Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace
Paperback: Zondervan, 2019.
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Reviewed by Tamara Hill Murphy
Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life, encourages writers to remember Thoreau’s salient recommendation: “Circle round and round your life… Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.” If it’s possible to gnaw a bone elegantly, Christie Purifoy does just that in her newly-released second book, Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace. Like her debut, Roots & Sky, Purifoy continues to circle round and round the subject of finding, losing, and making home.
With regard to Thoreau, a more apt metaphor Placemaker might be sitting under the shade of a tree we didn’t plant. Purifoy provides a virtual grove of shade trees gathered from the landscapes of the places she’s lived throughout her life. Not unlike Annie Dillard (or Thoreau) in her diligence to wring wonder from the natural world, Christie Purifoy offers readers glimpses of the universe’s deepest truth, goodness, and beauty from the fauna and flora we encounter in the ordinary places we make our homes.
Purifoy writes about the joy, work, and grief of her life in semi-chronological order while taking readers alongside trails of the history of vegetation (trees, mainly) and planters in various regions throughout the United States. For example, under the heading “the abundance of empty places” in chapter five, readers discover the personal account of an urban garden Purifoy planted with her Chicago neighbors alongside her disclosure of the grief she encountered during six years of infertility alongside the history of Quakers settling Penn’s woods in the state that the Purifoy family now calls home. She’s able to do this while maintaining a lyrical yet substantive voice, creating a seamless, enjoyable reading experience.
With a Ph.D. in English literature, Purifoy has the ability to string language together beautifully, but she also manages to tell both the lovely and the difficult details of a placemaking life without romanticism. She speaks of flower-filled gardens without flowery language, and shares her experience of both life and death without unnecessary flourish. She is a writer with a pruner’s eye, and the reader benefits from her skill.
The premise collecting all three trails — Christie’s personal journey through various homes and landscapes, notable botanical history, and spiritual reflections on our common vocation as placemakers — is a compelling meditation on the risks and rewards of cultivating place. In Ignatian terms, Placemaker contemplates the consolations and desolations of our God-given desire to belong in a place.
“… my Virginia home began the process of unmaking me. Beneath autumn leaves and spring blossoms, I made mistakes and bumped up, hard, against limitations. My confident sense that I could improve any place was shaken just enough to humble me and make me receptive to a truth I am still learning: placemaking has more to do with growing smaller and weaker than it does with control or ownership. When we release our grip on ownership, and consent to be small, we create space – for trees, for animals, for other people.” (61)
To develop the idea of risky and rewarding cultivation, Purifoy draws heavily on the work she and her family continue to invest in their 100-year-old Victorian farmhouse, Maplehurst. Purifoy provides a refreshing, down-to-earth perspective in a zeitgeist of lifestyle branding and fixer-upper renovations completed within the length of an HGTV episode. She offers the perspective that placemaking is hard work and sometimes, whether in planting seeds that never take root or moving to neighborhoods that never feel like home, best-laid plans bring no harvest. Other times the living, flourishing thing is uprooted by storm or, in the case of her beloved brother-in-law, by sudden, tragic death. Purifoy demonstrates in authentic accounts the humility true placemaking requires. We are gifted to cultivate, yet we live, and move, and have our being amidst a vigorous decay. Our daily presence, like persistent weeding in a garden, requires a tenacious trust in a good Creator to hold all things together.Christie Purifoy demonstrates in authentic accounts the humility true placemaking requires. We are gifted to cultivate, yet we live, and move, and have our being amidst a vigorous decay.Click To Tweet
“Peace dwells in many places, but it seems to dwell in gardens, in particular. Gardens are not as perfect as nature. They are not as grand or majestic. They reveal our all-too-human mistakes as readily as our accomplishments. But they are also more hospitable. Unlike a forest, they grow on a human scale. Gardens are a place of encounter with the God who draws near. In a garden, we find Christ, who is our peace.” (197)
Regarding the value of “cultivating places of comfort, beauty, and peace,” I consider myself a kindred spirit with the author. I keep a virtual file on my desktop full of Google-earth screenshots of each home I’ve ever lived in. Like Purifoy, when I remember the homes of my childhood I think of them in terms of landscape. I recall the home of my early elementary years by the giant oak tree holding a tire swing in its crooked branches. I remember hearing the rope creaking in the wind outside my bedroom window. My memories of joy and grief are shaded by trees also. Another house of my childhood boasted a giant oak tree on our corner lot, big enough to bear the weight of a porch swing where three or four of my siblings could sit together. When neighbors complained about the tree blocking street visibility the town chopped the old tree down to nothing but free firewood and a massive stump to hold up a row of mailboxes. We were devastated and our naked lawn never looked the same. I still fight fear walking through certain types of forestry that shadow a memory of childhood trauma. My enjoyment of a forest hike will always be clouded by the lasting shock that such a peaceful place can also harbor darkest intentions. Many years later, in a bright open space, I knew at first sight the home we should purchase for our own children because of the perfect climbing tree in the front yard.
