Real Estate of the Heart

When my kids were growing up, the vacuum cleaner meant only one thing.  It meant that someone was coming over.   As soon as the kids saw the vacuum out of the closet, they would want to know who it was.  Unfortunately, we did not cleanup for just anybody – so, whenever the kids heard the roar of the vacuum, they knew that someone new and different, some exciting surprise guest was coming over!

If you could have seen my office in those days, you would understand that housekeeping was not my forte. It was not my strength, nor my ex’s, nor my children’s. In order to make room for company, we had to clear out the clutter: the piles of newspapers, books, magazines, homework papers, and junk mail; the dishes out of the sink; the Legos off the floor.  And once we had finally re-located the floor, we would haul out the vacuum cleaner.  It’s exhausting making room for company. 

“In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”

Now this passage from John 14 is often read at funerals and I have read it countless times as I have laid so many parishioners and strangers to rest. And every time I read it, I smile. I cannot help but picture Jesus running ahead of us to his Father’s house to get the guest room ready. Jesus running the vacuum. Jesus changing the sheets. Jesus putting fresh flowers on the bedside table. Jesus putting clean towels, in the bathroom and scrubbing the tub.

But John’s beautiful poetry is not just about a heavenly Holiday Inn. It is about God drawing us to himself — not just in the world to come — but in our world here and now — in our earthly dwelling places.

What makes a dwelling place holy? What makes a dwelling place home: that place each night where we lay our heads down to sleep? Ideally Frederick Buechner describes it so:

“We lie in our beds in the dark.  There is a picture of our loved ones on the bureau.  A patch of moonlight catches our clothes thrown over the back of a chair.  We are surrounded by the reassurance of the familiar.  When the weather is bad, we have a shelter.  When things are bad in our lives, we have a retreat, a haven, a home.”

Frederick Buechner

Recently walking the streets of my hometown, I stumbled upon my very first grownup apartment at the corner of Connecticut & Chesapeake. This walk down memory lane got me to thinking about all the places I have called home: the sacred places and holy spaces I have inhabited in my many decades.  I mapped them all out to see if their walls could still talk. And they do.

Starting with….

13th St, SE, Anacostia, Washington, D.C.

This was my grandmother’s house decorated with chintz covered sofas and overstuffed chairs. The neighborhood was blue collar and just a stone’s throw from the Anacostia River. I remember running through the sprinkler in the backyard in my underwear, an upright piano painted red, and an indoor telephone booth.

Kenton Place, Marlow Heights, MD

A 1950’s three bedroom, two bath, semi-detached starter home decorated “I Love Lucy” style. I have but one memory: standing in the yard with my face pressed up against a chain link fence watching my father pull into the driveway. Or maybe it was my mother.

24th Avenue, Hillcrest Heights, MD

This six bedroom, four bath brick colonial was decked out in 1960’s Jackie Kennedy chic. Located in a “Leave it to Beaver” suburb. I remember cracking Chesapeake Bay blue crabs in the backyard; playing kickball across the street, sharing a room with my neat freak older sister, and watching tragic history marching by: JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Connecticut Ave, Chevy Chase, Washington, D.C.

This teensy, tiny little efficiency – barely 12 feet square – was furnished with a bargain basement sleep sofa and milk cartons. The streets were lined with broad leafy trees. Tricky Dick was in the White House. It was my first Christmas without chaos. We wove God’s Eyes out of yarn and popsicle sticks and hung them on the tree.

Lanier Place, Adams Morgan, Washington, D.C.

This one bedroom “English Basement” was tucked into a corner of Adams Morgan. The National Zoo was practically in our backyard, and we were just a stone’s throw away from Dupont Circle. The neighborhood was hip and Hispanic, and we decorated our place with a Latino flair. I remember Guatemalan coffee and churros, speaking Spanish all day, and street vendors in the park. 

North Troy St., Clarendon, Arlington, VA

A two bedroom, one bath WWII brick garden apartment in Colonial Village. Low budget ‘70’s décor: bright yellow plastic cubes, denim sofa, and orange shag carpet. I remember that we built matching desks out of wooden doors, ate potato pancakes every Wednesday night, and recycled the trash for the very first time.

East Bellefonte Ave, Del Ray, Alexandria, VA

A second-floor walk-up with just one bedroom and a big backyard. Located in Del Ray, a blue collar, old railroad company town, just shy of the Potomac Switching Yards. Decorated with hand-me-down dressers and a dented double brass bed. I remember hearing train cars coupling in the night.

Curving Creek Court, Springfield VA

A three bedroom, two bath townhouse newly constructed in the middle of nowhere. Lorton Penitentiary was practically in our backyard and the grocery store was a five-mile car ride away. This was our firstborn’s first home. I remember stuffing Zach into a snowsuit and pulling him in a wooden sled, and the Christmas tree propped up in and protected by a playpen. 

East Windsor Ave, Del Ray, Alexandria, VA

A four bedroom, two bath 1920’s bungalow located directly across the street from the fire station. Reagan was in the White House when we moved in, George W. when I moved out. This was our “first house” that turned out to be our only house. The décor was ’80’s Early Parenthood. Only 1200 square feet this address is packed with memories: Pete’s Pizza, Mount Vernon Community School, Art on the Avenue, school plays, concerts, proms and graduations, Christmases and Halloweens. I remember the cats, the dogs, and the neighbors.

Snowpea Ct, Unit M, Alexandria (actually Fairfax) VA

Two bedroom, two bath third floor beach condo that is not at the beach. Swinging single’s pad with Cathedral ceilings, gas fireplace, balcony and community pool. Decorated with peacock paraphernalia, Alice in Wonderland prints, deep earth tones and bright colors. A kingdom of one, from this location I have launched my three adult children a second time. And now I have a guest room for the very first time.  Here I make new memories: good ones and bad ones that I reflect on on my couch.

Yes, all my walls can talk. And I bet yours do too.

Now close your eyes and remember your own sacred places and holy spaces.

Remember the floor plans you can walk through even with your eyes closed.

Remember the bathrooms you can find without a night light.

Remember the bedrooms where you tossed and turned, gazed up at the moon, made love, and fell asleep.

Remember the kitchen counters where you unpacked the groceries, packed your kids’ lunches, and burned the toast.

Remember the dining room tables where turkeys were carved, wine glasses clinked, parents argued, and company overstayed their welcome.

Remember the family rooms with the TV blasting, stereo turned up loud, and puzzles spilled all over the floor.

Close your eyes and remember. Remember each-and-every address. Map them out on a map.  In your mind’s eye, take off your shoes and walk through their doors.

“In your Father’s house, there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told that I go and prepare a place for you?”

Now, I know that not all of our memories of home are happy ones; I know most certainly that all of mine are not.  But God has lived and loved in all these places where we have lived and loved — though we may not have known it or realized it at the time. Christ descends into the cracked and broken places, especially into the cracked and broken places. We may have entertained angels unawares.

Listen to the walls that talk. And this may sound weird to say but I truly believe, it’s okay to talk back to them. 

God is listening.

You are standing (and sleeping) on holy ground.

Soli Deo Gratia,


Spirituality The Episcopal Church

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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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