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The Myth of the Starter House

Updated: Sep 16, 2022

How to Break Up with Your Anxious Life

Meeting the Need to Be Present

When my daughter Sophia was 6 years old, she and I sat down at the kitchen table to design our dream tree house, in Crayola. Hers included a rope swing, toys, and a ladder to pull up and keep out neighborhood boys. Mine was a Mommy fantasyland: turquoise accent walls and built-in cabinets for craft supplies and book storage, an espresso maker and wine fridge (this was before I got sober), a cozy armchair in a bohemian floral print, and a sewing desk with a view. When we had finished our drawings, my daughter and I looked at each other and sighed. There they were on paper, our dream homes: perfect, pretty, unattainable. I could see in her eyes the yearning I remember from when I first drew my dream house back in third grade. That day, at age 32, I found that the desire in me hadn't gone away. My dream home today would look like an elevated version of my treehouse. Santa Barbara style, it would have dark floors and light walls, colorful tile, and a huge courtyard. I want land, oak trees, a kitchen garden, goats and chickens . The best part would be my converted greenhouse or barn out back, now a quilting studio where I keep my long-arm quilting machine, my fabric, and my laptop with Wi-Fi. But here's my real house: a 1,100-square-foot rectangle in suburban Orange County, California. I have a patio in the back (no room for goats, plus the home owners’ association rules actually ban farm animals). We can't build a tree house, because we don't own a tree. We don’t have a barn, or even a garage, so instead of a quilting studio I have fabric storage in the laundry room and my sewing machine taking semi-permanent residence on one-sixth of my kitchen table. From the outside, it doesn't look a bit like "me," nor does it reflect the taste of my husband, who's an architect specializing in high-end custom homes. Cream stucco and aluminum windows aren’t in his dream-home scenario either.

I am sincerely this happy about my laundry room/sewing room, which I have recently "renovated"

We bought our little rectangle 19 years ago while still in our twenties. Our parents -- modeling their thoughts after the financial systems of the 1970s -- called it our “starter home,” and I guess we thought it was, too. Both scrupulously truthful, Jeff and I thought we might be committing fraud by signing the mortgage papers that said the load didn't constitute financial hardship. I was pregnant and about to lose half my salary. It felt like hardship to us.

And yet, we still hoped that in three to five years we would be able to afford even more. The American dream is to push for more, and at age 26 and 28, we were dreaming big.

But, about five years later, we stopped thinking of this as our starter house, and just started to think of it as our home.

We shifted perspectives due to a mix of circumstances. The first was a major recession, which made it impractical to think we’d suddenly be able to double our mortgage payments. The second was, we’d fallen in love with our neighbors. We had community traditions like a pumpkin carving party at our house, a fourth of July parade by the lake, and a still-in-our-PJs Christmas morning picture.

God also showed me all the ways my little rectangular home was already fulfilling the desires of my heart. Small treasures like neighbors who give me pomegranates and lemons from their trees, and the pleasures of our beautiful communal trees filled with birds made me grateful. I also found financial freedom by staying small. I've been able to parent my kids full-time while still pursuing the rewarding-but-not-lucrative world of writing, teaching, and supporting other mothers both professionally and personally.

As I've written about for weeks, I lived an anxious existence for the first half of my life: driven, perfectionistic, never-enough. Sometimes I framed this ambition as spiritual hope. Like all Christians in America, I grew up with Jeremiah 29:11 on my bookmarks and coffee mugs, believing that God wanted to prosper me and not harm me, to give me a future and hope.

But like many of us, I read the verse wrong.

The context of Jeremiah 29:11 is fascinating, and I'll dive much deeper into it in the next installment of this series. The prophet Jeremiah spoke to Israel as they were being sent into exile as a punishment. In order that they would know they were still loved and not abandoned, God gave them this encouragement, but also a reality check. The passage promises they will be brought back to their land after 70 years -- not exactly the promise we want to claim on our coffee mugs. It also delivers a startling instruction:

“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

I love that God says "settle down," and I love to imagine a dual meaning here:

  1. Put down roots: physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually.

  2. Calm down. Be present. Be still. Don't be anxious. This is your life. Don't go looking for it elsewhere.

When my own family decided to settle down into our "starter house," it lowered my anxiety, and brought stability and peace to our family. When I stopped thinking of my little home as a starter house, I also stopped thinking of myself as living a starter life. I came to understand that all the moments I’m living in this little house are my real life. I loved my neighbors better and I served my daughters' schools better. I did what God commanded: seeking the prosperity of my city because I thought of it as that: mine.

And perhaps more superficially -- or perhaps not since my artist's soul is fed by loveliness -- I invested in my home itself, making it functional and beautiful. We problem-solved in our small spaces, finding we can do almost anything in this little place that we could do in our grand dream space.

Just as worrying about the future will rob us of peace in the present, hoping for the future -- believing and counting on it as being better than the present -- will also jack us up. Especially when we take prosperity to mean bigger, better, richer, and more powerful. It will also keep us from dealing with problematic realities if we see our current seasons as transitional. Maybe you don't practice healthy conflict resolution with your coworker if you don't see it as your real job. Maybe you don't volunteer in your community if you are planning to get out of it as fast as you can.

I've heard it said that depression is about the past and anxiety is about the future. God is calling us to something spectacular and counter-cultural: to be in the present. To dig in and settle down, believing that this life, this moment, is our real moment. Everything God is calling you to right now, you can do right now. In this house. On this ground. In this world. In this moment.

May you settle down in peace.

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