Like Christie Purifoy, I remember in landscapes. Maybe you do too?
In reality, as Purifoy reminds readers often, we’re all kindred in our desire to exist in a good place. God, the original Placemaker, has invited each one of us since Adam to cultivate a yard, a garden, a windowsill flower pot in his honor. Layered throughout the book, covering ground from her Texas pioneer ancestors to her first years of marriage near the saucer magnolias and cherry blossoms of northern Virginia to the urban landscapes of Chicago to her family’s forever home at the end of a Pennsylvania driveway lined with aging Maple trees, Purifoy offers elegant theological reflections of God’s continuing presence in very real places: Eden, the Promised Land, Bethlehem, and the coming New Jerusalem, to name a few.
There are desert places, too. The same God of the Garden also “leads us in and, one way or another, he leads us out again. Or, if he doesn’t lead us out, he does something almost more miraculous: he plants trees in the desert, and he causes rivers to flow there.” (62)
Like Purifoy, I’ve wandered my share of wilderness places. After years of unrelenting downward mobility due to unemployment, underemployment, and escalating cost of moving into the expensive cities God led us into with our family of six, we are technically without a home. We rent a loft in a converted 19th-century corset factory in one of the most economically-depressed cities in our state. Unless the Lord builds the house, my husband and I may never own one again. Admittedly, I feel the deep ache of unmet desire when I consider the subject of placemaking. And here’s the highest praise I have to offer on Purifoy’s writing: even without a home of my own, I felt included in her invitation to placemaking. Without adding too much weight to the book, the author considers the dignity of all placemakers – the pioneers as well as the indigenous people groups uprooted from their homes, the farmhouse owners and the apartment renters, the gardeners and the guests picnicking under the shade of trees they didn’t plant.
While houses and property feature in both of her books, the ideas about home that she presents dig down much deeper than owning a mortgage. I’ve been given the opportunity to make place right where I live, and so have you. In the meantime, with Purifoy’s honest assessment about the intense labor of restoring a home, I imagine myself honoring the European immigrant women who used to sit in rows across what’s now my living room/dining room/kitchen, stitching corsets and dreaming of their own past and future homes. I drive by quintessential New England seaside homes in neighboring towns and pray that God will keep a place open for for comfort, beauty, and peace for us all.
“Do you live on a land that longs for the comforting weight of a forest? Do you live on land that dreams of prairie grass blowing in a high wind? Perhaps you live where the rocky soil wants only the caress of mountain wildflowers. You can stick the same maple seedling in any of these places, and, perhaps with a little assistance, a maple tree will grow. But how tall will it grow and how quickly? How expansive will its canopy be? What birds, what insects, will make a home in its branches? Our desires shape the land, but the desires of the land itself are powerful too.” (33)
Placemaker is a series of stories warmly and thoughtfully told about our common vocation of making a place in this world. Like any good gardener, Christie Purifoy attends to the smallest of seeds over and over again, each a little vessel of potential beauty. Like any good follower of Jesus, she invites us to imagine a flourishing tree, not planted by us, large enough for all the birds to find a home in its branches.
Tamara Hill Murphy lives with her husband Brian, an Anglican priest in Bridgeport, CT. Her writing has also appeared in Plough, Think Christian, and Art House America. She is currently working toward her certification as a Spiritual Director and learning how to parent her four adult children. Find her at www.tamarahillmurphy.com or at Tamara Hill Murphy-A Sacramental Life on Facebook.