I live in Urbana, Illinois, a city I didn’t want to move to in the first place. My opinion on the matter was weakly based on the handful of times I had driven by the Champaign-Urbana exit on Interstate 57. From that vantage point it was just another flat, cornfield-edged town with predictable, treeless suburbs and chain restaurants.
But in 2001, when my youngest daughter was still in diapers and I was finally admitting to myself that my marriage was falling apart, it felt like God was urging us to move. More precisely, I thought that moving—and my husband’s new job—would somehow save our marriage.
In the 13 years since moving to Urbana, four houses have been home. I don’t know if it’s by design or coincidence, but it seems that each significant Act in my life here has demanded a new stage, as if the inner transitions couldn’t be complete without the leaving of one tangible place and the arrival at another.
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Our first Urbana house caught my eye because—if you could see beyond the birdhouse and ivy wallpaper—it reminded me of the beloved house we sold in Michigan before moving here. Both were 1920s-era Mission style, with sturdy stucco exteriors, generous wood mouldings inside, and plenty of tall windows paned with thick, wavy, antique glass that creates mottled patterns of light when the sun shines through.
During the three years we lived in that house, our toddler and pre-school-aged daughters were at that kill-you-with-cuteness stage of life, busy choreographing dances, creating elaborate plastic feasts in their play kitchen, and layering on the most unlikely costume combinations.
But in spite of those bright moments, I think of that first house the House of Pain. Yes, I know it’s overly dramatic (and also the name of a nineties hip-hop band), but for me, the house was the scene of much yelling and crying and despair. Ultimately, it was the place where I gave up—not just on marriage, but also on my long-held childhood belief that God had plans to prosper me, not to harm me.
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If I was drawn to my first Urbana house because it reminded me of a house in my past, I was drawn to the second Urbana house for the opposite reason: It was nothing like the House of Pain. It was one-story not two; 1960s not 1920s; brick not stucco; and straight-forward, not “full of charm and character.” Most importantly, I was bound to it only by a 12-month lease, not a mortgage. I signed the lease after my divorce was final—after the House of Pain was sold and our marital collections of books, CDs, artwork, and kitchen appliances had undergone a necessary but unnatural process of division.
This second home can best be described as the House of Rebellion (clearly a perfect name for an angry metal band). Just like music that serves to numb the mind, the House of Rebellion provided an escape hatch from the life my ex-husband and I had shared. It played into my desire to be tied to nothing: not a marriage certificate, a church membership, or a mortgage. I devoted myself to my daughters when they were with me, and on the weekends they weren’t, I did whatever I pleased.
Like many rebellions, however, this one led to rock bottom, not freedom or enlightenment. One day about a year after moving into the rental, I knew it was time to stop feeling sorry for myself and start claiming my place. Maybe if I chose to live here—decided to put down roots on my own, in a house of my own—that whole sob story about “following my husband to save a marriage that couldn’t be saved” would lose its power over me.
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Buying house number three happened amidst a flurry of change: I ended a bad relationship, decided to try church again, went to a new counselor, and generally began figuring out who I really was.
This was my House of Healing (yep, cue the cheesy eighties CCM band). It’s the house where I learned to sit and just be in the moment, and where I learned that God wants me to find myself, not fix myself.
I worked in my garden, pulling out weeds with deep roots and planting perennials, and I invited new friends to sit around my table and share the meals I cooked. My daughters grew in those sunny rooms, writing stories, learning to play my grandmother’s piano, and forging great “wilderness” adventures with friends in our large, tree-filled yard. Along the way, as I mowed, painted, baked, and parented, I recognized this truth: I have more power to shape my place than it has to shape me.
And then I met Jason. We eventually got married, blending our families in that House of Healing, all five of us crowded in, watching and learning in awe (or at least the grownups were in awe) as redemption was worked out in one surprising way after another.
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Finally, last spring, as our three girls (and their groups of friends) grew bigger, Jason and I sold “my” house and bought “our” house: The House of Hope (or Truth)? The House of Second (and Third and Fourth) Chances? The House of New Creations? I’m not quite sure yet, but that’s OK—I don’t feel the need to pin down the life that’s unfolding here or the God who works in so many places, in so many ways.