Note: I had written most of this post last fall before we left for England, and have finally wrapped it up.
"But wouldn't it be nice to add some windows on this stairway wall?" Erin asked.
"You wouldn't get that value back."
"But this wall faces south. It would bring in light all day."
"No, listen," he said, "It's perfect. You've done enough work. You need to stop renovating your house."
"I can stop anytime I want. Just one last little window wouldn't hurt..."
"You're out of control. It starts with one little window, then you'll want to put in skylights, and before you know it you're lofting your bedroom ceiling. I'm not going to enable you to do this. It's time to go cold turkey."
"Come on man, I NEED this!" Erin implored, itching her neck.
"Listen to yourself. This isn't you. Look, you're not alone. I know people who can help - contractors, interior decorators, architects -"
"My husband is an architect."
"I see... this may be harder than I thought. I think we need to have an intervention with both of you."
"I can't handle this," she stammered, "My hands are shaking. I need to go paint something."
"It's going to be okay. You can do this. But the first step is to admit you have a problem."
Our realtor was right. We have a problem. Erin and I are serial home renovators.
Erin pores over glossy renovation photos in her Houzz app like a gambler watching cherries spin on a slot machine. Me walking into a home improvement store is like a crackhead walking into a crackstore.
Ten years ago we bought a house that had been meticulously renovated, with all new drywall over the old horsehair plaster walls, new floors, new fixtures, and new finishes throughout. It was perfect.
Within three months we had painted every surface, changed half of the light fixtures, and torn down a wall, which wasn't easy with that new drywall over the old horsehair plaster.
Then we tore down another wall to enlarge the bathroom. Then we dug a sump in the basement. Then we added the patio and planter. Then we dug a french drain in the basement. Then the gas fireplace. Then we patched the stone mortar in the basement. Then the first floor bathroom. Then we leveled the floor, relocated pipes, framed partitions, and finished the basement.
We had a perfectly nice patch of grass in the back of the house. We tore it out and put down astroturf. When neighbors stop to ponder the bright green lawn emerging from the spring snowmelt, I tell them the trick is to seed it in the fall.
Now the house is perfect. It always has been. But we couldn't stop ourselves from trying to perfect it.
The morning of Erin and my fourth wedding anniversary, I donned a Tyvek suit like I was about to walk into a plastic sheeted room with ET strapped to a gurney. I put on a respirator, goggles, and gloves. I armed myself with a plastic gun tethered to two tanks of nefarious chemicals, and began coating the stone foundation walls with an inch of sea green spray-foam insulation.
It was a time-sensitive process. If I went too fast I wouldn't get enough coverage. If I stopped too long the nozzle would clog. If I didn't finish off the tanks that day, the hoses might seal up. Once I started I couldn't stop.
I reached over the stone walls to seal the rim joists. I crouched under the stairs to fill behind the stringer. I squeezed myself into a crawlspace on my back, stretching my arm over my head as far as I could and pulling the trigger, hoping the formless goo was sticking to something in the darkness, as my goggles fogged and my mouth filled with noxious alkaline fumes.
I stopped briefly to make Erin a card with two scraps of cardboard, painters tape, and a Sharpie marker that I found in the basement.
That was how I spent our fourth wedding anniversary.
I spent most weekends of Oliver's first year down in that basement - leveling the floor, framing metal studs, screwing in wood blocking, clipping nails protruding from the floorboards above with bolt cutters.
That was how I spent my son's first year.
The approach to perfection is an asymptotic curve with diminishing rewards for increasing effort. You have to do more and more to try to achieve the same high you got from your first renovation.
These efforts come at a cost of time, money, lower back strain, and strained relationships with friends and family you cajoled into digging a trench in your basement, who no longer answer your phone calls for fear of being asked to help paint yet another room.
The self-imposed pressure to perfect our home was one of the commitments we felt trapped by before we started our year of family travel.
Traveling has been like a stay at a Betty Ford Clinic, weaning us off of our addiction to home renovations. Away from our house with few possessions, we had removed ourselves from the reinforcing stimuli that nurtured our habit.
We still succumbed to urges to rearrange the furniture or reorganize kitchen cabinets in our temporary accommodations. Our three housesitting gigs gave us little dopamine fixes whenever minor maintenance items came up.
But we finally hit rock bottom in Panama. Our house wasn't merely inconvenient. It was actively trying to kill us.
We had to let go and just live in the space as it was. Once we allowed ourselves to do this, we could begin to appreciate all that was good about it - the morning sunrises over the ocean, the afternoon naps in the hammock, the breezy evening dinners at our outdoor dining table watching pelicans glide by at eye level.
Our house was far from perfect, but our days had many perfect moments.
Now that we've returned to the new home in Maine we purchased in August, the pressure to renovate has resurfaced, especially since this house is far from perfect (have I mentioned the teal carpet?).
Before we moved in, we made a list of all the projects we wanted to do over the next year. Since we're going to be traveling again to England this spring, we planned to have a contractor complete this work while we were out of the house.
