This essay was originally published at Stitches and Words on March 21, 2012. Revised and updated.
Big things are happening at my martial arts school. We're expanding into a new space, including a big new training gym to make room for more students and classes. (If you live in the Harrisburg area, you should come and visit my totally awesome martial arts school. We have classes for kids and classes for adults and classes for folks who are a bit of both.)
We're not there yet, though. Right now the new gym is a big empty room with hard tile floors and bare walls. There's a lot of work to do before anyone is going to study forms or exercise in that space. The construction people started last week, and volunteers from among the students and their families have also been at work, painting and making small fix-it repairs. The "old" space is getting some attention too, while the chaos is all underway.
Last night I went in after the evening's classes were over to join the work crew. When Coach Jose asked what I thought about painting, my reaction was something like "ehrrhm." I've done some painting before, but not much. And in my mind, only when the competent people were around to make sure I didn't mess anything up (or to fix it if I did).
I'm not experienced at painting or any other kind of construction or remodeling work, but there's a ton of such experience in my family. My dad is a carpenter and contractor who has built a lot of houses and organized the building of still more houses. His primary career before retiring was as a public school teacher, but there was often building work on the side, especially to get my brothers and I through college. My brothers both put a lot of hours in during those years, helping dad with construction projects, but I didn't.
At whatever points I did a little work, the usual method was that I'd stand around and look confused about whatever needed doing. Maybe, if I had a specific assignment, I'd make some kind of an awkward start. Dad would see me making a hash of it and say "here, try it like this" and show me a better way. Which I would try, and still probably make hash of. If I worked on it long enough, my fumbling attempts might even out, but I was still slow, always slow, and never sure my efforts were up to scratch. If I really struggled with something, a lot of the time Dad would take over on that bit and I'd just get out of the way.
Our standards for "normal" get set when we're young, and it may take a lifetime to change them, if we ever manage it. When I was young, my "normal" was seeing a whole lot of competence about doing physical work and handling really practical things, and me not being good at that, or only learning it really slowly. I didn't have any concept that the things my parents are naturally good at are very different from my natural gifts. And a lot of the time, when something didn't go right, I'd stand back and one of them would take over. A big part of my "normal" consisted of the idea that I'm incompetent and clumsy, and that it was better to let other people handle stuff, people who will do it better, and I ought to maybe just stay out of the way. I didn't think about where all the competence I saw came from -- that my dad had been doing construction work since before I was alive, for example, which adds up to a good bit of practice. I just knew he did stuff really easily, and I hated messing it all up.
Any time I'm not sure about what I'm doing, in just about anything, my default reaction is still to look around and wait for the competent people to show up. I'll happily hang back and let someone else get in there and go to work, so the whatever-it-is doesn't get screwed up, which if I'm the one doing the work, it probably will.
So when the question at hand was painting, my reaction was more or less "ehrrhm." Which generally interprets as "I've done a little bit, but only when Dad was around to make sure I didn't screw it up." But Dad isn't involved in this project. It's my school, and I'm the one who wants to help make the new space awesome to match the old space. So if painting needs doing, that's what I'll volunteer to do.
Because, seriously, I have painted before, and I didn't actually screw it up. I've used paint brushes and paint rollers, and I know if I'm careful and pay attention it's not actually very hard. Paying attention is always a challenge with my hyperactive brain, but I know how to do it. Mostly. At least, I usually come back after my thoughts wander off. Eventually.
Coach Jose (who is quite a smart cookie) correctly interpreted my "ehrrhm" as "not a ton of confidence, here" and showed me a room which will be office space, not as public as the lobby or hallway or new gym. It needed some taping first, and then paint.
So I painted it.
I really don't have much to say about painting to make the process seem interesting, so I won't try. Put paint on walls. Not on other stuff. That's pretty much what it boils down to. There were some fussy bits, around fixtures and piping (and I'll confess I did totally make hash of the corner behind the water heater, but it is hidden behind a water heater and I couldn't reach and if you don't like it then I'm sure Coach Jose wouldn't mind if you'd like to go in and fix it, and I don't mind at all either.) Furthermore, I managed to not overturn a paint can or tray across the floor, or cover great swathes of myself in paint either, though I was smart enough to wear a very old shirt and impressively disreputable, I-don't-even-care-if-these-survive jeans just in case. I know I'm absentminded, and I went in prepared. But I didn't wear much paint home at all.
I don't know if it's a job well done. I may have missed some spots, and I didn't finish the higher walls, where I couldn't reach and didn't trust my tired legs on a ladder. But more of it is done than when I started, and that was pretty much the point all along.
More than that, though, it's another little bit of readjusted "normal." In the better part of two years that I've been studying taiji at this school, I've been slowly learning that I'm not fundamentally and hopelessly clumsy, it just takes me a while to develop new physical skills. I'm slowly learning that I am more competent than I give myself credit for, at quite a number of things. And I'm gaining a deeper appreciation for what it takes to develop competence where it is lacking: before anything else, a willingness to step up and try.