I’ve avoided saying these words to myself for a long time, but it’s really the most accurate description:

When I was 12, my family moved from California to the east coast to join a cult.

I haven’t felt at home anywhere since.

***

There were other factors, of course. Economy, family ideals for finding a supportive community for a family with young kids, etc.

We left the little yellow house where four of my younger siblings (there would later be four more) had been brought home, we left the friends I had grown up with and my first true best friend, we left the mountains and the sea and the sand, we left my mom’s widowed mother and my dad’s parents, and we left the only state and culture we had ever known.

We packed up a trailer, we squeezed ourselves into a little blue minivan with peeling paint, and we drove into the desert for two weeks of cross-country insanity.

When we arrived, we were love-bombed and surrounded by people who made us feel welcomed and at home in this new community. I was plopped down in the thick of 12-year-old-girl cliques, with all the political trappings of Sovereign Grace Ministries and their organic social pecking order based on appearances of humility and godliness.

And then there was the culture shock, as opinionated, confident me and my honest and blunt mother both felt squelched by passive aggressive social cues and vague disapproval from the women in our church.

I was so homesick.

***

In our new home, I shared a 10’x10′ bedroom with my younger sister for 6 years, my mom locking us into the arrangement with the words, “Well, you guys really need to learn to get along. I think you should be roommates for a while.” We fought for space, for privacy, for emotional safety. We never got it, not there. I withdrew into books, she into self-loathing. I stayed up late at night reading, because it was the only time I could be quiet and alone in a household with nine kids and heavy expectations. She hid in the bathroom and disappeared into self-isolation because everyone else was louder and more obviously needy than she was.

We’re only just beginning to discuss with each other how miserable that season was.

There were lots of reasons I looked forward to moving out and going to college, but getting space, quiet, and privacy was one of the things I hoped for the most. My parents laughed and told me not to expect that.

***

In college, I ended up in a dorm room that was almost twice of my bedroom back home. I had a wonderful roommate and it became a haven.

But nine months later and I was home for the summer, and I found I wasn’t welcome in my old space anymore. Space was tight and my sisters had rearranged the rooms while I was gone. Every break after that, I found myself feeling more and more transient, displaced, an intrusion.

I did internships in the summers. I lived in the basements of friends of friends. I lived in spare bedrooms and on old army cots. I lived in dark places and I set aside things that defined me so I wouldn’t offend. I put up with things that were personally revolting or emotionally oppressive to make it through.

I told myself, “I can do anything for a month.”

And I did. I loved people and explored new places and was hurled into discomfort and grew in the awkwardness.

But I couldn’t put down roots. Everywhere I slept, I knew that these places belonged to someone else, that I couldn’t cultivate anything, create anything, or impose myself on the place and space in any lasting ways.

I pared down my belongings. I invested in writing rather than drawing or painting. I cooked instead of gardening. Creativity oozed out in other places while I wandered.

I craved dirt I could love. A patch of earth and life that I could live with and care for and belong to.

***

Living in the little basement apartment has been hard for me.  I have a deep, psychological craving for light. I leave for work before it’s fully light out, and I walk out of my office building and the sun has already set. Winter’s dark season eats my soul every year.

But I’m a survivor, I say, to steel myself against it all. I can take it for a long while before I crumble into my own need for light, privacy, and space. After that, it becomes a slow slide into mental static. Other things start to bother me more. Dust and funky smells become more than a mild irritation, and then clutter becomes nails on a chalkboard and I shut down.

And then I snap, one way or another. I create, I organize, I clean, I cry, I sleep it off. I try to combat the transience and feeling of being lost, but it never quite goes away.

I had a basil plant outside our window. It was a little thing to love and care for, but it died. We don’t get enough light inside to keep anything green alive. The little cat is a comfort, but she doesn’t belong there, either. We are wanderers, pausing here until April. Then we’ll be gone, no matter what lies I tell myself now with paint and organizing and new bookshelves.

And I don’t know where we’ll go next or when I’ll find a home. I don’t belong here. I’ve been away from California for too long.

I dream of places where I belong, but they don’t exist when I wake up. Every place I live is borrowed, and no space I inhabit knows my name or touch.

***

This is the plight of the modern, the evangelical church kid who always worshiped in high school gymnasiums, the child of that American generation who will move anywhere for a job, the ahistorical American culture sinking its teeth into my humanity, the product of concrete suburban purgatory.

We need place. We need belonging. We need dirt and sunshine.

This is where the conservation of the conservatives and the humanism of the liberals meets with a kiss. This is where the incarnation reveals to me my own nature and reminds me of the Father’s promise of things made right. This is where I pray and know that I am dust, and am thankful for that connection to this beautiful earthy home.

