MY MOTHER ALWAYS says that we suffer more at nighttime, when everything slows down and we finally notice ourselves again. When the din of our busy lives fades out, it seems that all our ailments grow more severe. I agree. Although, I find it less the case that I lose focus of myself amid the interference of daylight, but rather that I outpace myself as I pursue it, racing every hour like there’s something better on the way, fevering through the things that I call daily life until the sun drops onto the sea. Only then do I check my stride and finally catch up to myself. So much to do, so little time. I’d better run.
My mom is not a runner. No matter what she says or does, she appears at all times possessed of herself, neither too far ahead, nor ever loosing step and falling behind. I both envy and loath that quality in her. So often do I wish to slow down a touch, to take a longer look at the scenery. Yet, in doing so, I run the risk of cutting short my successes, or, worse, of lagging behind the clock and getting passed by completely. So I race the day. I try to beat it to tomorrow, try to get a leg up on the rising sun and cram another minute in.
Consequently, we don’t work well together, my mom and I. She takes her time, efforts methodically and with coolness, while heat and angst are my tools of trade. On the rare occasions that she calls for my assistance, the job quickly becomes mine alone, as there tends not to be room for helpers in the tempest that my pace creates. Over the years, I’ve come to know myself well enough to avoid asking her for help. Not because the quality or ethic of her service is imperfect—it is quite the opposite—but because my labor is restless and fretful. Because I lack patience with myself, so how could I possibly make patience for others? I get frustrated; she, offended. Still, sometimes, neither of us has a choice but to ask for a hand. We know the dangers, are well acquainted with the repercussions, just have no other way.
THE SUN WAS struggling to close a productive spring day not long ago. It peaked above the rooftops, clinging hesitantly to its seat, unable to rest with so much unspent fervor. Paper thin shreds of translucent ivory, splayed by the bobbing limbs of a miles thick layer of trees, variously threw out points of acute heat that shot about just at eye level. A lingering blade of light would pierce through milky swirls of drifting pollen, picking up a yellow veil as it reached my skin.
I’d spent hours already chipping and scraping paint, hours of awkwardly masking windows—up the ladder, down the ladder, move the latter. The day had left upon me a membrane of salty brown frustration, the haggard patina of a body’s intimate relationship with its toil—formed no less by its wearer than by the environment wherein he efforts. A suit of grit in every sense, one which ultimately proves its price upon removal.
In about ten hours I had removed what once was probably thirty gallons of paint, twelve hundred feet squared, layer upon layer; pressure washed the remaining bits that I could not reach, were guarded by antsy hornets, or simply clung stubbornly to the house they dressed for many, many years; covered the sagging, seeded glass of my tired old windows; and bagged up every slice of the heavy, lead paint that laid like shrapnel all around.
The rest I couldn’t do alone—at least not if I hoped to finish in reasonable time. Calling on my mother for help meant calling also on my own patience. For, when she joined me in labor, she would surely not adopt my zeal for hurry. I knew—no doubt so did she—that our time together would more than likely end sorely. My mother’s purposed resolve disagreeing with my sharpened edges. My distemper obscuring any display of appreciation and probably causing argument.
As I worked alone, I thought a lot about the day that would follow. I ran through plans and logistics. Where to start the first coat—high, low, north or south side. I thought of where to place each bucket so that I’d run the current one dry somewhere near a fresh one. In my mind I counted brushes and guessed how long they would last—how many strokes they would give before they tired—and if I had enough to last the day. My mom, I know, was thinking about spending a day with me, talking lovingly of old times while we brushed away together.
WITH JUST A FEW bands of light left winding through the horizon, I parted less than gracefully from my work chafing decades-old paint, hurriedly wrapping windows in visqueen against an earnest evening breeze. Descending from the ladder, each rung kneaded my feet in search of untapped sensitivity. They worked at my arches like the blunt, hard fists of an old medieval maid forcing the last atom of oxygen from the bread whose grains her own hands harvested.
