What I learned from painting a wall
I’m back! My summer break was great. I did a lot of good stuff during my offline time, but the most interesting — and unexpected — endeavor was that I painted a room.
It all started with reading The Nester‘s book, The Nesting Place: It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect to Be Beautiful, which I picked up just before the break. I expected it to be a coffee table book with some decorating tips I might enjoy looking at over my morning cup of coffee. To my surprise, it turned out to be a more of a kick-in-the-pants manifesto about creating beauty in your physical space.
It’s more like The War of Art than it’s like an issue of Martha Stewart Living. The Nester reveals all the limitations she’s faced in creating a beautiful space for her family — shoestring budgets, rental houses, moving frequently — and details how she thought outside of the box to create beauty anyway.
As I got more and more into the book, Joe grew trepidatious.
“The Nester says we shouldn’t be afraid to get out hammers, nails, and paint to create beautiful things for our homes!” I declared when he came home from work one afternoon. “I have this great idea for a mirror…”
“The Nester doesn’t want you to do that,” he said, mildly startled. “We’d end up with glass shards and paint all over the garage floor, and you’d give up in disgust and realize that you don’t want a mirror that badly.”
I enthusiastically brushed off Joe’s skepticism. Last Thursday evening, the kids and I came in from Home Depot carrying bags bulging with brushes and pans, and a can of paint.
“What is that?” he asked as if I were bringing in roadkill from the street.
“Have you ever painted anything?”
“Have you ever even seen it done?”
“No.” When I saw the look on his face, I added. “It doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.”
“I don’t think you’re the target audience for that message,” he said. “She’s talking to women who struggle with perfectionism in the way their houses look. That’s, umm, not your cross.”
Though he didn’t say it, I could see it in his eyes that he worried that I’d interpret “it doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful!” to mean “let’s spill a gallon of paint on the carpet and tweet about it instead of cleaning it up!”
Despite Joe’s belief that The Nester needs to release a separate version of her book for people like me, perhaps with the subtitle, It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect…But There Is a Point at Which the Health Department Gets Involved, he ended up supporting me in this endeavor.
On Friday afternoon, I set out to paint my daughter’s room bright green, a color she picked out. (Joe: “That paint is bright green.” Me: “It’s a Montessori thing. We need to let kids make their own choices.” Joe: “Have you ever actually read anything about the Montessori method?” Me: “No. But I accidentally bought the most expensive brand of paint, so the wall will be green.”)
During the baby’s naptime, the older kids and I painted two of the walls of my daughter’s room (the other two “walls” are heavy curtains that separate her room from another, since that’s how you roll when you have eight people living in a three-bedroom house).
It ended up being a wonderful endeavor that surprised me in many ways. Here are a few things I learned:
1. Just do it
Shortly before I bought The Nesting Place, I heard an excellent podcast where Jeff Goins interviewed Seth Godin. I was struck by Godin’s message to “just ship,” meaning: get your project out there. Start creating before you have time to talk yourself out of it.
The Nester’s book has the same basic message, and it was an effective one-two punch in combination with the podcast.
If I had given myself too much time to think of everything that could go wrong with someone like me opening up a gallon of bright green paint in a carpeted house with six kids under the age of 10, I would have never started. The moment the first streak of neon green splashed across the wall, it felt like a victory.
2. Those drops on top of the paint can are wet
When you’re at Home Depot and the employee hoists your freshly-made gallon of paint onto the counter, you will see droplets in your requested color on the lid.
You might assume that they came with the can, perhaps part of a special lid reserved for that hue. When you smack the top of the can as you declare, “Huzzah! That’s our color!” you will discover that those are wet drops of paint.
3. Even brains in jars like beauty
Because of my brain-in-a-jar personality type, I used to think of myself as a person who’s immune to her physical surroundings. When Joe and I were first married, I always said that a messy house had no impact on me. However, when Joe started keeping everything tidy, I realized that it did make a difference. I was more relaxed. I could think more clearly. I felt like my life was in order, which gave me a sense of peace.
The same goes for decoration: Even though it’s never going to come naturally to people like me to spend lots of time getting the details of our decorating motif just right, it’s worth putting forth the effort to make conscious choices about how you want your living space to look. Having a home whose decor reflects the mission and the tone of your family can have far-reaching impact on every area of life.
4. Cats and open trays of paint don’t mix
We had a very near miss when I realized only after I’d poured the paint into the tray that I’d forgotten to close the cat in a room.
I imagined Joe coming home to see green paw prints tracked all across the carpet, onto the couch, then over the table. He’d look over at me in horror, and I’d stand there with green cat prints all over my own clothes and say, “It doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful?”
5. We all need breaks from DECISIONS
Guess what? I loved painting. I was shocked (and Joe was floored to the point that he thought we had an Invasion of the Body Snatchers situation going on) when I realized that it was immensely enjoyable for me to spend my afternoon immersed in the slow, repetitive process of painting a wall.
As someone whose preferred methods of relaxation always involve staring at words on screens, I never would have guessed that taping off baseboards, spreading out tarps, and using a brush to dab paint into hard-to-reach corners would have been something I could get into. Yet not only did I love it, but it felt like something I needed. It was an oddly therapeutic experience to roll the brush up and down, up and down, and watch the white wall become green.
I realized that what was so soothing about it is that painting requires concentration but not decisions.
One difficult thing about 21st-century life is that it can be mentally exhausting. We have have so many more points of interaction with other people and so many more options for how to use our time than our ancestors did just a hundred years ago, and the result is that our days are filled with one decision after another.
I went through emails before I started on the room, and it was an incredibly mentally fatiguing process.
Should I sign the kids up for that summer camp? What about those classes for the Fall? What should I do about the swim team volunteer request? Should I respond to the person who criticized me on social media? How do I say no to that person who’s asking me to do that thing I don’t have time to do? When should I meet that friend for coffee?
…Those were just a few of the decisions I had to make in one 15-minute period of going through my email — and I got a text that required a decision during that time, too!
When I began painting, it was like a soothing balm for my overheated brain. There was a lot of work to do, but there were no decisions to be made. It required mental energy — but, for once, it was a sort of stable energy that could be pointed like a laser in one direction, rather than constantly jumping from one type of conundrum to the next.
. . .
I’m glad to be back in the swing of blogging, but my break left me with a valuable lesson:
When you find yourself overwhelmed by the world of glowing screens, sometimes the best thing you can do is to go paint a wall.
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