When I was 8, my 9-year-old cousin Skip showed me a drawing he’d made of a rowboat, and it shocked me.
When I drew, my subject matter was pretty much limited to fighter jets with the US Air Force insignia on the side. I probably drew boats, too, so it wasn’t that Skip had drawn a boat that amazed me. It was how he drew it.
My drawings were flat — two dimensional. But Skip’s boat had three dimensions. It projected off the page, and when I saw that something in me died.
To the extent that any 8-year-old knows what he’s going to be when he grows up, I didn’t fancy myself an artist. But until then nothing had persuaded me that my drawings were inadequate, either.
Skip’s did, and in my despair I ignored that he had learned it from a book, and maybe I could, too. All I could think was that this was yet another instance where I wasn’t good enough, that I couldn’t do it, and that I might as well give up. So I did.
No Latitude for Mistakes
Such thinking didn’t originate with that episode, of course. It was a continuation of experiences that began years before, all convincing me that I was inadequate, that the turf that I could call my own — the realm where I was adequate and capable — was pitifully small and subject to further erosion.
That subconscious belief washed over into adult life, limiting my willingness to try new things only when I thought I could be good at them immediately. There was no latitude for making mistakes. I had to be perfect.
I never took up playing the guitar for that reason. Yet, like millions of others, I played air guitar along with Mark Knopfler, Billy Gibbons and Carlos Santana, and still regret that I didn’t give it a try. I never risked surfing while living in Hawaii, and body-surfed in the islands only because I’d done a tamer version of it on the Mainland and loved it.
Years later, a wonderful artist and former high school classmate, Claire Watson Garcia, gave me a free painting lesson and strongly urged me to continue. I didn’t.
Self-doubt and saying “no” was such a part of my identity that I assumed that’s who I really was. But after the failure of three long relationships (two of them divorces), I began to re-examine my life and realized that many of my assumptions were unfounded and had been forced upon me by childhood circumstances.
In the mid-1990s, I attended a men’s retreat led by New Age author Dan Millman. Millman, a former gymnast, did a great job of mixing instruction with physical activity, and the finale was breaking a board with our bare hands.
The premise was that if we could break a board, we could also break through personal issues. So before we broke the boards, we had to write on them what we were trying to break through.
I wrote: “Holding back.”
I broke the board successfully, but breaking through the control and perfectionism behind the holding back has been a long and difficult process. I’m still working on it.
A few days ago, after more than a year of pondering it, watching YouTube videos and consulting knowledgable friends, I finally decided to replace my kitchen faucet.
This was not a vanity project. The faucet stopped working in March of 2017, I’m embarrassed to say. But since the spray hose still worked, I limped along, not wanting to pay a plumber, yet not wanting to give up on the idea that, dammit, I could do it.
The hang-up, as usual, was self-doubt. Just as I concluded from Skip’s drawing that I was not an artist, I also learned long ago that I was not mechanical. My brother, Dave, the kid who raised and lowered the family trash can into a tree with a block and tackle, he was mechanical. He became an engineer.
I was an athlete who could spell and loved to read, and discovered later that I could write. Beyond that, every new thing, every change in the status quo was a challenge and a referendum on my self-worth, and my reaction was always “I can’t.”
Open Mind, Willing Heart
But when I started questioning my assumptions, not many of them were valid. Including, it still amazes me to say, the idea that I have no mechanical ability. Over the past few years, I’ve learned that with an open mind and a willing heart, I can do far more than I thought.
It began with replacing a washer in a leaky bathroom faucet — laughably easy for many, but for me it was a beginning. Then I risked replacing the flush valve in a toilet. The new one included instructions on how to clean it. So I took apart the old one, cleaned it, put it back together and it worked.
Wow, I did that?
I replaced a doorknob, a toilet lever, a lamp socket. I put up a new mailbox and, despite massive misgivings, installed a dryer vent.
At that point, I was almost giddy with success, and when an electrical outlet started smoking, I consulted a contractor friend. Suitably informed, I turned off the circuit breaker, pulled the outlet from the wall, took pictures of the wiring, bought a new one, wired it and installed it.
At that point, I felt like I was on the North Face of home repair. Screw up electrical stuff and you’re homeless.
And then the piece de resistance: I removed the defective kitchen faucet — which proved to be as deeply resistant to change as I am — and installed a sleek new one. It will be a week or so before I stop sharing my amazement at that accomplishment.
It’s absurd that I waited a year to brave it, especially with all the junk from beneath the sink sitting on a coffee table in my sunroom, reminding me daily of my unwillingness. That I finally overcame it was huge, and exposes another level to the experience that goes beyond the satisfaction of having a cool new faucet.
Household breakdowns — like divorces, getting laid off and so many other things I resent and resist — are always inconvenient and uncomfortable, but they are also opportunities.
When I hold back, I’m a victim; the past is running me. Accepting that life is about problem solving opens up possibilities to change, grow, and take back my life.
Taking action led to a series of accomplishments that unlocked a limiting mentality and opens me up to things I may have set aside — like drawing and painting — and to possibilities I may never have even considered.
In other words, It’s about hope and changing the trajectory of a life. It’s about healing the future.
A mutual friend, Ken Dunham, recently turned me on to your writing, & I just finished reading two of your essays-“The Sailboat, the Faucet, & the Power of Yes,” & “Throwing Strikes.” You write with both clarity & emotion, such that I was able to see myself in both pieces. For whatever it’s worth, I’m very glad you discovered that you “could write.” You certainly can, & I am now a fan.
Thank you, Bruce. I really appreciate the compliment, and I hope I’ll have more for you to read soon.