I used to live in a cozy, three bedroom bungalow. It didn’t look like much, but the size was acceptable. And even though it wasn’t mine, it felt homey, if temporary.

I moved out of that house when I was 21 and I took my teenage brother and sister in. I already had two children of my own, and the bungalow couldn’t fit all six of us. That’s why I bought a giant old house with 6 bedrooms. It needed a little work, but it had potential.

Famous last words.

What began as cleaning up, painting, and some minor repair, quickly spiraled out of control. I used a crowbar to yank wood veneer panels from the 1970s off the walls, which revealed more wood veneer underneath, followed by a layer of floral-print vinyl, followed by wallpaper, followed by plaster that could only be described as “disgruntled.” And hot pink. Actually, the parts of the wall behind the cabinetry which turned out to be rotting from the inside were not pink, they were bright orange.

In a bathroom upstairs I pulled away ancient linoleum to reveal loose tile work underneath. It was loose because the tile had been laid on top of carpet. I can’t make this stuff up. I could go on for hours about what I found in that house.

By the end of month two, I had removed 18,000 lbs (8,200 kilos) of debris from the house. I know because I had to pay by weight to have it hauled away.

Good Bones

Neighbors who had been in the neighborhood to recall said it had been the worst crack house in the area. All the renovations done to it in the 1970s had been atrocious in every sense.

Two important things:

First of all, it looked fine on the surface. There were visible problems, but nothing that a weekend and some elbow grease couldn’t fix (it seemed). It’s not until I put in the effort to dig down that I realized anything was wrong at all.

Second, after I had discovered that looks can be deceiving by digging past the surface to the core of structure, I saw how it had originally been built in the 1920s. It was incredibly solid, arranged in a time before the flimsy metal brackets that hold walls and floors together now were invented. The studs were so dense that it was impossible for a human being to hammer a nail into it—only a pneumatic framing nailer could do it. The subfloor was made of two by eight lumber of the same density, not the plywood crap they use now. The outer walls were brick that had stood strong against countless tropical storms as well as hurricanes Donna and Dora.

This was fundamentally solid home that had been ravaged by misuse and sloppy workmanship.

The Reflection

Four years later the house was livable, but still a work in progress. The vaulted stair well walls were smooth and solid, but the historic central railing still needed repair, and there was no hallway railing at all. The hole in the first story floor went straight to the crawlspace below, as the secondary foyer awaited tile work that I never quite got around to. Baseboard lined only half the walls. Still marred and splattered with almost 100 years of history, the hardwood floors had still not been sanded or refinished.

I had once felt hopeful and optimistic about the house, as if I was conquering it and making it beautiful. Years later, I walked down the hallway feeling frustrated and limited by it—a testament to inability to finish anything. A reminder that everything in my life was in a constant state of “almost,” and “just a little more.”

Just a few more credits for my degree, just a couple more issues to solve for a happy marriage, just a little more money to do what I wanted.

Oh. Oh shit.

The story about the house I bought when I was 21 isn’t about the house at all. It’s a story about me. It’s about my mind, my emotional state.

The house is my naive optimism made material: I’m fine except a few cosmetic issues. I’m all about improving myself, so I’ll just jump in there and give myself a little spit shine and the job will be done.

But that’s not what happened.

With my siblings I embarked on the most harrowing year of my life, which would shake me to my core and reveal truths, both dark and light. As I dug more and more deeply, I discovered the dirt and grime and shoddy repair work of my past. Linoleum over tile over carpet over hardwood.

Every step of the way she begged me to stop—to just leave the wood vaneer and paint over it. Covering things up will look fine, no one will know the difference. You’ll even forget what was under there after a while. And anyway we didn’t know how to repair and reroute the ancient wiring we’d find in there.

But I was driven. I had to do it. I had to keep ripping and tearing and clawing at that house—at myself—until I found a solid core. Whatever I found in there, I would learn to fix.

And when I fixed things, I was meticulous. It would drive her crazy—I would sit there for hours and days to make every part of the project just so. I would scrap a day worth of effort because what I had built wasn’t precisely right. It’s good enough, she’d say. We don’t have the money to do it again, I think you’re being obsessive.

But I had to get to that solid core.

Then I had to choose what I built on top of that, and do it carefully so the end result lived up to the picture in my mind.

New Beginning

And that’s what I did for the most part, but the job just never quite got done. One thing or another would stand in the way of making anything but painfully slow progress.

The tension between change and stability finally boiled over, and I ultimately left that house and that life behind.

After a few weeks of floating in isolation, I moved into a house within walking distance of my old one so the elements of the old life that I wanted in my mental space (my children) could enter freely. But I didn’t want to buy another house in the same area, and I’m only one person, so I found a place I share with a room mate.

Like my old house, it’s large, but this one has tall ceilings and plenty of light. I like the bones. What I didn’t like when I moved in was the utter chaos. Furniture in disarray, trash strewn everywhere, (truly cosmetic) projects visibly half finished.

Then there was my room, a pristine oasis. Everything in its place, my shirts arranged perfectly by color in the closet. In that still center, I could breathe.

Boundary Issues

For a few months I felt trapped. I liked the house (in theory) and I liked my room mate, but I hated the clutter, and I was sick constantly because of the malevolent dust monsters lurking in every corner. But I didn’t feel right cleaning the common areas. I felt like an interloper in this new space, a guest who was free to roam among the debris, but not make too much of a mark. I was powerless to change my situation.

Just kidding, that’s bullshit. Of course I had the power. I didn’t have to live in another person’s filth, it was just a choice I was making by being meek and passive. I could choose to let another person create chaos in my space, or I could set a boundary.

So one weekend when I had the house all to myself, I cleaned. I cleaned everything. The serene core that had been my room expanded outward as trash and boxes moved, carpets were shampooed, a year of dust was wiped from the floor and baseboards, debris found its way to shelves or the trash. The kitchen counter was cleared of months-old bread and unused appliances.

I cleaned the shit out of that place.

As a fig leaf, in acknowledgement of my choice to share this space with others, I left a singular corner of the dining room in full, cluttered glory. Sharing mental space with other people means introducing a little chaos, which is fine.

The people sharing my space (physical and mental) were pissed. Their debris, insofar as it was in my space, had been moved from carefully selected shadows and crevices into the trash, or else fully into their private space. And they weren’t having it.

They both told me they were ejecting themselves from my “space,” and previously I would have felt guilty. I had made too much of a mark, rippled the water too harshly, I should backpedal. It’s my responsibility to make sure everyone stays calm and happy, even at my own expense.

But instead I said, “It’s your choice. I’ll make reasonable accommodations, but I have my boundaries.”

Remember, I’m not talking about my living arrangement. I’m talking about my mind.

Look Around

This whole thing about the place you live reflecting what’s in your mind may be a metaphor, but I suspect it’s not. Now that I know to look for it, I see it time and again. Have you ever seen a suburban palace with a manicured lawn that felt cold inside? Every architectural detail manufactured and installed haphazardly, each piece of furniture hinting at elegance, yet cheap and drab?

Similarly, have you experienced a small home in the wrong part of town that seemed to glow with warmth, that invited you in to stay and be comfortable, like a warm hug? Everything in its place, and all working together to say: be joyful?

Why is that? What do you see when you look around your house?