"We have to do the floors," I said, adding it to the list.
"Definitely," Erin agreed, "but we should replace the kitchen cabinets first so we don't have to patch the floor in later."
"Yeah, and open up the wall between the kitchen and living room."
"Shouldn't we flip the coat closet around while we're doing that?"
"Of course," I said, "and what about the bathroom vanity?"
"It has to go," said Erin, "and the upstairs one too."
"Then we should redo that whole bathroom. And add a shower."
"If they're working up there, do we want to add the wall to split up the kids' room?"
"Oh, I just assumed we were doing that."
"And repainting all the rooms," Erin added.
"And new lighting through the whole house."
"So how much is all that?"
I estimated costs for each of these items and added it up.
"Fifty thousand dollars," I declared.
Erin thought for a minute. "That's a lot of money."
"How much will we have in our checking account after making the down payment at the closing?" I asked.
"Five thousand dollars."
"And how much do we owe on our credit card?"
"Five thousand dollars."
"So we're broke."
I looked at the 3D computer model I had made of the house showing all of our planned improvements. I dragged my finger in a slow circle on the touchpad to spin it around.
"Well, we've got a lot of equity in our house in Somerville," I said, "we can probably get a home equity loan or cash-out refinance to borrow against the value of the house. It just depends on how much they appraise the house for. Hopefully we'll get the value back from our renovations."
"I knew it," Erin cursed. "I knew we should have added that window at the bottom of the stairs. It would have brought in all that southern light."
We stared at the numbers.
"Well," Erin said, "if we're borrowing money, shouldn't we go ahead and finish the basement too?"
"Should we buy a couch?" Erin asked.
"I don't know, it's a lot of money," I said, thinking it over.
"I know, but don't you just kind of feel like we're camping in our own house?"
"Why do you say that?"
"Because we've been sitting on camping chairs in our living room for the last six weeks."
Since we've rented our house in Somerville as a furnished unit, we had no furniture to move into our new house in Maine. We had resisted the urge to buy new furniture that would just have to be moved out during our planned renovations. Instead, we accepted generous donations of old furniture and kitchenware from friends and family for the four months we would be living in the house before traveling to England in January, when we planned to have a contractor complete the work.
The upcoming England trip has put us on a home renovation hiatus. We've been living in limbo, knowing what we want to do with the house but powerless to do it.
Like the other fifteen homes we've lived in over the past year, we've had to live in our new house as it is, adapting ourselves to the space rather than adapting the space to our vision of perfection.
After a few months of this exercise in home alteration abstinence, something changed.
"I can live with the kitchen for a while," Erin announced one evening as she was making dinner.
"Really? I thought that was the first thing you wanted to renovate."
"We can't afford to put in a new kitchen right now."
"But we have to do the cabinets before the floors," I reasoned, eyeing the bubbling linoleum at her feet.
"I know. I don't think we should do the floors either."
"Not do the floors... but... Erin... the carpet... the teal carpet..." I sputtered in disbelief.
"It's not that bad," she asserted.
"It looks like the Little Mermaid threw up all over our living room!"
"The kids love playing on it, and I don't care if they make a mess on it. It's warm on your feet. Plus it keeps the whole house quiet."
I glanced at the two of them running and tackling each other, falling down laughing.
"I guess it has its merits," I admitted reluctantly.
"We just need to hold off on all of this," Erin said. "I don't want to take on more debt right now, not while I'm the only one working."
"You think what I do isn't work?"
"Stop it. Our cash is going to be tight while we're in England over the spring. I don't want to feel like we can't do anything while we're there because all of our money is tied up in a house we're not living in. We'll get to all of these projects eventually, but for now we have to just say no."
This has been a breakthrough of sorts, the realization that there is something to be gained by not trying to make our house perfect. There is virtue in having an unperfect home.
Unperfect is not a word. Or rather, it's an imperfect word. It's intentionally imperfect.
Imperfect suggests something that has an undesirable flaw. Unperfect implies something that is intentionally left imperfect. This requires acceptance, even appreciation, of its flaws.
We have accepted the house as it is, content to enjoy our time and money doing the things we really want to be doing with our lives, rather than working and spending to make a better container for a life we don't really want.
We've still succumbed to some of our renovation urges. We bought the couch. We put in a radon system. I've replaced doorknobs, light fixtures, smoke detectors, and a shower head and fenced in a portion of the yard. Erin found some new used kitchen appliances so that we no longer feel like we're cooking on the set of Family Ties.
I came downstairs one morning to find that Erin had taped out the location of the island we eventually want to build in our kitchen. My first impulse was to chastise her. But then I realized that this was just a coping mechanism, not a relapse. It was a nicotine patch on the outdated linoleum floor.
Recovery is a slow process. We'll get to all of our projects, eventually. Or maybe we won't.
The house is not perfect. It never will be.
It's an unperfect home. And for us, right now, it's perfect.