When does a house become a home?
I asked that question of some friends a while ago. One answered, “When your mess is everywhere.” Another said, “When you feel part of the neighborhood.” My wife said, “When you hang your pictures on the wall.”
When we first moved to Taipei, another missionary family let us live in their apartment for a few months while they were back in the States. We needed a house to stay in while we looked for a place of our own. But it wasn’t our home; it was theirs. Their clothes were in the closets. Their books were on the shelves. Their beds were in the bedrooms.
Later, we found that place of our own. It was on the 17th floor of a 21 story building. While we enjoyed living there, the family who owned the apartment had left some of their furniture there, so we always knew it was someone else’s place, and sure enough, after about two years, they told us they wanted it back for themselves.
When we moved, we ended up in a great apartment with a huge balcony . . . and a hovering landlord. She wouldn’t let us forget that we were in her house, like the time she dropped by on Sunday morning to prune the plants on our balcony so that their leaves wouldn’t clog the drain. The next day she saw me at the post office and commented on the strong odor in our house. It was my wife’s cooking, I said. Spaghetti. Not a good smell, she replied, frowning and shaking her head.
So when we got ready to move back to Joplin, Missouri, we should have been ready, right? Well, while we were busy moving from house to house in Taipei, the city itself had become our home. We had developed routines there. We had made friends there. We had a found a purpose there.
But we needed to move, and move we did. Though that was over three years ago, Joplin doesn’t yet feel like home again and neither does the house we’re in now. We’re renting, and we’re not making long-term plans to stay here.
Actually, it’s the third non-home house we’ve been in since our return. The first was a residence that our church had purchased for visiting and returning missionaries. We were there for about six months and are very grateful that it was available. We certainly weren’t the only ones in Joplin in transition at that time. It was June of 2011 and we were living across from the parking lot of the church property where two “tents” stood, distributing food and prayers to those affected by, as everyone here calls it, the tornado.
While we were there, the items that we’d had shipped from Taiwan arrived and we unloaded them into the garage. From there we moved to a rental house, with me still looking for full-time work and all of us wondering what the future would bring, praying about where we’d land.
In Taiwan, I remember reading news about the recession in the States, but I didn’t anticipate how much it would affect my ability to find a job once we returned. Ask anyone looking for work and they’ll tell you how difficult it is right now. Add to that the fact that being out of the country makes a person out of sight and out of mind for potential employers. With so many people looking for employment, those doing the hiring hold most of the cards, and they’re reluctant to take chances on someone who could do the job. Rather, they’re looking for someone who’s already doing the job. And the risk is much lower if they choose someone whom they’ve known for a while.
Since our arrival, I’ve worked at a number of money-making ventures, often overlapping. They include being a janitor and a paraprofessional at an elementary school, cleaning at another school, working at a multi-media ministry, teaching ESL, driving a delivery truck for an auto-parts store, recruiting international students at a university, and donating plasma.
We’re still not sure if we’ve landed yet or if that will come later. And the pictures aren’t on the walls. Instead, they’re still packed up, stored under our bed. When we finally do open them up, I think we’ll find some that we forgot we have.
When I asked my question about a house becoming a home, another friend had this response: “It’s when you can go to the bathroom at night without turning the lights on.”
That reminds me of a passage in a book I read several years ago. It was discussing people who had been blind for a long time and then had regained their sight. Now that they could see, navigating their surroundings obviously should be much easier. Yet when they needed to move through their house—their home—quickly in an emergency, they would close their eyes. That was more familiar to them.
When we’re under stress, we rely on the familiar to help us find our way.
That’s home . . . the familiar place, the comfortable place, the place where we can close our eyes and know we belong.