I am stripping a room divider. Last Thursday I pulled on my work clothes, donned my gloves, tied my hair in a ponytail, turned on my IPod, selected an audiobook, smoothed a tarp over the aging carpet, climbed on a step stool, slathered the piece with Citrastrip, and waited several hours while the cream colored paint turn orange as the latex bonded to the solvent, bubbling and peeling away from the shelves. Gooey six-inch sheets hung from the wood like garish Peter Maxx bats, then sloughed to the floor, where they shriveled under my touch like burst balloon fragments. I scraped at the divider for hours, removing the rest of the tan paint, expecting to find wood grain. Instead, an olive green surface awaited me.
Daunted, but not dismayed, I applied a second coat of stripper, ate a late dinner, slept, and tackled the divider again Friday while following the narrative of Skippy Dies. The green paint didn’t bubble or peel, it was impervious to the coating of stripper that slid onto my scraper easy as fresh icing. I put all my force into scraping, managed to accumulate tiny globules of green paint, barely smudging the shelves, as if I were removing permanent ink with a pencil eraser. The plot of my book kept me occupied long past dinner, past my planned quitting time. I kept stripping, trying to make headway before the stripper dried. I kept at it even though I was exhausted and my hands were sweaty in my gloves.
It was after eleven p.m. when I quit and headed to the shower. I tugged off my gloves to expose ruined fingers, especially on my right hand, the one I’d gripped the room divider with as I pushed against my scraper. I’d worn my work gloves, with nitrile palms and fingers, stretchy nylon on the back of the hands. My gloves weren’t waterproof, or chemical proof, and working alone, I’d failed to notice. The latex paint had given way easily the first day, sparing my hands contact with the stripper. The second day, my gloves were coated in solvent that seeped through the nylon, sucking moisture from my fingertips, leaving the skin hard, painfully puckered, and sore to the touch. I showered, thinking water would help, toweled off, and searched the Internet for advice. If I needed medical attention, it would have to wait until morning. It was near midnight and I didn’t want to drive myself forty-minutes to the nearest hospital on the peninsula, or take the ferry to Seattle and navigate alone through unfamiliar streets. The thought of gripping a steering wheel hurt.
I telephoned my husband in California and plunged my hands in the sink to soak for twenty minutes. I’d wanted to complete a project in his absence, not just to keep busy, but to contribute to our remodel in a significant way (like my husband does) with my limited construction skill set. I don’t know if it was my lack of stripping experience, my zeal for accomplishment, or my divided attention (IPod book), that led me make such a fundamental error, when the first instruction on the label clearly stated wear chemical resistant gloves and goggles. I didn’t know if the chemical burn was a message about the consequences of valuing doing over being. I did know that I needed and wanted my spouse, a witness and an ear sympathetic to my plight.
I whined on the phone feeling sorry for myself, thinking I would miss much of The Search for Meaning Book Festival at Seattle University the next day. I would miss the poets David Whyte and Mary Oliver and lunch with a student in my MFA program. I was looking forward to venturing to Seattle for the first time since Christmas Eve, and having a conversation with a person I’d actually met before. After the call, I coated my hands with antibiotic ointment, pulled on cotton gloves and slipped under the covers envisioning a morning spent at urgent care on the Island, hands bandaged in two giant mitts, unable to steer a car, change clothes, hold a fork.
I woke at 6 a.m. to find my hands much improved and decided I could skip the doctor if I wore the cotton gloves and basted my fingers with ointment often. I caught the next ferry and debarking, trailed a discreet distance behind a group of women also headed to the festival. Looking germaphobic, I browsed the book display in my cotton gloves, offering my Visa with shrouded hands. I settled into the auditorium, peeled off my gloves, greased up, slipped them back on and listened.
David Whyte is a fabulous speaker, reciting his poetry aloud from memory, speaking a poem twice with different stresses and pauses in each recitation. In kindness to my hands, I didn’t take notes, and I have lost much of what Whyte said. Two things in particular I remember. One is his statement that we get to a certain point in our lives when we realize the narrative we have constructed is not large enough to contain our experience. The script we operate under, the story we tell ourselves about our life and our possibilities is too narrow, not expansive enough. As he spoke, I recognized this in myself, and how I’m revising my narrative, living with gratitude and a sense of spaciousness that fear used to constrict. And second, someone else, looking at the circumstances of our life, will find it absurd. I thought about this, too, my husband and I moving to an island 900 miles from our former home without jobs, buying a house in which everything needs to be replaced. Our great adventure, that others might name folly. I glanced down momentarily startled by the white gloves in my lap and laughed.