Sunday, March 24, 2013

Here’s Mud in Your Eye

I made my own transistor radio when I was ten. My mother’s boyfriend was an electronics engineer and in his home office, filled with oscilloscopes and other pre-home-computer equipment, he showed me how to use a soldering gun and make a circuit board.

That summer, I took my boxy black transistor to the beach every day. It wasn’t the sleekest radio, not white with a wrist strap and flower decals, but it was mine, and when I tuned the dial to KKDJ, I thought of the tiny beads and cubes like Monopoly house wired together and held in place by delicate silver blobs I had melted.

Right now I am constructing walls. I learned how to demolish sheetrock down to the studs and insulate walls last year when my husband and I worked on our writer’s studio. We covered those walls with wood panels.
Looking into the old basement from the old den, both now  becoming our  master bedroom.

Now we are building a master bedroom by combining an old downstairs bedroom with basement space, and after sealing the cement block wall with masonry paint, we’re using traditional materials: wooden framing, sheetrock, mud, tape, and texture.

My husband built the framing, installed the doors, screwed in the sheetrock, ran the electricity, put in outlets and switches, researched heater choices and wired accordingly. 

He is teaching me the next steps:

I am working with a thick vat of “mud” that looks like Greek yogurt. Using flat metal spatulas I dap and swipe over every nail hole. I run mesh tape to join edges everywhere they meet, in corners, along ceilings, mid-wall where boards end, and then I cover the tape with wide swaths of mud that when I’m not careful, splats on the floor, on my clothes, and on my face.

I cover the bullnose tape at window wells and sills, holding my spreader at odd angles, smoothing out my mud as if it were frosting, and like the cakes and cupcakes I used to bake, my efforts look uneven, amateurish, and unappetizing.

The good news is that no one can get it right in one swipe. The process requires drying time, sanding, and then applying a fresh coat, repeating each step three or four times, and with each application feathering out the mud in wider strokes using thinner amounts of product so the walls end up smooth at every seam, joint, sill, edge, and corner.

It takes a long time to apply just one coat in an entire room, and it’s repetitive, tedious, the sort of thing that made me wish I was writing a short story or a novel, because I’d have plenty of time to think about my characters and their actions while I’m scooping mud into a tray, dragging my ladder, climbing up, slathering on the mud, climbing down, repeating.

But I’m not working on a writing project, so instead my husband and I listen to our Pandora radio stations while we work.

Tonight at dinner he asked, now that I’d been working with the mud for several days, if I felt like I was getting the hang of it. “I guess what I’ve become used to,” I said, “is how bad I am at this.”

There’s nothing particularly difficult about the remodeling work I’m doing, but there’s a difference between simply completing a task and doing it well. Right now I’m sloppy and unskilled, and it shows.

I think it also takes more than practice and repetition to become skilled. You need patience and motivation to master anything, from manual labor to surgery, to high art. I enjoy spending time with my husband working on our house, and like making my own radio, I am proud that I can say I did it myself.

I’m a little worried though, that someday I’ll have the flu and will spend the day in bed, too tired to read, bored with TV, and with nothing to do, I’ll gaze at the walls and notice every imperfection—that the layers of mud aren’t level from one side of the window to the next, that I failed to properly cover the tape in the corners at the ceiling, that there are paint drips along the baseboard.

When that happens, the only person to blame will be me, which is a problem I’d never foreseen: A do-it-yourselfer forfeits the right to complain about shoddy workmanship.

I will just have to close my eyes and look the other way. Unless, that is, I’ve got mud in my eye.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Creative Genius on the Loose

I hosted a writing guest from Utah last week, a stay-at-home dad with three kids, looking for somewhere to make serious progress on his novel. Michael’s roundabout search led him to my bio on the volunteer page of the Field’s End website, a program of our public library. 

He felt like he’d stumbled on the right place to be, and I’m honored to hold open the door, not only to a studio apartment, but to a space where my guests can pursue their passion.

It’s not always easy to give ourselves permission to do what we love, especially when it rearranges the priorities and routines in our lives.

Fifteen years ago when I felt called to ministry and to writing, I was afraid I’d be so consumed by those endeavors that I would ignore my husband and my children and my responsibilities to them, our home, and our community.

I feared that those I loved would resent me for no longer being completely available to them. So I tried to ignore the nudges until they became hammers, and doing so I was cranky and resentful. Once I said yes to the spirit, things changed:

We ate more prepared food, because I’d rather write a poem than follow a recipe. I forgot to pickup one daughter at the bus stop after school once when I was in mid-story. I missed a few of my other daughter’s gymnastics meets for church conferences, and one of her surgeries for my MFA. I roped my husband into attending poetry readings because I wanted to share my excitement with him, and into serving as church trustee and treasurer because I wanted the smartest person I knew to help me where I was weak.
St John's College NM, site of my summer MFA residencies

Sometimes I wish I could’ve said yes to my creativity and God’s leading earlier and more gently, but to wish that would be to wish an entirely different life—which I’ve tried to imagine—and it negates all the good that comes out of the struggles.

The early days and months of writing when I slumped into depression convinced the words would dry up completely if I missed a day or two seem so remote now, belonging to another me. Creativity won’t die from neglect, but it won’t thrive either.

I’m more relaxed now. I don’t write every day. I edit for Good Letters most days and read every day. And I am living my dream and hosting others, like my most recent writing guest, intent on living out theirs.

Michael Gordon, my guest from Utah, has three children under five, another on the way, and is working on several books with the full support of his wife. They don’t see his writing as a frivolous hobby; they’re honoring his passion, trusting that the stories filling his mind must be told.

Vision, call, and passion aren’t always so clear, especially for people like my husband, who have many talents, and can become an expert, leader, and innovator in many endeavors.

My husband’s been applying for jobs last year-and-a-half, waiting for a company to hire him, so he can use his considerable gifts to promote their mission. But no one’s made an offer.

It seems time for Kevin to have a big dream of his own.

“If you could do anything, what would it be?” I asked him a few weeks ago. He didn’t have an answer right away, but a vision began to form, shimmering just out of focus, like heat on a roadway.

The first thing that came: He wants to flip a house.

But then, how, and most importantly why?  And this is where the answers become fascinating and where I see not simply my husband’s expertise, but his values shine through. The details are in process, and I admit I don’t understand them all, but the plan includes:

Forming a social purpose corporation to rehab and sell distressed homes in our area, focusing on South Kitsap, especially Bremerton, which has been particularly hard hit by the economic downturn. This area also has a high military population, and there are national programs underway to help put veterans to work.

Our corporation (Kevin is president; I’m the secretary) would hire veterans to work on the houses, as well as give back to programs in the area that are working with veterans in other ways. Our work will help restore individual homes, which will enhance neighborhoods, which will benefit the city.

This is where I see so clearly the ripple effect of good work done with intention and integrity, and where I see my husband’s true passion—which has always been to make the world a better place—root itself in skills he has until now used only for our extended family, and never as his livelihood.

I’m not sure when and how this will all unfold, but it is thrilling and exhilarating to set ourselves loose exploring, researching, and imagining what might be. It may be that he gets a corporate job and home rehab will come in his retirement.

Whatever the outcome, investigating the possibilities is certainly more inspiring than filling out unemployment forms and letting that status define us.

Here’s to giving the creative genius inside each of us the tools, space, and permission to go for it!