Image by Rookuzz
Several times a week I pass by a house I used to know.
I lived there for almost five years, so maybe “used to know” is a strange way to put it. But it feels more like deja vu than reality. When I walk by this house and look at the garden I used to tend or the yard where my daughters played, there are flickers of recognition, but not the familiarity and sense of knowing you would expect. I can almost feel my memory spinning like a hard drive, scrambling to uncover any small bits of information formed by crisp, defined edges.
My connection to the house is clear—it’s the house my first husband and I bought when we moved to this town 11 years ago—but the life we lived there feels disjointed and confused. For years after our divorce and the selling of the house, I avoided looking at it, not sure what I would feel. I think I was just as afraid of feeling nothing as I was of feeling pain.
The house, though, is impossible to avoid. Seven years ago I bought a house four blocks away, on the same street. My husband Jason and I live there with our daughters. A lot of healing, redemption, and happiness has been rooted in this second house, so now, when I pass by my old place, I no longer look away. Instead, I am a paleontologist searching for clues, anything I can piece together and make sense of, anything I can point to in explanation.
The house we live in now is almost 100 years old, and some would say it’s not really big enough for our family of five. Many days, I would say that, too. That’s why there’s always a project in process—some little improvement to help us fit and function better in the space. Last night, Jason and I emptied out our bedroom closet so some plaster work can be done and a new closet “system” can eventually be installed. We’re determined to create order in the chaos.
I stood on a stool to reach a box on a high shelf. In it were a dozen or more small photo albums, the kind with plastic sleeves you slip photos into, one per page. We were still getting film developed when my girls were little. I always ordered doubles, sending a set to my parents and filling these photo albums with the others, so toddlers with sticky fingers could enjoy them. My firstborn, Q, wasn’t even a year old when she became fixated on the albums. She would sit on the floor and methodically look through them, studying each photo intently.
Jason walked by, asking what Mystery Box of Fun I had discovered in the far reaches of our closet, so I took out the album on top to show him. The pictures were taken the first few months after my ex-husband and I moved to this town, into the house I pass by but can’t quite grasp. There is the south-facing sun room, full of windows and light, set up as a playroom for the girls. There is the sandbox he made, and the girls, three and one, busy at play. There are friends we used to have, visiting with their kids, everyone smiling.
I try to sort through what I’m feeling as I look at those photos, and quickly become annoyed with the conflicting jumble of emotions. Joy and pain hit me from both sides, making no sense at all as they meet up in my gut. On one hand, I feel relieved to see how happy the girls look, and the way our life then takes on a picturesque quality. But at the same time, I feel defensive of my pain, like the photos are being held up in court as evidence that my divorce was unwarranted. Our life was so far from picturesque! We were slowly dying from the inside out, in a way that couldn’t be captured on film.
I hate these feelings, mostly because I don’t know what to do with them, I don’t know how to explain them in any coherent, logical way. I put the album back in the box and carry it through the hot and humid night, across the lawn to the garage.
Years of marriage counseling may not have saved my first marriage, but I did learn a lot along the way.
One of the things I learned about myself is that I love logic. I love being able to reverse engineer something so I can understand what happened, why it worked or didn’t, why it made me feel the way I did. I also love being able to rationalize my decisions, building cases that back up what I’m doing and experiencing. I hate not knowing what I want, not being able to explain why I need what I need or feel what I feel.
But one of the important things I learned about emotions and relationships during all that counseling is this: Feelings are neither right nor wrong; they just are. It’s not my job to justify or explain them. And it’s no one else’s right to question or discount them. The best thing for me to do is to acknowledge and perhaps try to describe them, and the only thing someone else can do is try to understand how I feel, not why.
It’s true: Everything in me resists that simple acceptance. Everything in me wants to either explain my feelings away or explain them into a decipherable shape. I want the joy and the pain to duke it out until one triumphs. I want the photos in the garage to fit together like a complete set of pieces, and I want the life I lived down the street to make sense when reverse-engineered.
But I’m slowly learning to accept that isn’t how life works—at least not a life lived with eyes open, heart open, and mind open. All that openness means leaving room for things that conflict, that don’t make sense. It means letting them be what they are: joyful photos in a box, painful memories down the street, a redeemed life right here.