For Christmas this year, I am very tempted to give my mother a needlework sampler proclaiming, in sweetly-stitched letters, “Home Is Where the Cat Poop Is.” More than a nod to my generation’s fascination with wryly ironic kitsch, this idea is really my mother’s fault. Shortly after beginning this blog, I asked for a list of things that characterize “home” for her. She said, “Home is the place where, if the cat poops, I have to clean it up.” To be fair, she also offered a number of more cheerful things, but this comment caught my attention, especially since her phone calls have begun to include frequent accounts of feline incontinence. Our elderly cat, Amelia, has been in our family since I was in the fourth grade, making her a venerable seventeen. She can still kill mice, chase yarn, bolt across the house, and purr well enough to put any spry kitten to shame, but she has begun to lose her litterbox training.
When I visited my parents this summer, a considerable amount of my intellectual and emotional energy went toward finding creative solutions to Amelia’s inability (or crochety unwillingness) to use her litterbox. If you are thinking that this is too much information, then you are sharing my own initial response to the cat-poop situation. When I came back to Indiana, I had just finished a series of harrowing PhD preliminary exams, and I longed for a deep summer’s rest in my childhood home. I had no interest in playing chambermaid to a cat.
I was quickly reminded, however, that “home” is not the same thing as “escape.” In fact, ever since finishing high school, homecomings have been complicated. During college, returning to my parents’ home was difficult because I was beginning to build a life for myself elsewhere, and my parents and I had to negotiate the changes my increasing independence entailed. Coming home as an adult out of college has been unsettling for other reasons. The cat poop is emblematic of one of the difficult realities of learning what it means to be “at home” with other people: it means surrendering to the needs of others, and recognizing that I have a responsibility to the well-being of the entire household. As a child, my parents judiciously chose to tell me some things and to refrain from telling me other things. They protected (or tried to protect) me from their worries about finances, jobs, and other grown-up concerns. Though I had some chores (none of which, I am sorry to say, I performed with much enthusiasm), for the most part I understood home as a place where I could play, study, and rest in peace. As an adult, my role in a home is very different. While I still savor the comforts of the house I grew up, I can no longer avoid hearing about difficult questions or unpleasant jobs. Nor do I wish to. Much as I hate cleaning up cat poop, I know that when I do, I am at home in that house in ways I could never be if it were only a place to bask and be comforted.
It is easy to become sentimental about the idea of home, especially when we feel ourselves displaced from any kind of haven, but once we are at really at home--whether that means settled in the city where you live, or rooted in a friendship or a church--we begin to realize that there is work to be done--maybe unpleasant, difficult work--and we are the ones who must do it.
Only love challenges the sentimentality and the disgust that might prevent us from accepting the duties that come with having a home. Love compels us to remain faithful when a friend seems to have given up on a friendship. Love keeps us at the table when the one next to us is grieving, his pain making us wretched and shy. Love binds us to a local church even when it has failed us. Love puts us on committees, keeps us up awake all night tending those who are sick, and helps us give up our time cheerfully. Love helps me laugh as I help my mother scrub the living room rug.
Home is where the cat poop is. Maybe what this means is that home is the place I must pray for an increase of love: love so strong and certain that I no longer hesitate to do the difficult work to make my house clean, secure, beautiful, and welcoming.
Love teaches me that home does not exist for my sake only. If our apartments, our friendships, our marriages, and our churches exist as outposts of God’s kingdom, they must exist for the sake of that kingdom: in other words, for the sake of delighting in the One who establishes all homes, for the sake of showing love to one another, and for the sake of drawing in those who haven’t yet found their way back.
What are some of the hard things you have to do when you are at home in a place, relationship, or church?