Painting suited me well. Though mine was the first and only house I’d ever painted, I felt a certain welcome animosity for the work. It was time sensitive, not a job to be stretched out over days and weeks. Not a job for the temperate. Leave the exposed wood and siding open to the elements, and it begins to rot. So, once it is undressed, you must quickly clothe it again. Take too much time spraying, and the tools become clogged and caked with the eager latex. It doesn’t like to wait. It’s great work for the anxious.
As I scrambled to beat the rising wind, the last hours of daylight seemed to come through a magnifying glass. The sun split across the horizon through a universe of dust and never grazed a speck. It seemed to pass me by at the height of its acceleration, humming inaudibly high frequencies that rippled the beads of sweat above my brow, sometimes urging them over and into my eyes.
My pace had slowed, the sky a deepening violet. And as the clock abated, its effects on my body assumed the bias. For just a moment, the first I’d recognized in hours, I sat amongst the tattered bits of various colors and years of paint, thinking how old some of them must have been—how many had sat right here before me. But the moment fleeted, as they do, and the ache rolled over me like marine fog. Multiple hornet bites, each pining for attention, now plucked my nerves with every systolic beat. A course haze upon my eyes absorbed every hint of moisture that they could weep, causing the shriveled remnant of a contact lens to fuse itself to my cornea. The other lay amidst the day’s work.
But my mind still ran. Shreds of hardened paint, filling several trash bags, stressed the ever degrading wood they once protected, like silent metronomes ticking off each second that my house stood naked in the weather. Columns of fresh and liquid paint sat next to the rented sprayer that I would have to learn quickly how to use. I would have worked through the night, but the sun knows only one effort. I’d have to wait, poised on the blocks, frozen mid sprint, until morning fired another shot.
CLOSING THE DOOR of my undressed home, undressing and shaking the history from my clothes, my only thoughts were of what lay ahead. The present had altogether vanished into the proceeding moment, carrying me beyond myself. We sometimes forget who we are now when we focus so intently on who we need to be tomorrow. Patience becomes nothing more than an abstraction, a disingenuous aspiration. Constant frustration with the seemingly indolent passage of time all but guarantees an intolerant existence.
An accessory to my impatience is often remorse, for I tend to lose composure with those who refuse to keep my fevered pace. And thus a hurried life if often an angered, guilty, solitary life as well. For me, the frustration is emboldened by the keen awareness that I’m moving out of step with everyone else; and for all that I try to curb the sprint, the pressure to win the race still bears down. The world moves as it does, without regard for anachronism. It is never early, never runs behind. Perhaps on that day it seemed the sun labored so hard to sink below the horizon because I had already run beyond it, somehow thinking that time was mine.
Nevertheless, the quiet, sultry spring day had seared on with zeal, so that stepping into a hot shower tripped sonorous alarms over every inch of my ripened skin. I could trace the path of a single drop of water as it smoldered down my arm. The white porcelain below my feet quickly tarnished, and the day sluffed off in a lather that felt like fistfuls of sand. The uniform sting was not altogether unpleasant, for many of the greatest pleasures in life are concurrent with some degree of pain. Often, too, the processes of healing are inseparable from suffering. But, knowing that the displeasure precedes or parallels a much more amiable experience, it can be endured, even appreciated. Pain has also the momentary effect of wrenching us into the present. Physical hurt, maybe more than any other therapeutic measure, obliges us to the exact instance wherein it is experienced.
BIT BY BIT, my urgency eroded under the torrid rains. Minutes sauntered and stalled, allowing those left behind the chance to catch up. Flares of the still reluctantly settling sun refracted through the steamy window and lit prisms in the condensation. They loitered with me in the frothing, sterile spray.
Loiter, a negatively connoted word: to remain in an area without a particular purpose for being there. But what reasons have we for moving so quickly along? The phrase “blinding speed” comes to mind. What better use of a hackneyed expression than to illustrate the tiresome result of the run that I maintain. For years I’ve moved so fast that those I love have scarcely seen me. For reasons that I still cannot explain, wherever I exist, there is a place beyond that existence that beckons me from the present.
