Successfully Burned: Multitudes of Waste
Contractor Trash Bags Purchased (And Used): 250
Contractor Trash Bags Needed (In Total) To Complete House: 253
Aggravation: Intense
Saints Who Deliver Three Needed Trash Bags: One, Named Kathy. Thank You.

The other day we set off the Pyre of the Ages down at the house: a burn pile of almost-epic proportions which had accumulated over the course of a year and a half of work. It was a cool-ish morning, the snow was on the ground, and we had gathered, with almost liturgical reverence, around the ominous hulk.

“Did you bring the diesel?” I was asked. “Yes,” I said, until it became clear that, in fact, I had brought the propane, which would most likely have incinerated the burn pile, house, and fire-setter together. Diesel retrieved and applied, I was asked, “Did you bring matches?” When I shamefacedly shook my head in the negative, my overly patient mentor grinned widely and threw me a box from his coat. After a year, apparently he knows me.

You would think that for someone smart enough to write in multiple complete sentences, this sort of dumb mistake might be a rather uncommon occurrence: the unfortunate byproduct of under-caffeination and over-scheduling. In fact, this level of “You Forgot the What?” stupidity has been perhaps the second-most reliable feature of this last year, running close second to my increasing tolerance for huge piles of reeking garbage. In the past year, I’ve forgotten my tool belt more times than I can count, destroyed pieces of flashing, de-shingled a roof in the precisely opposite-to-optimum way, resulting in a full extra day of work, installed sheet rock with similar efficiency and expertise, and so on.

More than once in the past few months, I’ve stopped, generally while covered in dust and humiliation, and thought, I’m not good at this.”

To be clear, I’m certainly better at this than I was a year ago. Just this last weekend, I walked into my Tenant/Best Friend Ever’s/Island Wizard’s cabin and successfully repaired THREE electrical outlets in the course of 90 minutes, after which I verbally high fived myself to the point of obnoxiousness.

I can now look at physical objects and see them as part of interacting systems that I too am capable of interacting with, rather than as Vast Unreachable Mysteries That Make Me Panic. I actually enjoy settling into the grind of a day’s worth of work, able to pace myself so I’m not utterly spent after ninety overenthusiastic minutes. When it comes to electrical work and some forms of extremely basic carpentry, I now know how to learn what I don’t know (although the inner mysteries of framing, leveling, and other such topics still lie utterly beyond my grasp.)

That’s certainly progress, but none of it comes easy to me. I’ll never be the person you look to for top-grade finish work or to ingeniously troubleshoot a knotty problem. I simply don’t possess the genius of so many of my neighbors on the island, who can read a book about boat building, for instance, and then go build a boat; or can read a book on installing a septic system and then go out to confidently rent an excavator. My road up this hill is far steeper, filled with a thousand genuinely dumb mistakes and precious few leaps of insights, as I struggle to get my brain to think in a way that it hasn’t had to do before. In short, I’m not pushing my way to the front of the class anytime soon.

This is not exactly a common experience for me. I was one of those “gifted” kids; able to get good grades without having to develop a lot of discipline (lots of energy, yes; but always with the scattered enthusiasm of a person who has not quite learned how to keep up with his brain yet) and I learned to stay in that lane as much as possible. I knew what I was good at (writing, reading, ideating, for instance) and what I wasn’t good at (athletics, where I was exceptionally competitive and exceptionally average) and social situations (which I viewed with the same excitement as a gopher who’s been invited as a special guest to the Annual Hawk Convention) and most certainly the Trades, where I viewed anything more than changing a tire or mowing the lawn with reverent terror.

When my health and my career fell apart simultaneously (hyperlink); my sense of narrowly cultivated competence collapsed with it. After spending a fair amount of time stuck in the muck of my failure, I realized that I was going to have start doing things that I wasn’t good at (or at least not practiced at) if my life was going to get better. It meant exploring alternative medical treatments for my illness so I could get better rather than just sucking it up. It meant getting into therapy and spiritual direction (both of which one must approach as a beginner if one is to accomplish anything.) It meant laboriously reworking my career down different lines: as a choral director, as a worship leader, and as a consultant, always at higher degrees of pressure and complexity than I ever had before. It also meant buying this house, both for the opportunity and from a sense of calling, but where I really lacked the basic competencies to do the work without significant help.

Being a beginner is an exhausting blessing. It the vulnerability of shedding one’s illusions of competence and trusting on others to guide you. It is an almost daily exercise in discovering why the words “humility” and “humiliation” share the same roots. It is the regular experience of reaching the ends of your understanding and having to keep at it anyway, trusting that your comprehension will grow in due time. It is learning the necessity of applying steady effort even when it’s not fun and never comes easy.

There is a definite energy cost to spending much of your time as a novice. I have a pile of small curiosities that I have had to set back on the shelf for the indefinite future. In my leisure time, I find myself settling back in the same un-adventuresome activities that made me happy when I was twelve, namely reading books and playing video games. After all, we are limited creatures, with only so much time and emotional fortitude to spend, and I’m already more than a little bit over-drawn.

You too can find something to learn that you’re bad at. It’ll be good for you; it’ll probably even be fun at times. Learn a musical instrument or a new language, even if you’ll never play in a concert or be able to do much more than say “Where is the bathroom?” without embarrassment. Maybe you don’t possess the necessary insanity to renovate a house, but perhaps building a chicken coop would be a good exercise in personal growth and profanity. Maybe you don’t need to rebuild your life from scratch as I did, but perhaps scheduling a session with a therapist or spiritual director could help you examine the unexamined assumptions about your life and start the journey towards personal and spiritual growth.

The house is now nearly clean (stay tuned for another post on the joys of emptying out a 450 square foot storage room!) which means that the renovation portion of our project is about to begin. This means I’ll be spending the year being really bad at carpentry. Who knows? Maybe next by March, I’ll know how to remove a load-bearing wall and frame out a room. One way or another, I’ll have another year of practice at not being good at what I do.


  1. Chris Zimmerman Reply

    As an art student in a college filled with the best artists from every high-school i often felt I was not as good as everyone else. But project after project I slowly began to learn I didn’t need to be as good as the next person. I needed my art to stand out on its own. Still I felt plagued by my countless mistakes and became my own worst critic. I adopted a phrase though that help me along: Art is simply knowing what mistakes to keep.

    I love learning new things now more then I ever have before. And the journey of ups and downs to do so is all part of the fun.

    • I love, love this; and this particularly struck home as I think about my writing. When it comes to the house, I am reminded that well the finish work might not be exactly professional level, but at least it will have a lot of character and an acceptable level of competence!

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