A few years ago, I painted the exterior of my house. I did this because it was less expensive than hiring a painter, and also, which perhaps carried more weight with my reasoning process, because someone suggested I wouldn’t be able to do it. My house isn’t large, but it is somewhat complicated – a front porch, a back patio, overhanging eaves, lots of trim. I had done some painting in college, on various mission trips (somewhere in Chicago is a room with two different shades of white, because we ran out of paint halfway through and couldn’t match it), and so I set what felt like a reasonable goal: one week, Saturday to Saturday.
I should mention that this wasn’t a solo endeavor – long-suffering Will, who would have been happy to hire a painter in the first place, took that Friday off work. My nephews, for $50 apiece, were happy to help. Mom donated two afternoons and a lasagna. Dad, the world’s most obsessive perfectionist, was enlisted to paint the front door, and my sister and her husband braved traffic on 101 to help with the final coat of trim.
But for the first four days, it was just me – balancing near the top of the ladder, one arm steadying myself and the other wielding a paintbrush, I worked my way around the house, painting the eaves. Despite sunblock, I burned. Despite a bandanna covering most of my head, I ended up with large globs of paint in my hair. And despite my wish for solitude, I got to know my neighbors.
Everyone on the block stopped by to comment on my progress and admire the new color (desert sand), or ask if I was available for hire, or say the things they’d meant to say to me for years, if only our paths had crossed sooner. I learned that my house is never truly alone – the meter reader stopped by, a city worker climbed a utility pole for an unknown purpose and waved down to me. A man from the pest control service jingled through the side gate, nearly causing me to topple from surprise. The mail carrier stopped to chat each day. On Thursday, my neighbors lugged their garbage bins to the alley, waited for the garbage to be collected by massive rumbling trucks, and wheeled the bins away. The cats followed my progress from each window, sometimes extending a paw in my direction, as if they too wanted to help. Baxter did his best to be underfoot, preferring to sleep between my ladder and the wall I was painting. Whenever I looked down, he was looking up at me, his side embellished with a desert sand racing stripe.
And through it all I painted. I painted and reloaded my brush and painted and climbed down and moved my ladder two feet and started up again. When I reached a certain point, I went back for a second coat. Ladder, paint, repeat.
What I learned is that I’m good at mindless, repetitive things.
I would be a great factory worker – at least until, wandering in my thoughts, I lost a finger to a conveyor belt or an arm to a mangle.
What I learned is that I like a bit of solitude, and that when my hands are occupied and my mind is free, I can create.
I wrote a million stories in my mind that week. I invented a few worlds that didn’t exist, and populated them with people who were anything but flat characters. I put myself back in the situations where I should have spoken up, and this time around I did. I was unfiltered, uninhibited. I was queen of my ladder.
Left up there too long, the skin on my neck beginning to peel in raggedy strips, I would have gone crazy. I would have told stories to my plants and carried on conversations with the odd dragonfly. Will would have had to coax me down in the evening, or set a sugar trap in the kitchen.
But eventually, I ran out of eaves to paint, and the house was finished, and I went back to my regular, non-painting life. I haven’t forgotten, though, the curiously satisfying feeling of going it alone, stroke by stroke. It comes back to me every so often, like now – one key after another, word following word, and I sigh from the satisfaction of finishing a sentence. And start it up again.
2 years ago