“So, what really happened with your house?”

I’ve gone back and forth over the years on whether or not I’d ever write about all the craziness that happened with our first home here on the blog. It was a hard and confusing time in our lives that I just didn’t care to share with the entire world. But, not writing about it also left a lot of gaps in our story. I’ve had many people casually ask how the farmhouse came about, if we’d sold our first home, were we buying the farmhouse or renting it, and what happened to it all when we unexpectedly left for Nashville?

Seems weird that people would so freely ask such things sometimes. But I get it. I opened up our lives to the big world of the internet and then left out a giant part of our story. Most of those questions never came from real life conversations. It’s easier to straight up ask those kind of personal things virtually. For the most part, I just never responded. There was never an easy way to answer those questions without bringing more questions. So I avoided. And it’s worked for many years.

But, pouring my heart out about my discontentment lately and expressing candidly that I wasn’t sure my farm dreams would ever come true brought about a new surge of questions and advice and well-meaning intrigued people. Avoiding their emails and questions and offers no longer feels right.

So, I’m sharing today some of the ugliness of what happened with our first home so that there’s a little more clarity on why I feel so stuck.

Mr. Thistle and I purchased our first home (a brand spanking new house) a few months before our wedding date. We were 20 and 21 years of age. Just babies, really. And we did it all on our own. We were so proud of ourselves, if we’re being honest. We were real-deal homeowners and at such a young age. It was easy to feel very accomplished and mature. But we had no idea what we had just signed our names over to.

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Fast forward about 7ish or so years later (the dates have started to run together over the years as I’ve tried to block some of it out for my own sanity). We had devoted all of our free time over those years to making the place a home with landscaping and gardens and a greenhouse and raised beds. We planted trees and pulled weeds and pruned roses. It wasn’t fancy but it was ours and we put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into it. When we decided we wanted to take the next step and add chickens, bees, and miniature dairy goats our first item on the list was a proper fence. Being neighborly we decided to locate the pins on the four corners of our property so we could locate the exact property line and not encroach on anyone’s property by accident when we put the fence up (spoiler alert, we put the new fence up anyway during all of this and got the goats, chickens, and bees while we waded through the ugliness….because we weren’t putting our life on hold for the ridiculousness I’m about to tell you about). But, Mr. Thistle couldn’t find the pins in the woods at the back of our property. We even dug through old documents to locate our original copy of our plat and Mr. Thistle used the GPS coordinates listed to try to locate the property line. But, every time he tried he came up with the some crazy property line that ran through our house. We knew that couldn’t be right and decided that this was a task that was clearly out of our scope. We decided to call the original surveyor to locate the pins for us and mark the property line. When the surveyors came out, they couldn’t find the pins either. For two days they looked for those pins. And, when they mapped the GPS coordinates to try to get closer to the pins they found what we had found, a property line that ran right through our house.

Umm….hold the phone. What?!

That’s right. For years, a large portion of the property we had maintained was not even ours. Not only that, but a portion of our house wasn’t even on the property we owned. Of course this was devastating. No way this could be right. A survey was done before the house was built. A building inspection had been completed. All the necessary paperwork at closing looked legit. Everyone had done what they were supposed to right? We had a closing attorney. Wouldn’t he have known to ask these things for us?

But, really, who asks when they view a home if it actually sits on the property? It’s not a common thing to ask a realtor. It’s not something that comes up regularly in closing. It’s just not heard of. You assume the house you are buying is on the property that comes with it.

But you know what they say about assuming things? Uh huh.

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So, anyway, before you write me with your suggestions of what we should do or should’ve done, let me sum it up. We spent the next couple of years trying to remedy this situation. We contacted everyone from lawyers to surveyors to planning and zoning to community development to the county commissioner. And we heard the same thing over and over. They could not see a way to remedy the situation and, sadly, in the end we would be the ones who lost.

Because, here’s the thing: it wasn’t just our home. It was several in the community. And it wasn’t just our community. The builder had already been sued for everything he had for doing this in another community. And the county couldn’t give us a variance to straighten up our property without approval from the mortgage company to lose so much property (because the only way to fix it, according to them was to lose a chunk of land during the “straightening out” process). And the mortgage company had no interest in letting us have the same amount of money they had loaned us for a significantly smaller patch of land. They could simply file the lender’s title insurance if we defaulted and get their money back. Which brings us to our last option: using our title insurance. Oh, but wait. At closing we didn’t purchase additional title insurance (which is what we would’ve needed to cover a weird case like this, as regular title insurance does not), because again I say, “WHO THINKS TO ASK, should I get the additional insurance in case this house doesn’t sit on my property?”

So, we couldn’t sell our house because of encroachment issues, we couldn’t sue the builder to spend the money to fix it, even if we could sue him the problem was so big that none of the powers-that-be could figure out how to fix it and stay within their own codes and laws, the mortgage company had no interest in getting involved in any of it, and, in the meantime our neighborhood values were plummeting as people abandoned their homes. Tension increased among the homeowners who were trying to do the right thing and stick it out and do the hard work of remedying a really ugly, unfair situation. No one wanted to lose. No one could fix it. And the homeowners were left upside down in homes they would never be able to sell with property that was hard to identify as their’s or someone else’s. It was devastating.

In the meantime, we had gardens, goats, bees, and chickens that were in limbo while we tried to figure out how to remedy the ugliness of it all.

