Well, Shut My Mouth

Oh, the errant power of loosely flung words! How many times have I said, “I will NEVER ______!” or “I will ALWAYS ______________!” and then marched into the future, to find those words, laughing, had run ahead and were crouched, waiting for me?

For example.

I went to college in the full flush of the second great wave of feminism, and I made myself a vow. “I will NEVER,” I declared, “teach or type for a living!”

I was working, during those undergrad years, in a supermarket deli, and one of my colleagues was a wonderful, forty-something woman, Rina, who took a real interest in all of our young clueless people’s lives.

“Now, what are you majoring in?” she’d ask me, and I would answer firmly, “English.”

“To teach it?” she’d say.

“No,” I’d answer. I stopped there, before she might expect me to explain just WHAT well-paid, practical course I planned to embark on with my English degree. I had not quite yet developed that plan.

 Rina sighed. “I think you’d be a WONDERFUL teacher,” she said.

Why? I wondered. What was it about me that said ‘teacher’ to Rina? But I shrugged and said Thanks, I guess, and we went back to slicing ham-off-the bone and grinding up the ends of cold cuts to make sandwich spread. We’d have work-fun in a light-hearted kind of a way, until the next time Rina was prompted to ask me about my career goals.

You should teach.

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Teaching, I thought, was one of the few acceptable occupations in the Oppressed Women’s Ghetto. To teach! To nurse! To type!

There were other jobs, dashing and exciting ones. I would get me one of those.

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And then I graduated from college, graduated right into an ill-fated union and an ill-fated job at a dental office. (Where else would one work with an English degree? All that spitting and numbing and scraping—it wasn’t exactly the dashing career I sought.)

The job and the marriage both ended fairly spectacularly at right about the same time.

I cobbled together a living after that. I went back to slicing bologna. I worked in quality control at a juice factory, where (this is not a joke) I had to drink shot glasses of prune juice every five minutes or so to determine sweetness. That job paid well and lasted only a few shifts. I worked at a bookstore and in a fancy lady’s lingerie department. I babysat.

I had no insurance, and I had no savings. I felt—and was—directionless.

And then one day, I got a surprising phone call.  My eighth-grade teacher was now the principal of a rough and rowdy inner-city Catholic school. And she wanted to know if I’d come and teach for her.

I had tasted enough from the odd jobs smorgasbord. I went and taught. And I have taught, in some form or another, ever since then (even after retirement, when, for a while, I adjuncted on different campuses).

I loved teaching. Rina, it seems, saw something in me that I could not see in myself.

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“I’ll never teach or type for a living.”

Hah!

It should be noted that, over the Christmas break of my first teaching year, I painstakingly typed other teacher’s exams onto those two-sheeted, purple-back-sided, ditto machine masters. That provided a little extra cash.

In the cold dark of the middle of the night, in the quiet of my blissfully private little studio apartment, I would reflect wryly.

Never say never, I’d advise myself.

But of course, I would say ‘never’ (and ‘always’), again.

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I would vow to myself—and to anyone who would listen to me—for instance, that I would NEVER use the television as a babysitter when I had a child.

It was so EASY to say that when I had no child, when I lived by myself in my sweet ivory tower over the garage of a ranch house on the edge of a corn field. In that blessed space, I didn’t even HAVE a television. I read a lot. Well, and I went out a lot, too. I knitted and drew and painted. Life of the mind, don’t you know.

Some years later I had a child, and he was a child who didn’t like many things. Top of that list: sleeping. He didn’t sleep at night and, after, oh, six months or so, he didn’t nap. (I wanted my money back for all those baby books that advised me to find an engrossing hobby. “The baby,” those books told me, “will sleep up to 14 hours a day.” Oh, I laughed at that, and oh, the laughter had a tired, hysterical edge.)

And then one day, at the local library where I was, truly, looking for BOOKS, I discovered a series of Fisher Price ‘trip’ videos. A trip to the farm! A trip on a hot air balloon! A trip to the zoo!

They were educational videos. There were two trips on one VHS cassette, and they lasted thirty minutes.

And I could put the baby in front of the TV, and he would go quiet, stop begging, crying, and demanding, lean forward, and watch.

The TV is a GREAT babysitter, I realized. I take it back, all that I said about never!

In the rafters, I heard the karma gods rolling and laughing.

I didn’t care. I had 29 minutes of quiet time.

How long does Star Wars: A New Hope run? Two hours, maybe? I wondered. Fourteen months isn’t too young for Star Wars, is it?

