Last year, my husband and I sat across from a burly lawyer in the middle of a sweltering July day and we did something we had never done before: we signed the dotted line of a mortgage loan application. And with that, we had purchased our first home, a tidy lot in Apex, North Carolina, with a sloping gravel driveway and paltry garden composed of annuals that promptly retired their yellow heads before spring.
It was the kind of moment we don’t ever think will come. A day both celebratory and surreal, where we, the recipients, felt undeserving and yet grateful. Looking out on our property, we held hands in awe, giddy as if proffering glasses of champagne.
This wasn’t just any home, but a four-bedroom residence with an open floor plan. It boasted a light-filled kitchen, white cupboards leaning up toward the ceiling. Light poured in from a half-moon window portal with a lattice design from which you could see ample lime-green sloping into forest and country. Bent oaks and scraggly brush copiously staked out the corners of a generous backyard.
At the time, we didn’t have a grasp of yard-care techniques, didn’t claim to own an electric drill, but were homeowners. Loads of cash we did not have, nor were we bearing gifts of vintage furniture to fill up the corners of the space with our aesthetic sensibilities. Instead we bore tepid gifts: an old college sofa, the arms of which were a scratching pole for feline companions, a marked-up bookcase, a giraffe lamp, and a few artifacts of past lives.
What we did gift the house was toddlers to muddy up the floor, crayon murals onto its walls, and testing the limits of the toilet with wads of double ply. The truth was, we weren’t the caring, flush benefactors we wanted to be for our gentle Cape. We weren’t the perfect owners. Besides a solid credit score and a 1970s Hoover, we brought little to the house other than ourselves.
Buying a house and entering the contract of marriage are similar. We bring little to marriage other than the shards of self we’ve collected over the years, the colored glass pieces of a broken mosaic we are trying to piece back together, bit by bit. We bring our trials and our childhood baggage. We bring the people who told us what to believe about ourselves; the individuals we dream of becoming. We bring hope and sometimes a weariness of life.
Marriage is a house we gift with the artifacts of past selves. In a new marriage, bought and signed for—paid for with our future selves—we offer trifling tokens of love, signing a forever-lease on one another by stating unequivocally, “I do.”
The wonder is that it doesn’t depend on us. Which is how much of life is sky-high stakes fraught by fragile souls. We press our broken longings and half-hearted attempts at redemption into others, desiring most of all to be loved, fortuitously backed by true love Himself. But it is in our attempts to discover beauty in commitment that we find our longings fulfilled, through Christ’s miraculous work in our disarray.
You see, our Cape—pristine from the outside—is both a burden and a gift. It requires something of us: weekends spent cleaning out gutters, replacing boards and nails that have dislodged. It begs investment: hours consumed in Home Depot finding just the right screws, YouTube videos of electrical wires and PVC pipes.
This house has required more, often, than I’ve wanted to give: more humility, more learning, more growth, and more time.
But in the process we learn that bonding ourselves to a house and to a marriage is quotidian, daily work. It is more than just settling into these homes; it is nestling into belonging in a place and inhabiting rhythms of giving and receiving, bearing burdens and distributing loads.
I approach life believing it owes me something, but gradually, as I’ve aged, I’ve learned that life, and consequently God, owes us nothing, and that much of life is a gift.
I’m trying to inhabit those gifts of house and of marriage. The last few years have been a jump from one lily pad to another shaky lily pad. My husband and I were married at twenty-two, and then we were pregnant, and then we were broke for a while. Our marriage has survived the tension-bearing load of that journey, but too often I take this for granted, too often I overlook the necessity of standing on the porch, looking out at a yard frothy with green, hoping to stand witness to grace.
“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” I memorized this verse as a child, sing-songing its words on the slide and swing set. At the time, I did not understand the implications of building and repairing. I had yet to know the gentle, quiet, and steady work of love, whether that is in building a house or in constructing a marriage.