Smells Like Self-Determination

Few household projects make me happier than painting—walls, trim, ceilings, even exterior siding. Who doesn’t love a tasks with constantly visible measurable results? And painter’s choice of tunes. And the distinctive aroma of latex paint. No? Well, I do.

As an ex environmental professional, I know I should prefer the lowest VOC paints for better indoor air quality. But scents are viscerally nostalgic. And paint takes me back to third grade, walking to my grandparents’ new in-town home from school, watching TV and eating cookies while my mother finished her day of painting. She wanted to finish colleg, and they wanted to send her; but she was twenty years past that point in life where she dropped out to get married and have three kids. So they traded tuition for professional-level work. My grandmother was generous with both praise and cookies; and I benefitted greatly from just riding along.

Later I learned practical skills like proper taping and how to cut a clean edge with an angled brush. But I also learned from this one example, added to the list of many others, something no one in the family ever spelled out in words: the beauty of self-determination. One of my friends insists that I am self-sufficient to a fault; but I disagree. There are lots of things I do poorly and choose to let others take care of. But in general it is true that if I need or want to get something accomplished, first I ask whether I can do it myself. And if I don’t know how, what it will take to learn. Another friend is convinced that I can do anything I set my mind to, and when I feel daunted by some new challenge, she stands ready to give me examples that she has observed over the years. While I’m aware of the many other wild hares I chased after until they lost there allure, I have to concede her point. I love learning, exploring, trying out new things. And if the sampled interest pans out to be a real passion, I will persist until I’m really good. Along that sometimes windy path, I have the self-appointed authority to choose, to change tack if the original approach doesn’t work, to step back/hand over/give up, or find enough satisfaction with the minor lesson or accomplishment achieved. Choice is precious.

Many of my friends are not lucky enough to still have their mother to talk to. I am. And I’m not surprised that she’s busy taking classes, singing in the church choir, volunteering, and continuing to enjoy both learning and sharing her gifts and skills. In her usual unassuming way. (Happy birthday, Mom!)

In so many ways, my sisters and I enjoyed the benefits of my mother’s choice to learn what she wanted to be able to do, and to do well. We wore really well-made clothes, and learned to sew if it held our interest (me not so much; but I’m at home in fabric stores and find patterns really cool). We were allowed to help bake the fresh bread we loved, to cull recipes to try from the stash of cookbooks and magazines; and holidays found us all in the kitchen by choice. We were welcome to read any of the wide, eclectic collection of fiction on her shelves and free to compare opinions. The garden began as her project (and Dad’s), but winter found all of us poring over seed catalogs in front of the fireplace, weighing in on what to plant in spring. And oh, the sailing. A small, old wooden boat is an affordable luxury—if you do all the work yourself. Which, like all of the above, had a learning curve and took time and labor. But years later, the idea of keeping up a floating home (wooden building on barge hull, with lots to caulk and paint and learn to maintain properly) was not too daunting, and that choice lead to ten lovely years on the water.

Whether my mother is happy with all the choices she ever made, I don’t plan to ask. But she made them herself, following her own internal compass much more than some script about what her parents, her peers or advertising told her she should want, should do. And she didn’t tell us to want what she did, to do what she did because she did it. Or hold her own interests so close we couldn’t share them, couldn’t sample and test them out for ourselves. But if we wanted to, she shared what she had learned, taught us or pointed us to the resources she had used.

The gifts of  her example are many. From the doing, and making, and choosing, I know that: everything we wear or eat or use in daily life comes from the labor of a real person; that the things you must do of necessity you can choose to do well; that every skill must be learned and practiced; that every skill is learnable; and that every skill you acquire has value that can be sold, traded, or turned into a gift. Also that other people’s ideas about what you should be interested in, competent at, or take pleasure in matter much less than your own ideas and experience. And finally, that by choosing, learning, and doing, we own our own lives. Thanks, Mom!


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