I was recently at a party and was talking with a new mom friend, Julia. I told her about my job as an attorney, my summer hiking plans, my DIY bathroom remodel, and my favorite bread recipe. My close friend, Athena, who was also at the table, piped up, “And she’s a published poet too.” Julia said, “That’s amazing, is there anything you don’t do?” At first, I did that positively Midwestern (and maybe universal female) thing and started downplaying my accomplishments. Then I paused and said, “Yeah, I do a lot, don’t I?”
I have to admit, I was a bit floored by her comment. For one thing, I am terrible at taking compliments. For another, my life seems so ordinary. It literally had not occurred to me that my boring life might seem exciting or accomplished to someone else. I do not view myself as being particularly cool. Also, as a single, working parent, a lot of the things I do are necessary. I have to take care of the leaves and the snow. But a lot of the things that I do, I do because they bring me joy. I love baking bread and pies. I try to write poetry every week because it is therapeutic and makes me feel creative and fulfilled in a way that legal writing never does. My hiking and trail running adventures are so important to me, I will literally drop everything and hit the trail when I can. It got me thinking about how I manage to accomplish so much with my days and be relatively good at quite a few things. When it comes down to it, the most important thing I have is this: my willingness to try. And along with this quality, I also have her constant companion, the ability to fail.
I try new things, constantly. I work hard at them when I do. I research. I plan. Sometimes, despite all my hard work and best efforts, I make mistakes. But I try not to let it stop me from trying again. Or trying something else. I think these are great lessons for children. Sometimes having my daughter watch how I respond to failure and mistakes seems far more important than having her watch me bask in what looks like easy successes. It is so important to know that to excel takes time and effort. And the courage to know that you may fail.
I recently decided to redo my bathroom. By myself. It taught me quite a few things: about my courage, about my flexibility, about my limitations, and about my willingness to ask for help.
I started with a basic game plan:
- Paint the walls (I’ve done this several times before. I’m basically a pro. Nothing to worry about, right?);
- Refinish the vanity (I’ve refinished some freestanding furniture. How hard can this old, oak, water-logged monster be? Plus, I’m using chalk paint. No sanding or primer needed. Easy peasy.);
- Uninstall the old mirrors and install new ones (Just like hanging a picture, right?);
- Replace the fixtures including the towel racks, toilet paper holder, curtain rod, outlet plates (I just need a screw driver right?); and…
- Replace the dreaded 80s light fixture (OMG what am I getting myself into?!!!)
I’m just going to say that nothing (and I mean absolutely nothing) went to plan. Even my “easy job” painting the walls became ridiculously complicated.
When I removed the mirror that had been inexplicably hung over the toilet, I discovered a large patch of grape purple paint. I mean, this was the dark matte purple that only an 8-year-old would request in a bathroom. In addition, the mirror had been adhered to the wall with brown clumps of industrial mirror adhesive. This added another trip to Home Depot to buy primer and sandpaper and a few extra hours of labor.
When I got to installing the towel racks and toilet paper holder, I realized a few things straight away. The new fixtures had screw holes that did not match up with the ones from the existing fixtures. Also the previous owners of my house apparently did not own a level and all of the existing fixtures were not parallel with the floor. One towel rack appeared parallel with the slanted ceiling (I’m not exaggerating). The combination of these two realities meant that I had to drill new holes for each fixture (which required that a borrow a drill) and sink new anchors in the wall to install the fixtures. When I got to the plaster wall, I quickly figured out that the drill bit didn’t work on plaster. I may have screamed a little. Out loud. My daughter bounded up the stairs to see if I was alright. I said, “Yep, Darlin, just need to go with Plan B.” Then I used some large nails I had in the basement in lieu of the provided screws and called it a day. I sincerely hope my daughter never tries to hang from this towel rack.
I painted the vanity with some trendy, light grey, chalk paint. It looked beautiful. The next day, giant oily stains started seeping through the joints on the front plate of one of the drawers. Crap. So much for no primer needed. I had already bought primer on trip #2 to Home Depot, so I primed that drawer front, let it dry overnight and painted it again. The next morning new oil stains had blossomed like dandelions on my DIY lawn. I Googled. I YouTubed. I primed and painted again. And…more oily stains. Finally, I took some darker grey acrylic paint from my craft cupboard and dry brushed over the whole vanity. The stains were still a little visible but I called it a day and sealed it. Best to not yet the perfect be the enemy of the good, right?
When I got to the dreaded light fixture, my fear got the best of me.
The existing fixture was meant to look like a glamorous actress’s dressing room light and fell spectacularly short of this goal. Behind this gem was a metal box with a set of white wires (cold) and a set of black wires (hot). The problem was that my fixture had a third wire – the ground wire. I Googled. I YouTubed. I read scary posts by electricians about the risk of electrical fires from ungrounded light fixtures installed by amateurs. I may have sat on the bathroom floor and teared up a little. Then I pulled myself together and texted my friend whose husband is an electrical engineer. He brought his tools over and, in exchange for an excellent bottle of wine, he concluded that my metal box was properly grounded and put in a bolt for me to wind the grounding wire around. He also concluded that one of my light switches was faulty and changed it out. I got to watch him work and ask questions. And my daughter got to watch us working together to solve a problem. The next day, I installed my new light fixture. “By myself.”
At the end of the day, I like but don’t love my “new” guest bathroom. But I am very proud of it. Ridiculously proud. Because I did it. And pretty gracefully, I should add.
More than anything, I hope I impart my “drive to try” on my daughter. I am, after all, her first (and perhaps most important) role model. I want her to know that she can accomplish many of the things she sets her mind to (but maybe not all of them). I want her to know how to try again and when to ask for help when things do not go to plan. And the silly joy of laughing instead of crying when you make mistakes.
I also want her to see me try new things at 40 (like doing an open mic poetry reading or installing my own bathroom fixtures!) and sometimes reach challenges and hardship along the way. And sometimes make mistakes. But try nonetheless. And problem solve. And more often than not, succeed.
I often say that, if I got to decide, the perfect saying for my tombstone would be: “She Did Her Own Stunts.” Because I seriously do. Every single day.