How to reach the stars? For the first African-American woman in space, it took sanding, sealing, varnishing, and finally leaping.
This is silly, but four years after I bought my first house and had settled in, I was still intimidated by the real estate broker who sold it to me. And I'm not easily intimidated: Since I was a teenager, I had trained or worked in male-dominated professions and stood up to the biggest of bullies. When I was 24, I worked in a Khmer refugee camp where one could hear shelling across the Thai-Cambodian border at night. At 26, I was in West Africa, as the area Peace Corps medical officer in Sierra Leone and Liberia, solely responsible for the health of more than 400 Americans. Now I was in the perfect position to make a childhood dream come true, and I found myself paralyzed by indecision, because the real estate broker told me not to do anything "unique" to my house that might undermine its resale value.

I bought the house in 1987, after moving to Houston to join NASA. My realtor did a wonderful job getting me the lowest mortgage rates, the best terms and purchase price. She gave freely of her wisdom on real estate. "It's all about resale value, especially with a starter home," she told me. "So don't do anything unique, like paint it funny colors."

But I wanted my own dance studio. As a little girl, my dream had been to have a room at home where I could pirouette, plié, jump, and sweat. Dance was alternately my first and second love, always jockeying with science for my devotion. In fact, the big dilemma I faced my senior year in college was whether to go to New York City to medical school or to become a professional dancer. (My mother helped me solve that one—but that's another story.)

After I moved in, I fantasized about a wood floor on which I could dance in the wee hours of the morning or do yoga in a nice quiet space. I had the perfect room, too. It was huge, sunny and located at the back of the house. I didn't use it for anything except storing old magazines and clothes I was too lazy to throw out. All I had to do was remove the carpet, remove the closets—make it different.

I tortured myself with conflicting thoughts. It was my space, but what if no one else liked my studio? Then I realized the most important thing I could do with my house was to create a home I would be comfortable in, a space that reflected and suited me, not the resale market.

I am very proud of my ability to adapt and excel in the world I find myself in, but now I leave my signature on my environment as well. Ten years later I live in the same house. I bask in the knowledge that it is important to build places of comfort suited to me, to my world. Dance anyone?


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