What do you want your home to be like?

My friend Ashley was the minister that performed our wedding, and when we were preparing for the ceremony, she asked lots of good, piercing, questions. But the one I remember best is:

“What do you want your home to be like?”

Not your house. Not where you live. Not your apartment, which was true at the time, not your dream house, not your future or your life or even your marriage, but your home.

Because houses change. Addresses change. The city you live in, the state you live in, the number of people you live with – all that can change. But home is never a location, but a space you carry with you. Sometimes, home is a person. But always, home is a decision you make.

I once knew a man who lived outside, in a tent beyond the city, and had done for 12 years when he died from lack of healthcare. At his funeral, we told stories we remembered about him, and one friend told of how a church worker had referred to this man, in his hearing, as homeless, and he interrupted her and said he had a home – what he didn’t have was a house.

Home is a decision you make.

When Ashley asked us that, all those years ago, we had no idea what we were in for. I had been working for a few years at that point with people who were experiencing homelessness, and was making virtually no money. The woman I would marry was on disability for a genetic heart condition, and many of our dates had consisted of sub sandwiches from the grocery store deli, ate in the park.

What do you want your home to be like?

I had grown up on the same land my father had, whose father had bought it for his young family for the marriage that didn’t work out, before he married my grandmother. I grew up one mile away from the brick church where my father had been baptized, where I was baptized, where my grandfather’s name is on the cornerstone. It is where dad is buried, where mom will be buried, and where there are generations of people with my last name in the cemetery.

Within 1 mile of that house I kissed my first girl, saw my first dead body, watched a friend die, learned to ride a bike, felt heartache and misery and ecstasy and joy. I have never felt as safe, as loved, as accepted as I did as a child in that house, in that community. It was the essence of stability.

My spouse had a different experience growing up. Her family moved a lot. A lot, a lot. We counted once, and she had lived in 25 houses by the time she was 29. Their fortunes changed several times during her childhood, shifting from comfort to scarcity and back again quickly. Her only constant, regardless of address or fortune, was her siblings, who to this day she talks to near daily. For her, home had less to do with address and geography, and was instead tied to who was with you wherever you happened to be sleeping tonight.

You really see the difference in our childhoods manifest itself when we travel.  When we stay at a hotel, I live out of my duffle bag. As soon as we get there, I set my duffle bag on the luggage stand and put my shaving kit on the bathroom counter and I am done. She unpacks, sets up her toiletries in a line on the counter, hangs up her clothes, even if we are only there one night. In my mind, the hotel is a resting place, but she is making it her home.

What do you want your home to be like?

It was interesting – Ashley asked us to answer it without consulting the other. In both of our responses, we mentioned the same word: Sanctuary.

I had been loved and nurtured in safety and stability, but worked daily among chaos. I wanted a place the outside world could not pierce, a place where the horrors I dealt with daily would not enter, a place where I had control of my environment, even if I had no control over the outcomes of the people I saw slowly killing themselves from addiction and alcoholism.

She had grown up loved and nurtured in the midst of chaos, and wanted the stability she had never known.

We both wanted sanctuary.

So our home has been designed, wherever we have lived, to do that. We eat together most nights while music plays. Our house, wherever it has been, is filled with books and music and plants, inside and out. We have comfortable chairs and lots of lamps and throw rugs and knickknacks that mean things to us, a refrigerator covered with pictures of those we love, and art on the wall that makes us feel things. Our cats welcome us when we have been gone too long, and the last two houses we have lived in have contained graves of our feline friends who left us too soon.

When our fortune’s improved and we were able, for the first time in our lives, to be able to pick out our house, we wanted big windows and room for guests and a big dining table, a yard that was ok for both playing in and growing both food and flowers, a house on a quiet street but with lots of birds and flowers and butterflies and a stately magnolia in the yard that reminded her of the one in the yard of the house she lived in when she was 12.

It was, and is, our sanctuary. It is the place we go to retreat from the ravages of the outside world, where we both know and are known, where we make beauty and a family, both of which provide us protection from a world that often seems like madness.

It is a thing we have designed and built, this home of ours. And like anything one builds, whether a house or a chicken coop, it requires maintenance and care and attention, lest it fall into disrepair and one-day collapse under the weight of the forces that oppose it.

And every day, it requires us to answer the question we were first asked all those years ago:

What do you want your home to be like?

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