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The karma gods danced with me whenever I made rash, absolute statements. (Always be consistent when parenting! Always clean your coffee maker once a week! Never eat Cheetos and Nestle Crunch bars for dinner!)

I’ll NEVER make another absolute statement, I would vow.

And then. You know.

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I think of this now because my fingernails are rimmed with lovely cream paint. This weekend I painted the bathroom.

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Maybe a year and a half ago, after painting the dining room, Jim’s bedroom, and the little office, I said to Mark, “That’s it. I am too old for this, and I am sick of painting. From now on, we are paying someone else to do our painting! I’m NEVER painting another room!”

Painting is not Mark’s favorite job, so he was not dismayed at the turn the conversation was taking.

“Sounds good to me,” he said.

And to prove my firm intention, we engaged the amazing Jim Painterman, who transformed our kitchen.

That was a wonderful thing, and then COVID, right? (I bet you can quickly think of ten everyday circumstances in which you could say, That was a wonderful thing, and then COVID, right? And that would just be reflecting on everyday changes…not on the sickness and suffering and death…)

But seriously, COVID happened, didn’t it, and it affected all kinds of seemingly disconnected things, including the availability of paint, wooden stir sticks, and those wonderful people who wield them.

The karma gods joined hands and danced around me. In the upstairs bathroom, the white semi-gloss trim wore thin in spots, almost peeling away in places, and an unlovely, aging, olive green previous-color started showing through. The tired walls faded to the hue of silly putty that’s been left on an ugly carpet and walked on. The cabinet that houses the sink, once painted chocolate brown, started proudly revealing its varied paint heritage.

I cleaned. I got new towels. I thought about pictures to hang.

But there was no avoiding it: the bathroom needed a fresh new coat of paint.

It became clear that I needed to paint it.

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When I was younger, though, I would have done this: gotten up at the crack of dawn, sucked down a pot of coffee, crabbily demanded that anyone who wanted to use the shower better damned well do it NOW, because TODAY I am PAINTING.

I would have lugged ladders, brushes, paint rollers, and roller trays upstairs. I would have hefted the primer, the ceiling paint, the wall paint, and the trim paint, along with a screwdriver or one of those handy little top-tipping tools, and taken them all into the bathroom. And I would have painted.

And painted.

And painted.

It HAD to get done. It had to get done NOW. I would have painted from the wee hours into the dark night, and it would have been finished.

But I would have been finished, too—drenched and wrung out, irritable and defensive. I would have grudgingly cleaned up all the messes and then slept for 16 hours.

And woe to the person who didn’t say, “WOW! That room looks great!”

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Now, I have a different approach.

Now I set myself a painting task. I do that task. I clean up the mess, and then I am done…because there are, of course, other things besides painting that must be done…and other things that I WANT to do.

So one day I sanded and first coated the trim on the inside-the-bathroom door frame. The next day I sanded and first-coated the molding along the window wall. I second-coated the door frame.

I kept doing that, breaking big jobs into smaller ones, and pretty soon, the trim was done. One day I prepped the ceiling. Another day I did the inner walls.

I was not exhausted, and slowly, the old, tired room was transforming.

I hate to even say this, because the karma gods are wheezing smug, stale breath in my face, but that kind of painting, the slow deliberate kind, the not manic and driven kind, is actually kind of fun.

And there was a moment when we took down the tired old colonial shutters from the bathroom window and hung, instead, embroidered sheers and subtly patterned curtains, and the room just changed, breathed differently, relaxed its tense bones. The room, I swear, smiled in relief.

In that moment, when the results felt so good, I said to myself, “Did I say NEVER? I didn’t mean NEVER. I meant sometimes…”

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So that’s something, right? Evolution of a kind?

And it’s nice to be so seasoned and to still be growing and learning.

But I tell you what.

I will not say, “I’ll NEVER stop learning and growing,” because just then I would find myself moored in the doldrums, bored and thrumming through the days.

Nor will I say, “I’ll ALWAYS keep evolving,” because, sure as shooting, my personal growth would come, at that moment, to a shattering, crashing halt.

Uh uh. I know the karma gods, though quiet, are flittering around my rooftop, interestedly examining the screen that keeps most critters out of the chimney.

I do not intend to invite them in. And I do not want more words crouching in wait as I round a corner.

This is another one of the places where I need to find me some mindfulness, to think before I speak…or maybe to think about the wisdom of speaking at all.

If I have to say anything, let’s hope I say something like this: “Isn’t life interesting?”… and then leave things, quietly, at that.