The pale white walls of my housemates’ bedroom are primed but unpainted, and the trim around the windows forms a bland clash of white against white. There are screw holes above the curtain rods, water stains behind the bed, and an uncaulked gap above the baseboard where dirt and cough drop wrappers have become wedged. The one trace of color is a square swatch of purple from a test kit on one wall, below which the words White Lie have been penciled in neat capitals, a reminder of a choice made long ago and recorded for some unscheduled future painting date.
* * *
One of my housemates has a birthday coming but I don’t have anything to buy her; anything she wants she buys for herself, and anything she doesn’t want will be relegated to some far-off corner of the house, possibly unopened. She and her husband are friends of mine from high school, and at present I’m living in their spare room while I make progress on a novel and work my part-time from-home job as a grader of standardized essays. It’s a transitory situation so I can finish the novel and ultimately return to the world of full-time work, and though the freedom and lack of structure suit my independent nature, I grow tired of reading the same essays over and over and giving them the same numerical scores for eight hours at a time.
It’s the husband’s idea that I paint their bedroom as a birthday gift, though in retrospect I’m not sure how serious he was in suggesting this. The White Lie color was chosen two years ago, and he knows his wife feels bothered that the room’s still unpainted despite there being rollers, brushes, and tarps in the basement left over from earlier painting projects—though said projects were completed before their daughter was born and began monopolizing most (all) of their time. The biggest eye-opener of my living situation has been realizing the futility of trying to complete a project when you have a small child who’s prone to ear infections and vomiting, and while I can prioritize my schedule to include novel writing, my housemates get no respite from their fussy toddler. I feel relatively little of my housemates’ struggles because I have access to earplugs, headphones, and a large music selection for when the baby gets loud—plus I’ve realized that my sleeping habits are sounder than I remember.
It occurs to me that if I don’t paint that room while I’m living here that it might never be painted, or might only be painted when my housemates are well into middle-age and their daughter is a teenager, by which time they’ll have spent nearly two decades waking up every morning to the monotony of the white-on-white primed walls that are as bland as the standardized tests I’ve begun to despise giving scores to. I agree to paint the bedroom.
* * *
Once, what seems like long ago because it occurred during a very different time, I painted houses as my main source of income. This was after college, when my student loans were higher than they are now and I didn’t have enough money to move to a new city and hadn’t had much luck finding work where I was. I also wasn’t sure what kind of work I wanted to do that wasn’t writing, and so after bouncing between a series of temp jobs and medical studies, my father asked me if I wanted to earn some money painting for him.
I grew up helping my father with his carpentry work, and I’m no stranger to sawhorses, drills, belt sanders, and blowtorches; though the pattern thus far has been that I’m strictly the helper, the pass-the-tools, grab-it-from-the-truck, do-a-simple-task-over-and-over-for-a-day guy. I’ve never been in charge of my own project because it was never practical for me to do so and honing my carpentry skills always felt like a dubious investment when I knew I wanted life to take me places far different than the construction sites my father drove to every morning. This time, though, is different: my father will work solo trimming the windows and doors while I work behind him and paint. The job is a low-budget one on some rental houses where he doesn’t want to pay a professional; it also doesn’t matter if it isn’t done perfectly, and it’s thus the perfect chance for me to learn.
In between cuts on the chop saw he teaches me the basics: how to use the dry white spackle to fill holes with my finger, how to caulk the cracks with a single swipe of the caulking gun and wipe them with a wet cloth, how to quickly slosh on the primer because it’s just going to get painted over anyway, how to fashion a crude stool out of two taping compound buckets and an old board, how to remove the doors, how to watch for drips, and how to cut together the edges so the trim and wall lines form a smooth divide that’ll make the room look whole.
* * *
I set aside a Saturday to paint the bedroom and head to Home Depot the night before with a carefully made list. I’ve bought my own supplies plenty of times but never actually picked out the paint, and I’m surprised to learn that it only takes ten minutes to mix and doesn’t need to be called in. I’ve just come from a job interview and am still wearing my loosened tie and dress shoes, and when I talk to the grizzled, tattooed man behind the counter I try to pretend I’m a busy office worker who does home improvement projects in his spare time. The man doesn’t blink an eye when I tell him the color but instead asks a series of questions:
“Interior or exterior?”
This one’s easy. “Interior.”
“Water-based or [here he describes something that seems to be oil-based, which I used exactly once back in my painting days and had a bitch of a time cleaning up]”
“You want eggshell, enamel, semi-gloss [here he trails off into a long list of what I assume are textures that I realize I don’t know the difference between, and a momentary panic sets in before I choose the one that sounds most familiar].”
