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Carrying the Cross in the Suburbs: A Poet's View

Tania Runyan

Skewed Uniformity Poetry Editor Tania Runyan responds to the question: What are the challenges of writing poetry in the suburbs?

The suburbs kill individuality, don’t they? Every vinyl-sided house, tree-named cul-de-sac and video-equipped Toyota Sienna is toxic to the poet who needs a diverse urban neighborhood or fresh country air to survive. And how can a poet of faith possibly unearth the mysteries of God in this manicured nightmare? It’s almost impossible to hear the Spirit’s voice amidst all those kicked soccer balls.

I know sameness has its deficits. I’ve experienced the disorientation of walking into an out-of-town Walgreens with the same life-sized, cardboard Taylor Swift placed approximately twelve feet from the entrance, slightly to the left of the nail polish end cap. I’m far from home, but I can be anywhere. In fact, is there really such thing as home when you live in a place so much like other places? Can poems get made here, and more, can I pick up my cross?

The act of writing poetry has helped me follow Jesus in the burbs simply because poetry makes me notice. I don’t wait for inspiration to hit. If so, I’d never write because I wouldn’t have the energy to “feel” inspired. Let’s face it: nothing supernatural is going to leap out of my Caribou cup as I drive past Gurnee Mills for the fourth time in one day. But in writing, I must engage my senses with whatever seemingly dull moments my suburban life sets before me. And the life is not dull. Sure, there may be some uniformity in houses, cars, moms’ hairstyles and children’s activities, but that very external sameness is what turns me toward the inner realities of the people who live here. How do they cultivate a meaningful life amidst the suburban “rat race” (I’ve never seen rats race, by the way)—the real people, including me, who were designed to follow their creator regardless of geography? The sights and sounds of a place like Venice Beach or the Rockies would be too easy to poeticize: the self-proclaimed World’s Greatest Wine-O, the herds of moose crossing ridiculously impressionistic fields of wildflowers.  But what about the man who backs out of his driveway in Lake County, Illinois, at 6:42 each morning, travel mug in hand, knot in his stomach? The man like and unlike so many others? What is the landscape of his life?

Those questions enable me to write a poem, but most of all, they help me to see my daily life through the spiritual lens. And really, the spiritual should be my vision, not just a lens. When I approach my geography not with disdain but with grace, curiosity, and the dignity of fascination, I no longer see anonymous mini-malls with interchangeable Starbucks and mattress stores but sacred places where people wrestle with each other, themselves, and sometimes God. If I dare to imagine it.

Relief contributor David Wright wrote a pantoum in honor of a certain suburban woman experiencing angst over her sofa-shopping adventures. Here we see an example of Christ infusing our blandest suburban moments. The original “postcard poem” and illustrations can be found here.

And a Woman Goes To Find a Couch

And despairs at the impossible choice and sits on every sofa in the suburbs and lies down in a store to rest and falls asleep one afternoon

and dreams of every sofa in the suburbs and sees Jesus in a blue recliner in heaven and wakes from sleep one afternoon and is haunted by the whole vision

and seizes at Jesus in a blue recliner in heaven and questions the Book of Revelation and is haunted by her holy vision and the blue-dyed decor of our eternal home

and questions the Book, the Revelation and despairs at God’s improbable choice and his blue-dyed decor of our eternal home and rises up and calls her own home blest.