Editor’s note: The following is an edited excerpt from the new book, “House Lessons: Renovating a Life,” © 2020 by Erica Bauermeister. All rights reserved. Excerpted by permission of Sasquatch Books.
THE HOUSE STOOD at the top of a hill, ensnarled in vegetation, looking out over the Victorian roofs of Port Townsend and beyond, to water and islands and clouds. It seemed to lean toward the view as if enchanted, although we later learned that had a lot more to do with neglect than magic. The once-elegant slopes of its hipped roof rolled and curled, green with moss. The tall, straight walls of its Foursquare design were camouflaged in salmon-pink asbestos shingles, the windows covered in grimy curtains or cardboard. Three discarded furnaces, four neon-yellow oil drums, an ancient camper shell and a pair of rusted wheelbarrows lay scattered at odd angles across the overgrown grass, as if caught in a game of large-appliance freeze tag.
The yard was Darwinian in its landscaping — an agglomeration of plants and trees, stuck in the ground and left to survive. Below the house, I could just see the tips of a possible orchard poking up through a roiling sea of ivy. In front, two weather-stunted palm trees flanked the walkway like a pair of tropical lawn jockeys gone lost, while a feral camellia bush had covered the porch and was heading for the second story. Someone had hacked away a rough opening for the front stairs, down which an assortment of rusted rakes and car mufflers and bags of fertilizer sprawled in lazy abandon. In their midst, seemingly oblivious to its setting, sat a rotting fruit basket, gift card still attached.
“That one,” my husband, Ben, said, as he pointed to the house.
“It’s not for sale,” I noted.
“I know. But it should be, don’t you think?”
Our son and daughter, 10 and 13, stared out the car windows, slack-jawed.
You’re kidding, right? they asked. But I think they already knew the question was rhetorical.
WHEN I WAS young, my mother used to take all five of her kids on an annual quest for the family Christmas tree. We would travel around Los Angeles in our wood-paneled station wagon, from one lot of precut evergreens to another, searching for the perfect tree. As the trip dragged on, there were times I questioned my mother’s sanity, and yet when my mother found her tree, it created a satisfaction within her that I could see even if I didn’t always understand. Maybe a particular height reminded her of being a child herself; perhaps a certain shade of green reached into her soul. I never really knew, and perhaps knowing was never the point. When I would ask what she was looking for, my mother would just smile and say: “It has to talk to me.”
Any honest real estate agent will tell you that most homebuyers’ decisions are no more rational than my mother’s with her tree. There was a time in my life, years after I first encountered that ramshackle house in Port Townsend, when I was an agent myself, walking buyers through the process and dutifully helping them draw up their lists of requirements. I would listen to a couple emphatically assert that they needed four bedrooms, two baths and a no-maintenance yard — and then watch as they fell in love with a tiny garden-becalmed cottage that they spotted on the way to the house that met every one of their specifications. It happened over and over and over. While we might like to believe that our house needs are pragmatic line items, our true needs, the ones that drive our decisions, come far more often from some deep and unacknowledged wellspring of memories and desires.
Because here’s the thing — we aren’t looking for a house; we’re looking for a home. A house can supply you with a place to sleep, to cook, to store your car. A home fits your soul. In ancient Rome, the term domus, from which we get the word domicile, meant both “people” and “place,” an unspoken relationship that we feel like a heartbeat. A home fulfills needs you didn’t know you had, so it is no wonder that when pressed for an explanation for our choices, we give reasons that make no sense, pointing to a bunch of dried lavender hanging in the kitchen, a porch swing, the blue of a front door — almost always things that could be re-created in a house that fit the list. But sense is not the point. These small details are simply visual indicators of an architectural personality that fits our own, that reminds us of a childhood home, or a house, filled with color and the laughter of children, that we visited on a vacation in Mexico.
And yet a choice of a home is not just about where we’ve been or what we remember; it’s also about who we want to be. As Winston Churchill famously said: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards they shape us.” When we choose a house, we are making a decision about how we will live. I don’t mean in the obvious way of how long your commute to work will be, or whether there are schools or stores or friends nearby — although all of those things are important and will impact your life. What I am talking about is something far more subliminal. The designs of our homes quite literally change us. An eating nook for two invites a busy couple to slow down every morning for coffee. A courtyard in an apartment building helps create community. A south-facing window encourages optimism, while alcoves foster book lovers. Perhaps one of the strongest blows for feminism came from the first sledgehammer that opened a kitchen to a family room and changed the view of the cook, from both sides of the wall.
It is the rare buyer who sees these things for what they are. We are understandably distracted by the stress of what is for many of us the biggest financial decision of our lives. Our minds are busy. But we feel those subtle calls. We see that bunch of lavender. And, as often as not, we leap.
THEY ARE GLORIOUS things, these leaps into love. We catch the wind of our own enthusiasm, and off we go, into the sky of a new future. But are they really as untethered as they seem? In his book “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell talks about our instantaneous decisions — flashes of insight he says are messages from the adaptive unconscious, the part of the brain that sifts through the bits and pieces of what is before us, focusing in on what is truly important. The process, Gladwell assures us, is a rational one; it simply “moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously than the kind of deliberate, conscious decision making that we usually associate with ‘thinking.’ ” We meet a stranger and experience an instant aversion or affection. We walk in a front door for the first time and feel at home.
