Once again, I turn into the circular driveway. The black sign that stands in a sea of ivy announces where I am, as if I haven’t been here scores of times already, as if this isn’t my sanctuary. As if this house isn’t poetry written in space and time. My momentary stay against confusion. 1229 Knollwood Place.
I’m on break from school. Maybe it’s November, maybe it’s June, but the story is always the same. I have driven the hour from Greensboro, North Carolina, to Martinsville, Virginia, for the express purpose of spending the day with my grandmother. By now, our reunion has the dear familiarity of choreography. She opens the door wide when she hears me arrive, welcoming me into her home with a huge hug. She ushers me through the hall toward the kitchen, where I perch on a chair while she puts the finishing touches on our brunch.
She has prepared eggs, English muffins, fruit, cinnamon rolls, coffee, orange juice, cheese grits, and a variety of jams and spreads. Eating brunch with Mamaw is like making art – I get to decide what combinations to try, which jams to choose. Should I try lemon curd? Cream in my coffee? And finally, with a veritable smorgasbord before us, we sit down in the breakfast room, or in the den by the fire, or down by the water garden if it’s a nice day. We eat in the dining room for particularly fancy occasions, or on the screened-in porch in the summertime.
And we talk and talk.
She wants to know everything – how am I, how is school, what have I been reading? What have I been thinking? What am I learning, who do I love, and what adventures are in store?
I tell her. I tell her everything, no holds barred. I feel a sense of protection, as if my grandmother is guarding me from anything bad that might happen. The walls of professionalism and intelligence — those walls that I have built alongside my resume — fall. The masks of confidence and enthusiasm — those masks that so often obscure my momentary anxieties and sorrows from the observation of acquaintances — disappear. I am vulnerable, and in my vulnerability, I am safe.
I have never felt so safe as during those days that I spend with my grandmother. I have never felt so warm and comforted, so taken care of and loved. I while away the hours wrapped in blankets, dozing, or reading with a cup of tea, or playing piano and singing while Mamaw busies herself in the kitchen. And I feel like nothing can touch me; nothing can hurt me. I am locked in a space where there is peace on earth. I am loved, flaws and anxieties and tears included.
I think one of the deepest human longings is this sense of safety, the state of being known, loved, and cared for. This is a safe space.
What is a safe space?
In the university context, there is controversy over what constitutes a safe space. Some say that universities are becoming places where people are silenced and speech is only nominally free. Others claim that their race, gender, or sexual orientation makes safety virtually impossible, and they have startling data to back up their claims. After all, studies now show that one in five women will be sexually assaulted during their college years. Whatever you think about politics, it’s pretty clear that colleges aren’t the safest of spaces, and that conversation is only becoming more hostile.
On a national and global level, there are so many spaces in the world that are full of danger. People are killing each other. Innocents are dying. So many are seeking asylum, and they cannot have it. The marginalized among us are pushed even further to the fringes of society. School shootings. Mass incarceration. Sex trafficking. Terrorist attacks. The list goes on. That deepest human need is being denied, and the work of restoring safety seems utterly impossible.
These days, it feels like so few spaces are safe, and it feels like there isn’t a damn thing I can do about it.
Last spring, I read a book entitled Keeping House: A Litany of Everyday Life by Margaret Peterson, one of the theology professors at Eastern. In the book, Peterson reflects on the different elements of housekeeping — making beds, cooking meals, washing windows, vacuuming, sweeping – and explores the theological import of these tasks. Commenting on the way that housekeeping has been derided as unimportant “women’s work,” Peterson illuminates the theological significance of the everyday.
To make up a bed for a guest, or for a child, or for a spouse, is to say to another, This is a place where it is safe for you to lay your head. Here, dwell in safety, and wake restored. To serve a meal is to say, I love you, and I’m glad that you exist. Keep existing. Here, this bowl of soup and this cup of tea will aid you in the process of continuing to exist. To clean a room is to say, You are beautiful, and you should be in a space that is beautiful, too. A vase of flowers, a candle lit, a steaming cup of coffee in the morning – all of these things have eternal significance. They are profound statements about who we are and who we were made to be.
Rock of Ages, cleft for me. Let me hide myself in thee. Perhaps some of what it means to be the hands and feet of Christ is to be our most embodied selves, to foster spaces of safety where the physical and the spiritual meet, where people are free to be who they are, to feel what they feel, and to love what they love. Maybe all I can do is make a cup of tea for someone who knocks on my door, but maybe that is more than I will ever know. Maybe I can tell someone that they are loved, and maybe, for now, for here, that is enough.
We serve a God who is a hiding place, a refuge, and a fortress. We serve a God who shadows over us and shelters us, who is a tower and a crevice and a stream.
We serve a God who is the poetry of space and time. A God who dwells in metaphor and emanates from the material.
A God who is, perhaps, profoundly, something like 1229 Knollwood Place.
“In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, LORD, make me dwell in safety.” Psalm 4:8