18 March 2013

Land, Land, Land

I am from Oklahoma. I love that state for reasons I don’t even understand. I may never live there again, but it’s mine-all-mine and I’m exceedingly proud the be from there. From a very young age I have taken ‘the local’ very seriously. As a child and teenager (and to this day) I scoured history and pop culture for Oklahoma references so that I could wave them like flags in other peoples’ faces.

Gymnast Shannon Miller! Runner Jim Thorpe! Actor Wes Studi (A true Oklahoman; Cherokee was his first language)! The Musical! That one tornado movie! Will Rogers!

Just the other day I discovered that a food blogger I greatly enjoy lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma and I said to myself: “Figures! Of course I like her cooking and her blogging. She lives in Oklahoma.” There’s no real logic to it; I just felt far more deeply justified in my appreciation of her skills. I felt a bizarre kinship to her just because of that fact (that and she cooks hearty, rich food, like I do).

This being the case, I have always loved regional histories. Just as with pop culture and food bloggers, I love to wade through historical events to discover proof that the places I love are worthy of the affection I already harbor for them. Places are meant to bear the weight and marks of their history. They are meant to give us, as C.S. Lewis puts it, “the pang of the particular”….that “local, unique sting.”

There are only a few places where the sting got to me, and I haven’t lived in those places for some time now. I have lived in places that have good qualities, interesting features, and reasonably interesting (if short) histories. But the land didn’t reach into me and influence me the way the others did. I miss that. There is nothing wrong with appreciating all locations, but I do not want to lose the ‘pang of the particular’ to nice generalities. I do not want to become the other being who:

“Cannot understand
Love that mortal bears
For native, native land—
All lands are theirs”

I think we are being culturally untaught love of native land. It is too often confused with jingoism or ethnocentrism for some, and seems meaningless or useless to others ‘in this global age.’ But I cannot see how homogeneity is any kind of improvement on the past. If you cannot conjure a love for that which was given to you first, how genuine will your affection for any new place be? It is like the old adage (or maybe it was just an adage in my family…my mom said it all the time): if you can’t love your siblings, get along with them, and treat them with honor, how long can you expect to be good and loving to any outsider? How you are at home is how you will (eventually) be elsewhere.

The other day I was asked: “But why is it that you love Iraq?” (one on my short list of land-loves)
I could scarcely explain, and I was repeating myself: the history, the Tigris, the Euphrates, the history, the people, the culture, Baghdad, the history! Its story can get into the blood against your will. It's not always a pretty story, mind you, but that is beside the point. Some of the best, deepest loved lands have some of the hardest, saddest histories (I’ve mentioned before that Iraq is often called the “Land of Three Rivers”…the third being of blood or tears).

It is not without meaning that God addresses both the people and the land all throughout the Bible. The land can be cultivated and loved…or it can become defiled (Leviticus 18:25). God desires it restored:

“O land, land, land, hear the word of the Lord!” (Jeremiah 22:9)

'In this global age' we may not understand very well. The world has been made to seem very small to us, the people and their lands increasingly interchangeable…our differences from one another, mere curiosities to cause a brief jolt of interest. But the land and the people have historically been intertwined and they mutually influence each other in unique fashion. People often carry their native land in them wherever they go, whether they notice it or not (whether they want to or not). Likewise the land bears its history and its people. It’s not everything, of course. But it’s not nothing either. We would do well to remember it.