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That’s where The Pope’s and the farmhouse came into play. They knew all the rotten details and after a couple of dinners we started to toss around the idea of renovating the old farmhouse that sat on their property. It was an unorthodox arrangement. And it would take all the stars aligning to make it work. We wouldn’t own it and it needed a ton of work. But we could bring our farm animals and have a real bonafide farm and live next door to friends in the country. We would have to abandon all we knew and take a giant step into uncharted territory and make some hard decisions that looked like giving up to many. And honestly, on some days it looked like defeat and nothing else.

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And then we poured ourselves into the farmhouse for months. And we were one week from moving in. And then the job offer in Tennessee came. And we never got to spend a single night in the house we had worked so hard on. And one year later the job in Tennessee was no more. And now we are back in Georgia and live in an apartment only miles from the farmhouse. Someone else lives there. And The Pope’s moved to Arizona. And I pass by it just about every other week. Our first home is only a few miles further.

It’s been tricky, y’all. Tricky to navigate emotionally, spiritually. I’ve been angry, sad, hopeful, angry again. Many days I’ve felt like Lot’s wife, always looking back and being turned to a pillar of salt… bitter, bitter, salt. We did everything right and we were the ones who lost in the end. It’s easy to feel robbed, forgotten, punished. I’ve spent a lot of time looking back to try to see where we went wrong. I’ve let myself get caught up in the why.

Other times I’ve felt anticipation, like something is just around the corner. That’s how I felt with the farmhouse. And I thought it was the farmhouse that was just around the corner. Then it was the job in Tennessee. And when the rug was pulled out from under us yet again and we lost that job in Tennessee it took me longer to regain my footing. I’m still down for the count some days. Nothing that’s happened to us has been tragic, in the grand scheme of things. But it has challenged some ideas I had about what my life would be like and that’s always shocking to the system. It’s forced me to explore parts of my heart and soul that I’d rather keep tucked out of sight. It’s brought out parts of me that are ugly and raw. But I’ve learned a lot of useful things. About God, about myself, about other people that I never would’ve learned otherwise.

I’m currently reading Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor. It’s been so useful for this time in my life. I’ve struggled with my own emotions over the loss of our home. It’s a thing, a thing I cannot take with me and does not matter in the grand scheme of things. People matter, God matters. But do my dreams matter, too? Why do I know what I know and still feel the way I feel about it all?

Taylor says this:

“The problems is this: when, despite all my best efforts, the lights have gone off in my life (literally or figuratively, take your pick), plunging me into the kind of darkness that turns my knees to water, nonetheless I have not died….Instead, I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over gain, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”

“This book is called Learning to Walk in the Dark because I believe that is a spiritual skill some of us could use right now. As I said earlier, “darkness” packs a different punch for different people. I do not know a thing about the darkness of living with chronic illness or trying to raise a child in a refugee camp, for instance. My eyes work well enough. I have never been sexually abused. All in all, my experience of physical darkness does not extend much beyond reading a good book by bad light. If I have any expertise, it is in the realm of spiritual darkness: fear of the unknown, familiarity with divine absence, mistrust of conventional wisdom, suspicion of religious comforters, keen awareness of the limits of all language about God and at the same time shame over my inability to speak of God without a thousand qualifiers, doubt about the health of my soul, and barely suppressed contempt for those who have no such qualms. These are the areas of my proficiency. If even one of them rings a bell, it is a possible that you too could benefit from learning to walk in the dark.”

“If you are in the middle of your life, maybe some of your dreams of God have died hard under the weight of your experience. You have knocked on doors that have not opened. You have asked for bread and been given a stone. The job that once defined you has lost its meaning; the relationships that once sustained you have changed or come to their natural ends. It is time to reinvent everything from your work life to your love life to your life with God — only how are you supposed to do that exactly, and where will the wisdom come from? Not from a weekend workshop. It may be time for a walk in the dark.” 

And so we have been. We’ve been walking in the dark and learning, albeit painfully sometimes, to take what we’ve been given and see the usefulness; find the beauty. I’ve lost my sense of self in the process and have begun the rebuilding. Hopefully one day soon we will begin the literal rebuilding with hammer and nails. We cannot buy or build again through traditional means for another one year, 5 months. So for now the only work we’re doing is through prayer and devotion and self-exploration. Lots of tearing down and starting over in that kind of building. Lots of waiting and delayed gratification. Lots of patience. But it’s what we’ve been given right now.

“If you are my age, you are losing a lot more things than you once did — not just your keys and your vision, but also your landmarks and your sense of self….Learning to walk in the dark is an especially valuable skill in times like these — or maybe I should say remembering how to walk in the dark, since people of faith have deep pockets of wisdom about how to live through long nights in the wilderness…The remembering takes time, like straightening a bent leg and waiting for the feeling to return. This cannot be rushed, no matter how badly you want to get where you are going. Step 1 of learning to walk in the dark is to give up running the show. Next you sign the waiver that allows you to bump into some things that may frighten you at first. Finally you ask darkness to teach you what you need to know….Meanwhile, here is some good news you can use: even when light fades and darkness falls — as it does every single day, in every single life — God does not turn the world over to some other deity. Even when you cannot see where you are going and no one answers when you call, this is not sufficient proof that you are alone…..darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day.” 

(Barbara Brown Taylor)

 

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