And in the same sense that living in perpetual blitz hides oneself from others, it also leaves one clinging only to fragments of attachment—sifting through incomplete connections to the whole that we have hurtled past. Our chief function as humans is to be, and to be with others. Speeding from place to place, from day to day, distorts our sense of being. And so the irony of my blue-streak life is that its most important purposes suggest I indeed should loiter, wander in the silence between the clock-ticks.
But apparently the heater, whose restoration should perhaps have come before the paint’s, had had enough of my ambling contemplation. And with little warning, the steam gave way to sleet. As if the assail of hot water upon my howling nerves were not enough to bring about acute awareness of the precise moment in time in which I was existing, the breathtaking shock of a few gallons of ice-water cascading over tender skin and open pores surely seized my attention. But like the pleasant bite of the previously scorching water, the frigid splash that washed me over was not entirely unwelcome. It made me young, reversed the movement just enough to recompense the time that I’d ran away from.
IN A WHISPER, the vapor cleared; all that remained was a half-mist of dew obscuring the vanity mirror. Daylight was now but an atmospheric aura, a few escaped lumens sneaking defiantly from below the horizon. Before noticing the peculiar complexion wrought within my home, a faint, but distinct, feeling seemed to take me. Where once there coursed a crushing, anxious tension—an urgent stir of heat and fury and noise—there now crept a viscous quiet. Within this calm seemed a familiarity, some feeling I’d known all my life, and all too well, but could not so easily discern. Comfort?
From behind the plastic sheeting I’d taped to every window poured bright opacity, somehow intensifying the closing day. But filtering it also, as if to tamp its volume. The luminous white portholes granted an extension of the day that I’d so hurriedly tried to flee. Suddenly, I wished for slow. I retraced years of speeding and arrived at some time passed.
I recall from childhood a miniature tepee that my Grandparents had made for me. Its thick canvas wall, zipper opening, and single window were, at the time, an ideal capsule of what I now recognize as solitude. I remember feeling safe and sure—and, if I wished, invisible. As I see it now, perhaps these feelings were evoked more by the loving home in which the tepee was encamped. I sought refuge behind its canvas exterior, but beyond it lay a greater force than what my young mind could ever think to notice.
Many of those same sentiments awoke as I walked through the silent, fuzzy light emanating from the windows of my home. Confined, fortified, serene. At best, I can describe it only as a deeply cozy claustrophobia—constraint in the context of safekeeping. It was as warm and reassuring as hiding beneath a blanket after a nightmare, or zipping up the only way in or out of my tepee.
In the process of renovating something old and worn, I’d woken something that had long been sequestered. As if, in scraping the paint from my tired, dingy siding, I had peeled back a layer or two of time. No matter what I coated those exposed areas with, they could not be as deeply buried as they had been before that day. Those feelings of slow and comfortable patience, denuded and released to open air. There they will remain, and there I will breathe them.
WITH AGE, OUR outlook changes much. We credit maturity, wisdom, and life’s experience for the rearrangement of our perspective. Sometimes, though, all we’re doing is excusing our bitter realizations that how we saw things when we were younger did not hold true in later life. At times I think it is sanative to look through eyes that we’ve tried so hard to grow apart from. Although I rarely heed my own advice, reassigning some of our less mature behaviors reinstates an ideal that fosters temperance and tolerance. The inexperience of youth seems to bear with it a wisdom which those exposed to life’s struggles can never again retrieve, a sense of time and place that is fueled by excitement and ambition. An appetite not as concerned with achievement as with satisfying whim.
A FIFTEEN GALLON supply of paint was waiting for the next morning to grow its tough skin. Twelve hundred square feet of thirsty siding over which it would grow warmed under a well-rested sun just beginning its stride. Time was precious. For once, perhaps, the boiling energy which fires within me would be appropriate. Necessary even.