It’s not just our minds that make these decisions, however. We live in bodies with five senses, and the stimuli they receive from our external environments have a far greater effect upon our thinking than we know. It doesn’t take much to tip our decision-making scales, either. In one study, something as simple as the weight of a clipboard affected subjects’ opinions of the professionalism and intellect of the otherwise-equally qualified candidates they were interviewing. The heavier the board in the subjects’ hands, the more likely they would be to hire the candidate. Our physical senses are busy little puppeteers, playing with the strings of our emotions. So watch out for the pleasurable feel beneath your fingers of that smooth door handle, the satisfying click of the latch as it closes tight and secure. From such seemingly innocuous interactions are big decisions made.
It can be hard to accept that our choices are being swayed by our senses, or that there is a hidden part of our brain that knows our needs better than we do ourselves. And yet what would be wrong with a moment of unconscious communication between house and human — the kind that allows for that back-of-the-mind sorting of memories and desires, along with the equally unspoken delight our senses take in a curving front path or a kitchen that smells like home? It is the totality of each of us that will live in the house, after all.
And thus, if we leap, perhaps it is with a greater safety net than we thought — flying toward a house that calls us by a name we have long forgotten, or simply need to grow into.
“BUT WHY THAT HOUSE?” my mother asked me — a question I found amusing, coming from Our Lady of the Christmas Tree. But my mother had good reason to be skeptical. Among the five kids in our family, my role had always been “the cautious one.” In addition, while we’d lived in four houses while I was growing up, none of them had been more than 25 years old, and there hadn’t been much need for remodeling. So while Ben and I had made some changes to our Seattle home, there wasn’t much reason to think that I would want to take on, let alone be successful at, the complete renovation of a 92-year-old house crammed with trash.
What I find to be the loveliest bit of irony, though, is that the seeds of the desire to save the house in Port Townsend were actually planted by my mother, long before I even knew what a mortgage was. My mother loved books and always made sure we had plenty of them. As a young child, perhaps my favorite was Virginia Lee Burton’s “The Little House.” It tells the story of a small pastoral cottage that is slowly but surely surrounded by the city, growing more and more decrepit and forgotten until finally someone finds it, picks it up and moves it out to the country again. Each time my mother read the book to me, I could feel the house’s happiness, then sadness, then joy. I wanted to live in its glowing early iteration. When the city came in and the house despaired, all I wanted to do was save it.
I think anyone who saves an old house has to be a caretaker at heart, a believer in underdogs, someone whose imagination is inspired by limitations, not endless options. When I was a real estate agent, I used to ask my clients how they cooked. They usually thought I was trying to find out what kind of kitchen they wanted — and that was true, in part. But the question was really a way to find out how they approached life. Those who had little interest in cooking generally had even less in home maintenance and remodeling. Chefs who loved the planning of a meal — from researching recipes to finding the right ingredients — often had the temperament to design their own homes, and they could envision stunning remodels. But a fixer-upper requires a different kind of creativity, the kind that you often find in a cook whose mind is awakened by opening a refrigerator to an odd assortment of ingredients, knowing that dinner must come out of it. A cook sees leftovers as a chance to make something new and beautiful, and when someone with this kind of personality sees an old house, she is likely to want to save it. “Save” being the operative word, because for this group, the relationship with the house will be extremely personal and interactive.
I am a cook, a champion of underdogs — not just leftover ingredients, but long-forgotten novelists; stray pets; and, especially, houses. My children learned early on to divert my attention any time we passed a falling-down barn, or a house with good bones and paint that was peeling like a third-degree sunburn.
“Mom’s going to want that one,” my son would say, shaking his head.
“It needs us,” I’d answer. But in the past, I’d never done anything about it. We’d driven on, and I’d held those enchanting wrecks in my mind, and at night when I couldn’t sleep, I would mull over the possibilities of how I could save them, the same way other people count sheep.
But why was it that house, out of all the ones I’d seen over the years? Did I see symmetry and balance in its shape? Did I see a project, an outlet for a frustrated mind? Was it the big, wide porch underneath that rampant camellia, a vision of a time when people used to sit in rocking chairs and call out to their neighbors as they passed? Or was the house just the equivalent of picking up a lost puppy, on a very large scale?
I couldn’t have told you then. At the time, the back of my mind was doing the thinking, efficiently spinning through all the intricacies of the decision and finding the real reasons underneath. Maybe it knew better than I that I wasn’t ready to acknowledge the lessons I needed to learn, the ones the house could teach me. So among all the details, it grasped on to the delicate, undulating curves of a corbel, an unnecessary architectural flourish tucked in the corner where the front porch pillar met the roof, far above the trash, and handed that image to my conscious self. Said: Here you go. This is what you want.
A moment of beauty. A glimpse of a slower life in the midst of chaos.
It has been many years now since that day. During that time, the house has been just what the corbel promised. It has also been the exact opposite. But in the end, the back of my mind was right — this was the house I needed. I just didn’t understand why yet.