The Zen of Painting

Reader Contribution by Christopher Nyerges

30 Years Later and the House Demolished,  Did It Matter if We Used Glossy or Flat? 

It was the summer of 1973 when my brother and I lived on my grandfather’s farm in Chardon, Ohio. In fact, I lived very close to the very first office of the Mother Earth News, and as a young journalist, I considered applying for work.But the magazine office moved out of state, and I eventually I moved back to California.

One day at the Chardon farmhouse, we decided to paint the kitchen a beautiful shade of light turquoise.Mybrother and I drove into Cleveland to buy the paint, which was no small task for us in our “jalopy” car.

We prepared the kitchen, turned on the radio, and began our task.We opened the windows, and I did the trim while my brother rolled.We listened to the radio as we busied ourselves with our individual tasks.We worked the corners, the edges, the front surfaces..

There’s something about painting — perhaps it’s the fumes, perhaps it is the long quiet times of many little tasks.Painting requires no moral decisions, no great choices, no necessary pontifications about the meaning and purpose of life.And yet

And yet, there you are, with your self, and the task before you.For me, painting time has often been a time to re-enter the inner I, to think, to remember.In many ways, it is the ideal task for self-enlightenment.

When we were done, we felt we’d accomplished something, and felt we’d given something back to the old farmhouse.

When the weekend came, another uncle came to visit us.He strode into the kitchen, looked at the paint, and simply said “you didn’t use glossy!”

Glossy?We were teenagers from California, visiting the home where our mother lived.Though it may be second-nature to us today, back then we had no sense that a kitchen should be painted glossy.Glossy vs. flat were not issues that we thought much about.We didn’t think it mattered all that much?

But Uncle Joe seemed to think it was a big deal, and just one more bit of evidence that teenagers from “the big city” were a bunch ofdimwits who wouldn’t know a cow from a goat.Uncle Joe shared it around to family and friends that we’d painted the kitchen in “wrong” paint, so we heard about in the weeks that followed.Some relatives didn’t care, but others would comment as they came in, “Oh, so there’s the flat paint job,” instead of, “Hey, hello, long time no see!”

Dumb city boys who don’t know the difference between flat and glossy paint, who actually had the stupidity to paint a kitchen in flat paint.

Of course, our intent was to make the family happy that we’d improved the old farmhouse.We wanted the relatives to comment that we were industrious nephews who proved that all city boys were not idiots.

Today, while I was painting my own bathroom — glossy paint, white — memories of the summer of 1973 in Chardon began to play again in my mind.Perhaps it was the paint. Perhaps it was the cool breeze blowing fresh oxygen through the room. I heard the chickens out back and it reminded me of my brief period of farm-living.

I began to think about how Uncle Joe responded, and how he could have responded.I realized then the great truth in the phrase that WHAT we do is oflittle or no importance, but HOW we do it is everything.

Uncle Joe died over 10 years ago, and when I visited the old farm site in 1999, the entire farm house and barn had been torn down and were now just a field.None of it mattered anymore in the world of physical reality.Joe was gone, and the entire farmhouse was simply a memory, glossy or flat.

Joe could have congratulated us on taking the initiative to paint, and could have explained why kitchens are always painted glossy.He could have told us that it was a greatprimer coat, and enthusiastically offered to drive us right then to the hardware store to get glossy paint, and we’d all do the final coat together.That would have been something.Our memory would have been profoundly different had Uncle Joe taken that route of inclusiveness, familyness, and helpfulness.

I do not fault him for what he did do — he probably knew no other way.In fact, from what I knew about his father (my grandfather), his father probably would have beaten him had Joe painted the kitchen with flat paint.So to Joe, that was just one of millions of automatic reactions to things in his world.He probably forgot about in a few years, after the novelty of talking about Marie’s silly nephews wore off.

I realized then how important such “little things” can be, and I wondered how well I would do when my next opportunity arose.It is especially important with impressionable youth to do the very best we can to be a good example.

It seemed like an important insight, that the “how” is more important than the “what,” and that flat or glossy really doesn’t matter.Perhaps it was the paint.Perhaps it was the cool breeze blowing fresh oxygen through the room

Nyerges is the author of How to Survive Anywhere, Guide to Wild Foods, and co-author of Extreme Simplicity.He has led wilderness trips since 1974.He can be reached at the School of Self-Reliance (Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041); a schedule of his classes is available

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