The base coat would be loud, messy, and furious. Thus, until its completion, I remained in solitude, the whole morning a literal haze of brown paint and hot sun. Making hurried laps around the house, I glazed over everything within range of the unrelenting spray. A few freshly planted shrubs were lost to battle. A long and fragrant lily cut short in the height of its spring.
I had asked my mother to come later on that day, to help with the more subtle task of painting trim. She has an understanding of that reposed, stormless type of work that sometimes awes me—she knits. To do it well and clean, one must paint the trim with delicacy and composure, poise and serenity. Who better to recruit than my mother—whose patience blooms like sunflowers when helping others—for the fine-spun, meticulous job. My tolerance for any but a blearing haste did not bode well for tiny brushes and stubborn corners. I thought, perhaps, her presence would temper mine.
My help arrived with a sunrise from ear to ear. Here was a woman whose constancy is trumped only by her kindness, whose heart supplies every capillary with the desire to give of herself. She looked with eager, loving eyes and asked where she was to begin. Pride and excitement emanated all around her as I grumbled off what work was to be done, ignoring—even spurning—her enthusiastic smile. I sighed when she asked how long to wait between coats, and growled when she joked about spilling on the patio. Any other person but my mother would have been rightly offended by my not-so-amicable methods of instruction. But any other person she is not. She dutifully set to work as if my home were hers, which, by all rights, it is.
I worked on the opposite side of the house, high up on the latter, with loud and angry music churning in my headphones. She sat on an inverted bucket, slowly washing the lower reaches with thick, green paint, listening to squirrels and smiling as the birds shot through the pleasant sun. She’d send me text messages from across the house when hummingbirds paused nearby like friendly omens. I swatted wasps, snarling when the paint dribbled where it was not supposed to be.
There are many physical difficulties in painting a home that a woman of such petite stature simply cannot overcome. When, from atop the twenty-foot ladder, a message came for help, I knew that she had run upon one of these. With something much less than equanimity, I would descend the many steps, traipse my way to the source of need, and curtly do whatever it was that she could not, as if it were something she would not. Then, without a word, I’d turn and move away. Yet, all the while, her demeanor never fell. She beamed as bright and loving as the day that bathed us both in its radiating warmth.
I wonder, still, how it was my rashness never galled her, how she kept from simply tossing aside the brush mid-stroke—packing up and resigning. How could I have been so curt, so unmindful of the gift that stood before me, little streaks of green tracing her smile, staining her shirt? Perhaps she knows me better than I know myself. Perhaps she knew something that day that I did not—that whether or not life is pleasant at the moment pales in importance to the fact that we’re alive, together.
Doubtless, from time to time, we all succumb to the strain of living. I clearly tend to wear my plight like a sandwich-board, perhaps more a weakness than a habit. Fast, angst-ridden pique is the coping strategy I’ve come to adopt in times of stress. I envy those who are clothed in grace when times get tough, eclipsing any hint of struggle. They march confidently, composed and austere—dignified and slow. My mom is of this type. Unfortunately, the intensity which too often underpins my being does nothing but blind me to the comity of those around me.
And so I sped along in blistering stripes of wordless and paint, stopping briefly, here and there, to approve the work of my still enthusiastic helper. She’d raise a brush-wielding hand triumphantly to signal her progress, looking twice as delighted with every finished task. I’d roll my eyes, wipe the sweat from over them, and hang begrudgingly on whatever toil was yet to come.
My mother’s peace of mind was persistent. Perhaps she’d hoped that it was contagious, that each stroke of now coagulating paint would somehow imbue my home with the subtle pigments of her ease. I see her now, in hindsight, dipping the brush and calmly spreading paint across the aging wood, and I hold her hope as well.
FOR YEARS SHE PAINTED ME. Coat upon coat, she daubed and stippled and drafted. Sometimes she suggested that I choose the color. Other times, she simply brushed away while I was unaware, soaking up each overlay like so much fresh lumber. But now I am less porous, and her varnish often peels away, or never even cures.
