There is a neighborhood near where I live. I love this neighborhood. I’m not sure exactly what it is about it that attracts me so, but the attraction is undeniable. There is something homey and lovely about this neighborhood. It’s not exactly old, but also not exactly new. It’s a grid of sidewalks and broad streets lined by well-kept houses with beautiful yards. It is full of bird song, and, sometimes, I even see bunnies or deer, if I walk in the back parts of the neighborhood, where it connects with a city park. There is something that’s just so … “Norman Rockwell” about this neighborhood. The houses, for the most part, aren’t big or fancy. Some have been added onto over the years, expanding to settle in and fit on their lots. Some seem to have been unchanged since the day they were first built. It’s not the kind of neighborhood you would drive through to ooh and aah over the houses. It’s just a normal, everyday neighborhood where people go about the business of living their lives. They go to work. They come home. They tend to their yards. Maybe they drink coffee on the patio and watch their kids play. Realistically, I know there is nothing special about this neighborhood. Nothing at all.
And yet, this neighborhood never fails to give me happy feels. This particular little spot on the map calls to me on a soul-deep level. It’s not too much of one thing or another. It’s just a whole lot of “normal”, and I think this is a big part of why I love it so. I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood like this. I’ve always wanted to have a cute, not-too-large and not-too-small, house. I’ve always wanted to have a beautiful yard full of flowers and budding trees and birdsong and the buzzing of happy bees. In my imagination, there would be a porch in front and a patio in the back, both perfect for sitting quietly to enjoy a cup of tea and a book. Maybe, if I were lucky enough, even a nice spot for getting busy with my writing. My kitchen would be warm and welcoming and homey. My closets, table, and hallways would be uncluttered. My floors would be honey-colored pine, and they would always be clean. I would be organized and good about putting things away. In short, I would have all my shit together. And life would be the most perfect kind of beautiful normal I could make it.
I’ve never lived in a house like that. Or in a neighborhood like that. I grew up in the country, so we didn’t really have neighbors. I mean, neighbors existed, but we never saw them because everyone lived far from each other. We might as well have been all alone. There were no sidewalks. There were no manicured yards or perfect flower beds. Not that I regret the way I grew up. I don’t — at all. I had horses and cats and dogs. I was able to experience fresh air and nature and hard work, all of which are beautiful and wonderful things. At night, I could sit on our front porch and watch the stars come out while listening to the scurrying night sounds of life around me. I loved growing up this way, and a part of me wishes I could live in the country, even now.
But the other part of me, the realistic part, knows that I will never live in the country again. My husband is a city person. He needs activity and things around him. He doesn’t like being alone with his thoughts or with the quiet of nature. He gets bored easily. So, that part of me — the part that knows I am destined to be a city dweller for the rest of my life — has wished for a plain little house with a big yard and beautiful flower beds in a quiet, welcoming neighborhood. Instead, I have a townhouse. It’s in a teeny cul-de-sac neighborhood with six other houses. My house is too tall and full of stairs. The closets are too small, and my family tends to hoard things. Seriously, we never clean out our junk. My house is laid out in a way that is aesthetically pleasing, but it isn’t practical. It lacks storage space. The kitchen looks large and inviting, but, in reality, it is too small for more than one person to be in there at a time. It’s hard to find a place to put the Christmas tree. There isn’t enough space for an office and a guest room. My flowerbeds tend to be overgrown. I’ve found I’m not good at weeding them. They don’t seem to have enough dirt, so planting anything is difficult. All the front lawns have to look the same; it’s an HOA rule. Our backyard is smaller than a postage stamp, which means it is constantly muddy and torn up from our dogs.
But, really, the only thing wrong with my house is that it’s not what I wanted. It’s not the kind of home I ever imagined having. It’s not the kind of house I wanted. I was so excited when I moved here and we started looking for houses. My excitement lasted exactly five and a half minutes, because that was about how long it took for sticker shock to set in where property values were concerned. Even so, I was pregnant when we moved in, and I was ready to nest. I wanted a home I could put my heart and soul into, a place I could LOVE. But we had a long-term houseguest when we first moved in, and I quickly discovered my husband didn’t want to do anything new to the house. And I was too pregnant to do any of it myself. And then, I had a baby and a toddler and a little kid. So, life just kind of zoomed by me. I think I gave up. I gave up on the possibility of loving my house. Instead, this house, in my mind, is the compromise my husband and I made. We never planned to stay here. It was a “temporary thing”. We have now lived here for almost 15 years, partly because the economy unexpectedly tanked and partly because my husband hates change. And I am beginning to believe this is the only house I will ever have.
This is where that neighborhood I love so much becomes dangerous to me. Even as I enjoy my walk through there, taking in the smells of flowers and the sound of birdsong, I feel this aching longing inside of me. I am proverbially standing on the outside and looking in, just inches away from what my heart wants. But still impossibly cut-off from those hopes and dreams. It makes me sad, sometimes. And, sometimes, I can feel my depression creeping in on me.
And that’s when I have to remind myself about the junk drawer. As I walk these sidewalks and look at these houses, it’s so easy to think about how perfect and beautiful they look on the outside. When I see the swings and the toys in the yards, I think about happy children running and playing and screaming in delight. When I see the flowers blooming all over the neighborhood, I think about quiet cups of tea on a perfect patio. Each house looks kept and loved and beautiful on the outside. It’s easy to think that life on the inside must be perfect, too. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that all these people have everything figured out, that they have managed to do what I seem to have failed at in magnificent fashion. In contrast, my mind thinks about my own unmade bed, my overgrown backyard, my overstuffed closets sorely in need of a good clearing-out.
But, if I think about it, really hard, I bet every single one of those perfect-looking houses has a junk drawer. I bet they have at least one place where all the flotsam and jetsam of life ends up collecting. One place where they put all the things they can’t manage to toss or all the things that don’t seem to have a place. And, if there is a junk drawer, maybe there is also a cluttered table top. Maybe there are times when the people who live in that house can’t get along. Maybe they sometimes yell at each other, or they are late for dinner, or they forget to put gas in the car. Maybe their kids have problems in school. Or maybe they are sad over the death of a relative.
And then, I feel a little better about my own life. Because, maybe, my life looks perfect from the outside, too. I know my bed isn’t made. I know my kitchen table is cluttered. I know I have an overflowing junk drawer. But no one else knows this.
The point isn’t that I’m happy thinking about the potential unhappiness of strangers. I’m not. I actually hope the lives of all these unknown people are as perfect on the inside as they seem on the outside. The point is this: None of us has a perfect life. We all have to compromise, here and there. We all have to make the best of things. We all have to learn how to be happy with what we have. We all have to learn to count our blessings. But, in spite of not being perfect, life is beautiful. My life is beautiful. I have a husband I love. And he loves me back. I have a daughter who laughs with me and plays Pokemon Go with me. I have two dogs who love to snuggle with me. I laugh, every day. I love, every day. So, yeah, it’s not perfect — not on the inside, and not on the outside, either. But this life is mine.
And, once I learn how to cherish that idea, maybe I can start learning how to fall in love once again — with my beautifully imperfect life and with my unexpected house, too.