Change your house to change yourself

People who live in glass houses….

Philip Johnson's glass house: Great views, but no storage space.
Philip Johnson's glass house: Great views, but no storage space.

I've been helping a client, whom I'll call Bob, shop for a new home, and we've run into an unexpected problem. It's not one of the usual real estate bugaboos, like recalcitrant lenders or the discovery of black mold and termites. This problem concerns personal growth.

Bob (who has lived alone for years) is attracted to— indeed, obsessed with— houses with flowing, open interiors enclosed by great expanses of glass facing huge views, preferably incorporating major oceans and infinite horizons.

So we found a house he loved: an elegant glass-walled, flat-roofed structure designed by an architect renowned for the purity of his modernist international style. The house had everything Bob wanted: the perfect wooded urban hillside location, a potential marine view, and off-street parking for three cars.

Too many cars

And therein lay the problem. Three parking spaces weren't enough. Not nearly enough. Bob's present home has multiple garages that he built to shelter his ten cars, which range from vintage sports models to camper vans.

I suggested he divest himself of a few vehicles in order to adapt to his prospective new digs. He reacted as if I were proposing extracting his wisdom teeth through his nostrils.

"I can't do that," he said indignantly. " I'm a collector.

"Couldn't you collect something more manageable?" I asked. "Like netsukes?"

The cars, however, were only the tip of his iceberg of possessions. Bob collects everything: books, photographs, art, tools, clothing, electronic gadgets. When I last visited him, I opened a kitchen cabinet and discovered a year's worth of neatly washed and stacked empty cottage cheese containers ready for some unspecified use.

Storage space mania

"I like to have lots of stuff, "he explained. "It's about safety. It makes me feel secure." Indeed, to Bob the term "empty drawer" was an oxymoron.

"I always judge a piece of furniture by how much storage space it has," he said. "You can't have too much storage space."

But minimalist glass boxes are short on storage space and intolerant of clutter. So why was Bob obsessed with finding exactly the kind of house that would not accommodate his need to acquire and hold on to material objects?

Possibly because he wants to drop that need. Insofar as our homes are mirrors of our selves, Bob's transparent, partition-free dream house may be a metaphor for what he himself aspires to become: more open to the world around him, less barricaded against "unsafe" experiences, able to enjoy free access to all the neglected parts of himself that have been walled off to avoid internal conflict.

If that's true, it's time for an Extreme Garage Sale. It's time to get rid of a few cars, throw out the cottage cheese cartons, and examine the belief that a plethora of possessions offers protection from potential scarcity, be it material or emotional. If Bob— like all of us who cling to our "stuff"— can do this, the move into his airy dream house will be the objective correlative of an internal shift towards an expanded and liberated sense of self.

The shaggy pun story of the acquisitive king who inadvertently demolished his beloved crystal palace sums it up: People who live in glass houses shouldn't stow thrones.♦


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