The sun watched every brushstroke as it bowled through the hazed but cloudless sky. A convex panorama of blue-white wrapped around the day and carried us along. As the paint grew its skin, and the light of day took on the secret hue of dusk, I looked upon a house it seemed I’d known for a lifetime.
With the day winding down, and still much work to do—so many spots where paint was thin, where under-layers shown through in the softening light—frustration took hold of me. My mother asked if we could call off the day, retreat from battle for a bit of respite. And, almost angry, failing to see that my mindset wasn’t hers, that my hurry did not course through her as well, I relented. But I didn’t do so graciously. As if, somehow, it was her who caused the sun to set, I let my displeasure grab the breeze and fill the air. When she asked if I needed help the next day, I said no. I’ll do it all myself. I could see the slightest sheen in her eyes while my mom said goodbye, working hard to wall her tears before they welled.
As I watched my helper slowly back down the driveway, her tires crumbling the gravel as they rolled—a sound that reminds me always of visitors—I felt the same remorse I always do. Guilt for housing such a blotched temperament, the rushed and anxious fever with which I’d just assailed my innocent mom. Sorrow, maybe, for the end of an age that in three days I’d scraped off of my home and covered up. Regret for shoving myself through time without slowing to say thanks. Grief for all the years I’ve gasped away in tumultuous vapors of stress and intensity, and all of the people who I’ve blurred past like so many highway mile-markers.
TIME IS NOT much more than a measure of distance. In many ways, we can revisit the paths that we have travelled long before. We can also ratchet up the throttle and see what time might have to offer yet. But we need a place to start the trip, and a place to call it off. We need points at which to rest, to stop. Living in a constant state of motion obscures and attenuates our relationship to these landmarks, and to what they house within them. Pausing, even momentarily, sometimes has the effect of opening our eyes to what we might be running past. It is so much easier, so much more sincere and comforting, to touch someone and say hello, than to yell it out from a fleeting gale.
And so it is that my house—once blue and white, once yellow, once red—is brown and green and new. But beneath the surface there lay many layers of others, like myself, who’ve given it a touch of what they were. All I need to do is scrape a tiny spot, and some forgotten idea reveals itself again.
I’ve been a thousand different people; beneath the clothes I wear just now, there is a wardrobe amassed through years and years. The trick, I think, is learning which garments suit me best, and when to put them on. Perusing through our different wardrobes can give new life to a fashion sense that we’ve since disregarded. Even a minute adjustment can remind us of the things we used to wear, the clothes that seemed to fit us better than the ones we put on today.
Keeping an eye on the styles of those around us is as important as knowing well the history of our own. I watched that day, less than consciously perhaps, the manner of my splendid helper, and saw a way about her that struck me. My mother’s outlook was both anciently familiar and also completely foreign. Whether or not I’d once been the same way, I’d admired and hoped to attain the same accord that she exudes. I saw, as she parted my company, a sincere satisfaction in her sharp, blue eyes. She labored for another’s cause; but in as much, she had a cause all her own. Is it selfish if we give ourselves away because it makes us feel so much better? Even if it is, it’s how I hope to be, the shirt I’d like to wear.
THE SUN IS FAR far from setting as I write these words, sprouting in the distance and whispering hints of warmth into the quiet breeze. It extends its infinite fingers toward the morning, and in its palm it holds firmly to yesterday and tomorrow. I am always now. I have been, I will be, but now is all that really is. Now is when and where I see. From yesterday I wave and feel the sadness as I lag behind; from tomorrow I turn back and anxiously await today. Now can pass me by, and now can get so far behind that all I do is freeze. It’s a cold place I reach when I finally outrun the sun. It is cold to be alone. Yet when I run too fast the chilled wind only urges me to quicken pace.
If it seems the sun is moving slowly, struggling to close the day, perhaps I should look to my own step. Perhaps, if I look around a bit more carefully, I’ll see that I am passing someone by. Let them grab my arm and pull me back, let them wrench me back to now. Tomorrow will be here shortly. Have patience with today.