Saturday, October 1, 2016

Getting Our Bearings: Books about Living in Unfamiliar Territory

Years ago, an Episcopal priest friend was called to move from a highly urbanized area to a rural small town with declining population and many socio-economic challenges.  He admitted that his way into the "different world" was by way of reading Kathleen Norris' Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (Ticknor & Fields, 1993).   In this book, Norris talks about moving to Lemmon, North Dakota, a place where her family has roots yet quite different from her upbringing in Hawaii and later her years living in New York City.  My friend found Norris' reflections helpful in navigating the differences he was experiencing, framed as Norris did through the lens of gentle observations about the beauty of the unexpected pace, scenery and ways of people who were quite content (and perhaps felt blessed) to know little else but the terrain around them.  They were content in the best sense of the word.

Working around a large state, I keep an eye, an ear and my heart open to the differences of a congregation and wherever in the state it gathers for worship and lives out the gospel through its ministry and mission.  Certainly, New York has its unique ways of understanding itself:  upstate vs. the City, Hudson Valley defining additionally as "upper", "lower" and "mid", western New York's more Midwestern feel vs. the more "New England" feel of the eastern side (especially in the Capital District and Adirondacks).  

A recent book on New York history writes with similar concern with its historian author Bruce W. Dearstyne commenting on a few seminal moments from the long history and large terrain of New York.  Such work he observes requires a provisional approach to any claim that you have spoken definitively about New York as a whole (Cf. The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State History,  Excelsior Books/SUNY Press, 2015).    He highlights sixteen key dates in New York State history that illumine the many ways the State has developed, yet sometimes in his thinking, been quiet about its contributions to innovation. 

At a book reading a few days ago at the State Library in Albany, Dearstyne joked that New York tends to be more low-key or overly modest about its contributions.  Many may argue that, given the pluck and vigor associated with New York City in the media and popular culture, but then again, that's also one of the challenges New York history faces: sorting out the State from the City in discerning how to tell of the contributions of a very large and divergent terrain of urban and rural, small town and borough, remote and overpopulated places.

Three years thus far with New York license plates, I find Dearstyne's book a helpful touchstone.  I recommend it to clergy who are newer to the State and feeling likewise a bit puzzled how their part of New York State fits into the rest.  I should also recommend Kathleen Norris' Dakota, as she reminds us that wherever we are, the challenge of unfamiliar territory may lead you to learn that the place where you find the ground beneath your feet is indeed the place for which you've been yearning.  Further, in plumbing its history with the eyes of the outsider looking in, even the remotest of places can be laden with a history far more textured than you would first guess.

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