A couple of weeks ago, I met my friend, Claire, at a local craft brewery. We hadn’t seen each other in a while and had a lot of catching up to do. Our conversation ranged from the revelatory to the ordinary – new directions for her, the latest home improvement project for me. It was an emotional evening and, like all our deepest conversations, one that could have only happened with my very English friend in a pub over pints of beer.
As I laid out my plans, Claire asked, “Why do you spend so much money on your house?”
I heard curiosity rather than judgment in her question. She knows I’ve forked out a lot of money in the last 18 years on a house most would consider a starter home and moved out of years ago. If not for resale value, then what?
I couldn’t answer her, or not with anything that made sense to me at the time. Over the next few days, her question stuck with me, working its way through my mind during long, meditative walks. I began to realize it’s all about the imagery of “home” for me.
During 20 years of a difficult marriage, I had recurring dreams about houses. One in particular: a ramshackle place, but with a door that opened into a beautiful series of rooms I’d completely forgotten about. “Why don’t I ever come in here?” I’d ask myself, feeling the sense of peace and happiness I drew from this space.
Over time I realized the dream house was a metaphor for myself, the forgotten rooms those parts of me I hid from the world because I didn’t feel safe enough to express them within my marriage.
Why that came to be is a story for another day. It’s enough to know that I grew into an adult lacking a strong sense of self, learning instead to be the person others wanted me to be. That began to change after the birth of my son when I was 32. Tensions in the marriage increased during my pregnancy and after my son’s birth, and spilled over into my relationships with my parents and siblings. During a particularly spectacular confrontation between my husband and the rest of my family, my tenuous sense of self became shockingly clear to me. As my family pulled me one way and my husband another, I realized there was no “me” other than the one they each called theirs.
But were either of these Barbaras the real me? Who did I think I was? I couldn’t answer that question, either – but I began on a journey to find out, one that eventually led me to leaving my husband.
Divorce removed the chaos from my life but it left a hole as well. Relief at finally being free coexisted with pain and sadness. My deepest grief? Knowing that my son, just 10 years old, would spend the rest of his childhood dividing his time between two homes. The pain of not having him under the same roof every night was visceral.
I found solace in turning the home that had been ours into mine. Slowly but steadily, the house evolved from the drab and dreary place of my dreams into the warm and welcoming place I longed for. At the same time, I began exploring those forgotten “rooms” of myself and – tentatively at first – letting them surface. Many years later, the pain of those days is a distant memory, but the work on my home (and myself) continues.
It’s as difficult now to remember the dowdy house I began with as it is to remember the anxious, uncertain person I used to be. The sense of contentment and peace I feel as I look at the home I’ve created mirrors the satisfaction I feel with the woman I’ve become: the two are intertwined.
The same week I met Claire, I had a houseguest on a cross-country journey of self-discovery. She’s about the same age I was when I began this process and like I was then, she’s looking for home. As we talked, she told me over and over, “I LOVE it here. It’s so warm and welcoming and full of love.”
Well, of course it is – that’s who I am.