Yesterday I was helping my daughter and son-in-law, Miriam & Thomas, get their new apartment ready to be moved into. The “flat” is in a post-war council estate in Amsterdam West, and the buildings will be demolished in a year or so to make room for more up-to-date facilities. In the interim the council is renting the flats to students; no long-term contracts, no guarantees. They aren’t bad apartments really, just too dated and run-down to be economically viable in the long term.
So I was painting. I’m a very experienced painter by virtue of the fact that I’ve had so many addresses in my life, most of which needed a paint job before being moved into. And for two of my university years I worked part-time as a painter’s prep. I take my time, but I enjoy it and I think I do a fairly good job.
However, a disclaimer is in order: I’ve never been a perfectionist in anything and this shows in my painting as well. My level of competence is more than adequate, but not professional. As Renata often encourages me when surveying the minor blemishes in my work, “Well, you’d never tell it from a running horse.” At least, I’ve always understood it to be encouragement.
The people who live behind us, across the alley above the Harley owner, now they are perfectionists. They’ve been working on their new apartment since we moved in – two years ago! They still aren’t close to finishing. I mean, what’s the point?
The thing is, I’ve learned that all of us are largely home blind. We tune out the minor impurities and instances of grime and smudges to be found in our homes. As inhabitants, we become accustomed to these imperfections to the point of no longer seeing them. And once the furniture is moved in and the pictures are on the wall, it makes very little difference if those things were there from the start or where added by the wear and tear of living.
But an attentive visitor will notice. It’s the kind of thing I notice all the time when I’m on pastoral visits. Pictures hanging crooked; stains in the carpet, sofa arm-rests needing a wash, whatever. I remember waiting for the governor of West Flanders in his work residence in Bruges, Belgium, in an large opulent room with chandeliers and walls of mirrors, and being struck by how many of the panels needed some Windex and a scrub. The governor emerged from a hidden door and suddenly I had to concentrate on other things.
The exhaust system on my 1966 Olds Dynamic 88 disintegrated once, in 1980. A friend told me of a friend of his, an honest mechanic in Corvallis, Oregon, who could fix my car. I drove the car to his shop, all the way making a hideous noise, hiding my face as best I could from the other drivers on the road. When I picked the car up again 3 days later I could hardly believe it was mine. Not only was the exhaust completely repaired – a lovely purring sound – but the car had been tuned, the tires correctly inflated, loose things screwed tight again, and I don’t know what all had been done to it. I was amazed that I had put up with such a dilapidated vehicle for so long, without even knowing it.
We are also home blind to our own souls and bodies. We get used to our blemishes, we bend our natures around them and over time we forget that this is not as it should be. Then along comes something to disrupt the balance and suddenly we’re face to face with a little bit of ugliness that we have been ignoring for a long time.
An opportunity to scrub things up a bit. Spring cleaning.