I have taken paths at various crossroads that have led in different directions, and I regularly remind myself of the wise if often-overused challenge to “bloom where I’m planted.” And so, the quenching of at least some aspects of this longing has taken other forms.
Home has become walks on a four-thousand-acre Nature Conservancy–owned tallgrass prairie with my naturalist wife, Cindy, watching (at considerable distance and on the other side of the fence!) American bison roam what had become a vanishing landscape of prairie and sustenance, now reintroduced and preserved.
Home has become quarterly gatherings of like-minded literary people in our home over a simple meal and conversation about books and the environment and how to make a difference in a world of strife and beauty, pain and opportunity.
Home has become winter walks through the spruce plot of a local arboretum, where the silence is amplified by the white bed below and the green canopy above.
Home has become solitary bike rides on the Illinois prairie path crafted out of an abandoned railroad bed.
Home is reading books to six grandchildren in person when we can, and through technology when we must.
Home. Even as our longings remain with us, we re-create home in this time of now-and-not-yet, and God meets us there as we are attentive to God’s presence.
It was a hot August day when I left my suburban home and drove four hours to the rural farm of a family member during a particularly challenging season. After a late meal and a hike through the forty acres of land she owned, with the sun fully set in the western sky and a shimmering canopy of stars above, my two hiking companions and I walked east on the black-topped country road. The darkness, created by the total absence of light pollution I have come to know in my Chicago-area village, was arresting. The darkness and the silence were mesmerizing.
But even more so it was the fireflies.
They literally filled the meadow on one side of the road and the woodlands on the other, sparkling, shining, dancing, and beckoning as they lit up the sky with their yellow-green pulsing, silent rhythms. We continued to walk in silence, peering left and then right as the fireflies seemingly said to us, “There is light in this dark world!” It was a dazzling show put on by the natural world in a way I’d never seen before—or, at least, not as an adult. I am prone to melancholy, to seeing the glass half empty. That night, my cup was overflowing with joy as I walked and watched.
The wonder of childhood, running after fireflies with a Ball jar in hand, holes poked in the lid, came to me as if it were yesterday, and not five and a half decades ago, and it was strangely comforting. It was an odd and peaceful sense of home. In my mind, I began to hum the melody from a Paul Simon song from my childhood—a song written for his infant son—that spoke in reassuring words about fireflies flashing, the bearing of light, and the knowledge that everything would be alright, so I could close my weary eyes and rest. It was a reminder of the now and the not-yet home. It was a whisper of God’s care in the midst of my longing for home.
This is an excerpt from The Language of the Soul chapter 1, “The Longing for Home.”