Garden State: A Lesson in Belonging

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The four of us piled into the car, two adults in the front with a camera between us. Two kids in the back, with a bad attitude sitting between them. We drove exactly 2.9 miles to a new-to-us botanical garden. I drive by the entrance regularly, but have never turned into the parking lot, always telling myself, I’ll get to it later. Eight years of driving by, of wondering what lay beyond the gravel drive and the high fence, and telling myself “someday“– I finally turned in.

Just beyond the gate, lay thirty-three acres of lush, natural gardens curated on the remnants of an ancient glacial rock formation. It held all the elements I love: wooden bridges, footpaths climbing through woods, wild things growing in tufts of color, and a lake, still as a mirror, to anchor it in the center. And with the exception of birdsong, it held silence. For eight years, I drove right by, never knowing a open-air house of worship sat right around the corner.

It is a well-known fact that I complain a lot about living in New Jersey. When we first moved here, the decision was entirely against my will, and I set my heart against living and loving it here. It became my own time of wandering in the wilderness, accompanied by enough murmuring and complaining to rival the Jews in Exodus. I, too, have stood at the base of the same mountain and wondered why I was given another trip around it. Examining my heart, I see that complaining only gets you another forty years of circling.

Over the years, I became so pre-occupied with what NJ was not, I refused to embrace it for what it is. While it isn’t the cultural center of London, or the stunning natural landscape of Zurich, it possesses its own quirky brand of beauty. It isn’t refined or cultured or classically beautiful. But, blocking out the highways and the strip malls, New Jersey is a four-season wonderland of everything wild and green, grasping and climbing over itself on its way to greet the ocean.

It is filled with farms and great oaks and maple trees that turn the color of sunshine in autumn. It’s where many of my best memories came to life: where I stood on a beach and said yes to the boy with the ring, where I gave birth to my last baby, where I ran loop upon loop in the neighborhood training for my first marathon, where I gathered stories to scribble on pages, where I flew into and out of my destiny from an airstrip in Newark.

A few days a week on my drive to work, after driving through a natural reserve on ancient Indian grounds, I crest the top of the hill and catch a glimpse of the New York City skyline, glittering like a jewel. New York City. Sometimes I grow giddy just knowing all the art I can consume, all the fancy dinners, and the world’s most fascinating, diverse group of people wait for me on the other side of the Hudson River. Within a thirty-mile drive, I can see it all.

Within my own backyard, I have it all. The birdsong, the garden, the friends gathered around, the kids laughing, poking, fighting in the background. New Jersey is the quiet, unsung hero in the story of my life.

It is the place I call home. Where my kids are becoming, and I am becoming too. Where I laugh and lunch my way into deeper relationships. Where my church chooses to water the soil, and saturate the state with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is where the garden meets the ocean. Where I gather stories and write my way into a lush, overgrown, landscape bursting into life.

Rather than complain and pray for deliverance (after a day on Route 22, strip mall heaven, you would too), I want to grow more deeply rooted in the place God has planted my family. As I stood in the hidden garden a few miles from my home in the Garden State, I whispered to myself, “I love living here.” After I said it, I sucked in my breath quickly, and looked around to see if anyone else heard me. I couldn’t believe those words tumbled from my own lips, but they bubbled up out of the secret place I have yet to explore–the corner of my heart that knows New Jersey and I belong together.

My home was here all along.