* * *
Painting the rental units comes with many benefits: I have money, I have a reason to get up in the morning, I have a reason to leave the house, and I feel like my life has direction again. Most days I drive to the job site with my father, and we work separately, listening to a classic rock station of his choosing that plays the same songs over and over. All of this changes once my father’s finished the window trim and trained me to work solo since there are other jobs that need his attention. After a few weeks, I start making the drive alone in my Volvo, tossing supplies into my trunk and tuning my old boom box to NPR or popping in cassette tapes because I don’t want to get paint on my MP3 player. It’s fall, and the air has begun to chill; the leaves of the neighborhood have turned a crisp orange, and because the heat’s turned off I work in an old Michigan State Spartans sweatshirt that’s already dirty from other jobs.
It doesn’t feel at all like I’m spending eight hours a day painting, since eight hours at my previous jobs had always felt painfully drawn out through confrontations with coworkers and customers and bosses, all of whom have always wanted me to do things a certain way. Here, though, it’s just me, and when the house is empty I can choose the music just as I can choose which room to prime first and where to place the roller tray and when to paint the doors; the project is under my control, and its execution requires a series of planned steps. The process exists completely removed from the rest of the world: there’s no email to check, no boss to answer to, and no schedule to keep; there aren’t any meetings or time sheets or last-minute changes of plan; there also isn’t any pressure, stress, self-consciousness, or worry over what comes next, because in the moment the only thing that matters is priming that single wall, painting that single ceiling, or caulking that one gap while everything else melts away.
It takes some time before I develop the precision that comes with holding my hand steady and deftly swiping the brush between the ceiling and the wall. With the roller I make long, even passes starting in an empty space and moving toward the painted section so the color spreads more evenly. My mind stays razor-focused; the voices of Bono and Doug Hopkins and Diane Rehm are there but far away; my mind is alive with thoughts and wandering to far-off places, but in the moment the only thing that matters is making sure that one line is straight, that one bare patch covered, that one hole filled.
* * *
My housemates ask me if I need anything and I tell them nothing besides maybe some iced tea. It’s a warm spring day, and I’ve spent the morning trying to borrow a caulking gun from various people I thought might have one before finally caving and buying one from the hardware store; my lack of planning has led to lots of walking, and I begin the job already tired. I pull off my watch and change into an old t-shirt before I spread the splattered tarps over the bed and dresser, then tape a perimeter of clear plastic between the rug and the baseboard to catch drips. The bedroom’s bigger than I thought and the taping takes quite a bit of time, though when it’s done the room looks ready to be changed into something new.
I haven’t used a caulking gun in eight years and when I start the caulk begins running uncontrollably onto the tube, my hands, and the ground. I wipe it up with a wet rag I throw over my shoulder for just this purpose, and having that rag there just like in the old times feels so comfortably familiar that I leave it on my shoulder throughout the entire job, even when laying on my side to coat the low spots. My process is simple: I start at one edge, work all the way around counterclockwise, and by the time I’m done the place where I started is ready for a second coat. In between there’s also sanding and hinge unscrewing and coats of paint for the doors; planning the best order in which to do these things places me in command again, the exhilaration I imagine busy administrators must experience when giving orders. I feel my old eye for detail returning, the steadiness in my hand, the trick of twisting the brush to coat an upper corner. This time there’s no music, only TV and household noises and the sounds of a toddler thudding around, though once again all of that rushes away as the only things that matter are my own thoughts and the physical motions of the brush, movements made by muscle memory without planning or second-guesses; the task moving from one stage to the next under my control.
* * *
It was during that first painting job that I also started writing regularly, first in a blog I was keeping and then on a larger writing project, a parody of Dungeons and Dragons fantasy adventures with lots of pop culture and sex jokes. The incredible thing about the painting job that’s different from any other job I’ve had is that after the fatigue of the first few weeks has worn off, at the end of the workday I don’t feel tired or drained or like I need to do nothing but watch movies all night; my mind feels inherently sharp from the day’s concentration and filled with answers to problems my unconscious has been mulling over while I paint. It’s during the evening—after I’ve had a shower and a brief spacing-out period—that for the first time ever I’m able to develop a set routine of sitting down to write, usually after my father goes downstairs to watch television or goes to bed early. During these post-work evenings when the house is mine my focus feels absolute, the conflicts of the story and the details and the sentences so real that working with them feels as easy as priming around an electrical outlet.
I don’t do much during this time besides work and write. On the weekends I see friends or run errands and do other things that have to be done, but the painting and the writing have formed a symbiotic bond I’m not even aware of until later: when I’m painting, my mind is free to think about writing, and when I’m writing, my mind is still sharp from a day of painting.
It feels like life was always this easy, that I’ve never had to stress over job searches or student loans or miserable work conditions or how writing fits into my life or what my future was going to look like, because for this period of three months the only thing that matters is the focus of moving forward.
