Building from the heart (I)

In my mid-forties, I decided to build a house. Sometimes people seemed surprised that I’d even consider building a house on my own. I told them that I’d heard home-building is hard on a marriage, and since I had no marriage that would suffer, it seemed like the best time to do it. Besides, I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to meet the expectations of my parents, teachers, employers, spouse, partners, therapists, the clergy, and others. Building our house is the first time I have pleased only myself. It is the most self-indulgent thing I have ever done, and certainly one of the most empowering, creative, and fulfilling.

There are thousands of decisions that have to be made when you’re building a house. Sometimes I wished I had someone to talk things over with, but as I made each decision alone, I learned more about myself. It was like turning myself inside out for the whole world to see–everything about it was an expression of who I am.

Building a home is relatively easy when you build from the heart. You just close your eyes and imagine how you want to feel when you’re in a room. Then, you let that feeling inform every decision you make.

I wasn’t born knowing this. My parents were big do-it-yourselfers, and frankensteined their house together from pieces of other buildings. They recycled long before it was hip. Dad was proud of the solid-core doors he got from an insane asylum. He salvaged hardwood floors from a navy ship, sink fixtures from a hospital, and paneling from an old box car.

I admire my parents’ resourcefulness and am proud the fact that my 78-year-old mother is still adept with a Skil saw. But spending the night in what was once my bedroom drives me insane. My parents did not observe conventions. For example, molding should go on the wall, but in my former room it sometimes meanders up to the ceiling. The door doesn’t swing into the room as it should—it swings out—and I skin my knuckles on the door jamb almost every time I close it. There is no source of heat whatsoever, but then, there’s no source of heat in any of the bedrooms.

Elsewhere in the house, light switches were installed upside down. Mom writes “on” and “off” on the switch plate covers with a Sharpie to remind her which way to flip the switch. In the living room, Dad mounted light fixtures on wooden panels that he made out of green wood, which later cracked and split terribly. The button for the doorbell is so small that no one ever finds it, so mom wrote “Bell” above it in calligraphy. And when it rings, it isn’t a pleasant “ding dong” but a “BRRRRIIIIIIIIIINNNNNNGGGG” that’s as loud as a phone ringing at a lumber yard.

Everywhere I look in my parents’ house, I stub my eye, and I don’t feel comfortable in any of the rooms. I didn’t want that kind of house. I wanted a house built from the heart, and I got exactly what I wanted. Oh, I could go on and on about the process of building it–from having the plans feng shui-ed to milling our own lumber. Here are a few picturesTime-lapse photos of our house being builtTime-lapse photos of our house being builtof it going up.

While building our house, I felt excited, fulfilled, creative, and empowered.  Those feelings assured me that, as far as my life’s journey was concerned, I was headed in the right direction.

Excited Fulfilled

Creative Empowered

Kris Wiltse’s illustrations for the “Excited,” “Fulfilled,” “Creative,” and “Empowered” cards from the Mixed Emotions card deck.

Following our own yellow brick road

In first grade, my son’s teacher read The Wizard of Oz to the class. I had never read the book, and became curious when Adrian recounted parts of the story that weren’t in the 1939 version of the movie I’d seen. Not long ago, we checked out the recorded book from the library, and listened to it several times.

In the book, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the Lion, and Dorothy all yearned for things they thought they lacked. The Scarecrow wanted intelligence, the Woodman wanted a to be able to love, the Lion wanted courage, and Dorothy wanted to go home. They were all convinced that the Wizard of Oz could give them these things.

But as problems arose on their journey to see him, the Scarecrow solved them with great resourcefulness and intelligence. Whenever the Woodman witnessed injustice, he wept tears of compassion (which always caused a fuss, because everyone was afraid he would rust. Surely author L. Frank Baum must’ve known that tin doesn’t rust?). The Lion carried his traveling companions across obstacles and defended them when they were threatened. And Dorothy? She experienced “home” as being with those she loved–not just a place to live.

Long before they reached the wizard, they already possessed what they desired. On arriving in Oz, they discovered that the wizard was just a regular person who could not grant their wishes.  But he gave the Scarecrow, the Woodman, and the Lion symbols that represented what they sought, and that seemed to satisfy them. He intended to take Dorothy home in his balloon, but the balloon took off without her.

Dorothy’s journey was the longest. Although the Scarecrow, Woodman, and Lion had already found what they sought, they accompanied Dorothy on a yellow-brick-roadless journey to find Glinda, the Good Witch of the South. It was Glinda who revealed to Dorothy that she (surprise) possessed the ability to go home all along. All she had to do was ask her silver shoes to take her there.

There’s a lot to learn from the Wizard of Oz. As we follow our own roads (yellow brick or otherwise):

  • We find that it is not in anyone else’s power to give us the qualities, characteristics, and things that we seek.
  • We develop the qualities we think we lack by facing the challenges that arise on our journeys.
  • Our life experiences transform our perceived weaknesses into strengths.
  • The shoes that have been on our own feet all along are the ones that will take us home.


One of Kris Wiltse’s illustrations from the Mixed Emotions card deck.