The Zen of painting PHOTO: Richard Redman

The Zen of painting

Realizing just how important ‘little things’ can be

By Christopher Nyerges 11/17/2011

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During the summer of 1973, my brother and I lived on my grandfather’s farm in Chardon, Ohio. One day, we decided to paint the kitchen a beautiful shade of light turquoise.  
We turned on the radio and began our task. We opened the windows, and I did the trim while my brother rolled. We listened to the radio as we busied ourselves with our individual tasks. We worked the corners, the edges, the front surfaces.  
There’s something about painting — perhaps it’s the fumes, perhaps it is the long quiet times of many little tasks. Painting requires no moral decisions, no great choices, no necessary pontifications about the meaning and purpose of life. 
And yet, there you are, with just yourself and the task before you. For me, painting time has often been a time to re-enter the inner me, to think, to remember. In many ways, it is the ideal task for self-enlightenment. 
When my brother and I were done, we felt we’d accomplished something and had given something back to the 
old farmhouse.  
When the weekend came, our uncle came to visit us. He strode into the kitchen, looked at the paint and simply said “you didn’t use glossy!”  
Glossy? We were teenagers from California, visiting the home where our mother had lived. Though it may be second-nature to us today, back then we had no sense that a kitchen should be painted glossy. Glossy vs. flat was not an issue that we thought much about. What did it matter? 
But Uncle Joe seemed to think it was a big deal and just one more bit of evidence that teenagers from the “big city” were a bunch of dimwits who wouldn’t know a cow from a goat. Uncle Joe told family and friends that we’d painted the kitchen in “wrong” paint, so we heard about that in the weeks that followed. Some relatives didn’t care, but others would comment as they came in, “Oh, so there’s the flat paint job,” instead of, “Hey, hello. Long time no see!” 
We were dumb city boys who didn’t know the difference between flat and glossy paint, who actually had the stupidity to paint a kitchen in flat paint. 
Of course, our intent was to make the family happy we’d improved the old farmhouse. We wanted the relatives to comment that we were industrious nephews who proved that all city boys were not idiots.
Today, while painting my own bathroom — glossy paint, white — memories of the summer of 1973 in Chardon began to play again in my mind. Perhaps it was the paint. Perhaps it was the cool breeze blowing fresh oxygen through the room. I heard the chickens out back, and it reminded me of my brief period of farm living.
I began to think about how Uncle Joe responded and how he could have responded. I realized then the great truth in the phrase that WHAT we do is of little or no importance, but HOW we do it is everything.  
Uncle Joe died more than 10 years ago. When I visited in 1999, the entire farm house and barn had been torn down. All that remained was a field. None of it mattered anymore in the world of physical reality. Joe was gone and the entire farmhouse was simply a memory, glossy or flat.
Joe could have congratulated us on taking the initiative to paint or could have explained why kitchens are always painted glossy. He could have told us that it was a great primer coat and enthusiastically offered to drive us right then to the hardware store to get glossy paint, and we’d all do the final coat together. That would have been something. Our memory would have been profoundly different had Uncle Joe taken that route of inclusiveness and helpfulness.
I do not fault him for what he did — he probably knew no other way. In fact, from what I knew about his father (my grandfather), Joe probably would have gotten beaten had he painted the kitchen with flat paint. So to Joe, that was just one of millions of automatic reactions to things in his world. He probably forgot about in a few years, after the novelty of talking about Marie’s silly nephews wore off.
I realized then how important such “little things” can be, and I wondered how well I would do when my next opportunity arose. It is especially important with impressionable youth to do the very best we can to be a good example. 
It seemed like an important insight, that the “how” is more important than the “what,” and that flat or glossy really doesn’t matter. Perhaps it was the paint. Perhaps it was the cool breeze blowing fresh oxygen through the room … n

Christopher Nyerges, who has been leading wilderness trips since 1974, is the author of “Enter the Forest, Guide to Wild Foods” and co-author of “Extreme Simplicity.” He can be reached at the School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, Calif., 90041. A schedule of his classes is available at


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