* * *
The bedroom’s taking longer to paint than I imagined; I’ve gotten a late start because of the caulking gun hunt and because Saturday’s my one day really to sleep in, so it’s three o’clock by the time I start the trim. I’ve estimated that the room will take at most six hours to finish, though looking back I can’t imagine where this number’s come from and whether I could have painted this room that quickly even at my peak. Since I’m not wearing my watch and my phone is in the other room I can only guess at the time, aware of its passing by the fading light outside the open windows. My housemates stop asking me whether I need anything because they know the answer will be no, or maybe they’re feeling embarrassed that they’re not helping because they’re still exhausted from another week of stressful office work and taking care of a sick toddler and have learned by now that I work best when I’m alone. Still, the process doesn’t feel long because one step always follows another and working counterclockwise around the room carries with it a rhythm of never ceasing to move.
I think about my new novel a lot, especially a scene I’ve been working on where one character’s reaction still feels stilted. In the process I recall a book I’ve finished the night before and how well-rounded the characters felt as they moved toward the climax. In the process of remembering this, a link appears between a character in that book and a character in mine, and I realize intrinsically how to color her reaction so that it carries over to the novel as a whole: the opening of a car door will add a crucial physical element, and the question of her leaving will stir the tension. I come to this conclusion while spreading paint in a corner but don’t stop because everything, as before, feels connected.
* * *
Those three months painting on my own ranked among the happiest I’ve been at any job ever. I find myself wondering whether painting would have served me well in earning money long-term while I wrote or whether the real power lay in discovering that I could both write and work at the same time under the right conditions. Had I kept it up it’s possible that the daily drudge of spreading the same paint on the same trim and walls would have grown as repetitive as giving numerical scores to my standardized essays and I’d never want to pick up a paintbrush again.
* * *
Perhaps sensing how much work I’ve been doing, one of my housemates offers to drive an hour to pick up a Sicilian pizza with garlic knots from a place we all like, though he gets a late start and doesn’t return until well after nine o’clock, by which time I’ve got only one more coat to go.
“You can always finish tomorrow,” he says with concern. “You’ve worked really hard today.”
I tell them not to worry, that the final coat never takes as much time as the others, and that finishing after we eat means the paint can dry overnight and they can move back in tomorrow. (For tonight they’re camping out on the living room floor.)
“You didn’t have to paint that whole room by yourself,” the other says. “That’s really quite a birthday present.”
I try to explain that it was no bother, that in addition to giving her a birthday present I wanted to paint the room, had to do it because it needed to be done but also because a part of me had to remember what it was like.
“That makes sense,” she says with a nod. “It’s the reason adult coloring books are so popular, because people want that satisfaction of filling everything in and finishing something.”
At first, I feel cheapened that my work epiphany’s been compared to the adult coloring book fad until I realize that doesn’t matter and that the satisfaction gained from any activity is, at the end of the day, the same.
* * *
I’ve had jobs where I’ve felt miserable for any number of reasons: I’ve had my initiative squashed by workplaces that treated me like a cog in a giant machine; I’ve been lectured by irate bosses and yelled at by angry coworkers and berated by self-aggrandizing customers who all made me feel small; I’ve been swamped with work and deadlines and the never-ending pressure to keep working at the expense of everything else; and these moments have always interfered with the other things I’ve needed to do in my life, whether they were writing, maintaining personal relationships, or even just picking up my groceries.
My best jobs, by contrast, were the ones where I could work independently, at my own pace, and in ways that allowed me to make my own decisions. They were jobs where my work was treated with a certain amount of dignity for mattering, whether on its own or as an integral part of something bigger. They were also the jobs where all of us doing the work felt like we were united, where at the end of the day no one looked down on anyone else because we were a team and knew the struggles that each of us was facing.
There’s a positivity that comes from these kinds of jobs that’s invaluable for our well-being; it forms the cornerstone of a healthy life where we feel in control and fulfilled by what we do rather than manipulated or trapped. There are many jobs that can make us feel this way, but a lot of them don’t pay in money, or at least don’t pay in money right away. This is the work that feels most meaningful through the act of doing it, to say nothing of the satisfaction that comes from sharing the finished product with others.
Writing, like all art, holds the potential to bring meaning to the world and enhance all of our lives in the process, but since I’m just starting out and have bills to pay, I’ve got to have a day job too, and it should probably be one that makes that process easier.
* * *
When the bedroom’s finished drying, I pull off the tarps and put the tools away so the furniture can be moved back against the wall. There’s much ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the color, which has coated the room in a light, uplifting burst of purple without being overwhelming, and it stands out even more against the new gleaming white of the trim. There are compliments and kind words from people who come by the house, and a pervading feeling of happiness emanates for those first few days when the paint is new. I hear these comments second-hand or through muffled walls, because rarely am I there to hear them directly—instead I’m in my room typing away because I’ve got work to do.