And maybe someday, I’ll find myself at home, belonging to a membership of land and people in the way God intended.

Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us—a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.
– T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding III


  • This simultaneously breaks my heart and gives me hope, friend. I pray that you may see and experience Light in all its forms.

  • I remember feeling so out of sorts after going to BJU. I wandered everywhere – around campus, around town, around my dorm, behind the dorms. I kept trying to carve out my own path and couldn’t, and felt so panicked that I lied to myself and told myself I was safe and home (why I often tell myself that the opposite of something is true in an effort to dispel fear is beyond me). I think the cult-like environment of BJU, of SGM, of those kinds of Christianity, lends itself to the desperate need for space and open community. If that makes sense.

  • Amen.

    I love hearing other people talk about the importance of place and roots. There’s something, of course, to be said of flexibility and mobility — God calling Abraham away from what he knew et al — but we’ve forgotten the importance of the dirt, of local knowledge, of family in our culture.

  • I think I saw you were reading a Kathleen Norris book recently (on twitter?), but this post makes me wonder if you’ve read her Dakota. The need for dirt that we know is strong.

    • No, I haven’t. I’m working through The Cloister Walk right now.

      This all is part of why I so love Wendell Berry’s novels, though.

  • I am a nomad. So I am homeless. But my parents do welcome me home, if I wish to go there. Hard story. Thanks for sharing.

  • Nellie

    I know exactly how you feel having moved around growing up. I even feel this after being married. I loved where I lived in elementary and junior high school. I was so looking forward to going to high school but my dad got transferred. I moved before the 9th grade. I clearly remember coming to the airplane door and wanting to turn around and go to what I knew was familiar–that was not an option. Here is where I met one of my best friends.
    The plan was for my dad to be in this country until he retired but after 2 years his job was eliminated. He found a new job in the USA. Talk about culture shock moving to the USA and to a small desert town. We did not check to see when school started. Going by what my dad knew growing up, school started after labor day. Imagine our shock to find out school had started in early August. I was almost a month behind. It was my junior year…

    Here the feeling of displacement was compounded by living in a small town where I was not a townie nor was I affiliated with the air force! I came from a school of about 100-250 from elementary through high school to 500 in my senior class…

    I have moved quite a bit after marriage. I had finally landed my dream job ( had the job about 8 months) when I received the call to give my 2 weeks notice. My husband found a job in another state. Since being married I have lived in 9 different houses. The last move was especially hard as it seemed as we would be there forever. We bought our “forever” house. I was planting deep roots. Yet God had other plans for my family.

    I think that we will always feel restless. We have eternity stamped in our hearts. We want to feel connected yet we know this is not where we will be forever.

    I still struggle with feeling like I belong. I am not like most women in my area. I love being home. I love cooking and crafts. Having moved around a lot, I am seen as different. I have never been one of the “in group” in church or elsewhere. I always seem to be on the outside looking in.

    I had hoped when I grew up that my family would live close by but each brother lives in a different area. Even my husband’s family is scattered. We live the furthest away from everybody else.

  • Nellie

    I don’t know if you will see this but I have been thinking about this for quite some time.

    I know your parents character. Your parents would not have moved their family 2,724 miles to join a cult.

    It might just be just semantics but I feel a better sentence would read:

    when I was 12, my family moved from California to the east coast to join a church that became a cult.

    Another point is that there is more to the move than just moving to join a church. this should be discussed with them. Joining a church was not the reason for the move.

    Another point, from what I recall, from conversations with your mom, at the beginning the church was “ok” but then there was a change in leadership. After this change in leadership things started going weird.

    • Hi Nellie,

      My parents may not have know it at the time, but the church was a cult long before we joined it, unfortunately. I can put you in contact with old-timers who can attest to this. The leadership change merely revealed the rotten authority structure and abuse, but it was there long before we arrived.

      The church was a major element, and I stated in the beginning of this post that “there were other factors, of course. Economy, family ideals for finding a supportive community for a family with young kids, etc.” But the talking point they gave to their children was mainly “we need a good church. this is a good church.”

      Hope that clears things up for you.

    • The way you are correcting Hannah instead of letting her tell her own story is very characteristic of SGM and, although Hannah has responded with grace, it would have been triggery for me. I wonder, the SGM church I attended had leadership shifts and we experienced similar if not the same form of spiritual battery.

  • I just stumbled upon your blog today. This is one of the best blog posts I’ve ever read, and I can’t articulate why. I think it hits a chord deep inside, of feeling lost and being a wanderer and not belonging. Thanks for sharing your story.