Ever have a project that hangs out on your to-do list forever? This one was mine: I’d been meaning to paint it ever since we moved to this house (two years ago in August). That bright, orange-y red just never blended in with the other things in this room, especially when the walls were still minty green.
I’ve never liked how it looks through the window from the street, either.
I know it’s dumb to be bothered by something so inconsequential–and it’s not like I’ve lost any sleep at all over this–but it’s been a small annoyance every time I look at a picture of our exterior. Given the pain we went through to paint it, I don’t want anything to mar it, you know?
During our last week of summer break, however, I finally decided the time had come. Yes, we’re still working on our family room. Yes, I still need to strip the wallpaper from the kitchen, especially since I started tearing it off one day this summer in order to make myself get on that job.
The orange/red really didn’t fit in with the rest of the living room, and with school within eye-sight, it became one of those small projects I wanted to get done before we went back to work and our house project progress slows to a crawl.
One of the other posts I never wrote is about how we re-arranged the living room this summer because we decided, after all the fussing we did with our gallery wall, that we couldn’t stand the TV being in the middle of the gallery wall.
So we moved the orange bookcase back to the front of the room and put the TV in it, which makes for better TV viewing, anyway. However, the orangeiness of the bookcase bothered me much more than it did when it was tucked into the back corner of the room.
(This is where I’d insert a picture if I’d thought to take one before I started painting.)
Painting it wasn’t going to be a big deal. Something I could knock out in a day. So I pried my son off the couch (Is it just mine, or do all teen boys have only two speeds: running and almost-comatose?) and got him to help me haul it out to the garage for sanding.
Even though I’d been ready to paint this thing forever, I hesitated before making the first swipe with the sander. I really loved that red when I painted it five summers ago (Habanero Chile from Sherwin-Williams).
Maybe it’s because I spent too much time with Mary O-Neill’s Hailstones and Halibut Bones in my formative years, but for me colors have never been just colors. Habenero Chile wasn’t just orange/red paint. It was a declaration, a promise, a first (bold!) step in making the kind of home I’d dreamed of.
By the time I chose the color, I’d been dreaming about a new home for months and months. During the previous school year, I negotiated my divorce while continuing to live in the same house with the husband I was divorcing. Going home to that Cold War zone every day showed me (in ways I would never wish upon anyone) what it means when home is not a respite or haven.
That bookcase was one of the first things I bought when I began collecting furniture for the home I was going to make by myself. The first home I’d ever made all by myself. The place where I would feel safe, the place where my kids and I were going to laugh again and feel good again.
I spent that spring buying old junk from garage sales and craigslist, thinking I’d fix them all up right away with a quick coat of paint or two. (Hah! Some of those things never got their coat of paint.)
One of the first things I did after moving was paint that bookcase, with that bright red/orange paint. I didn’t have a big color scheme in mind for our new home. I just knew I wanted something happy. Colorful. Fun. I wanted the whole house to be like that, and it mostly was. I bought plates in bright colors and I covered the dining room chairs with multi-colored polka dots.
I didn’t get that bookcase painted right away, but it was the first piece of furniture I painted that first summer. Sanding it down again in the last weeks of this past August, I could see how far I’ve come in some ways from that first paint job.
It wasn’t a great one. There were thick ridges on some of the edges, and more than a few drips. I remember laying down coat after coat of paint. I’d primed it with white primer, and it took 4 coats to fully cover it. By the last one, I’d lost my usual perfectionism.
Sanding in the garage of this different house, in the waning days of this summer, I remembered the summer days spent in our first house 5 years ago. The hours I spent sanding in that garage were some of my best ones in a summer full of difficult ones. Nothing felt comfortable in that first season of our new life.
When my kids were with me, it was hard. Everything felt strange. We had to make all new routines, in a house that didn’t yet feel like home to any of us. I had to do everything myself, and it felt like I did nothing well.
When my kids weren’t with me, it was a different kind of hard. I missed them terribly. It felt wrong to go days without seeing them.
When I was sanding furniture, though, those hours without them passed more easily. My hands were occupied and time passed quickly. I listened to music and made plans in my head. I thought about things that needed thinking about. So, as I prepped the bookcase for painting again, I found myself taking time and more care than I might usually do.
“I think you’re sanding that way more than you need to,” Cane said.
“Yeah, I know,” I said.
And then I kept sanding. I wanted to do the job right. I wanted to do it better than I was able to do back then, when everything was new and raw and hard and I didn’t have enough time to do all the things that needed doing.
I had trouble with the color. Just as I did last summer with the paint for our front door, I bought the wrong one. I forgot the paint chip (just like last summer) and found myself at Home Depot knowing that Copper Mountain was the name. I put it in their system and up popped Behr’s Copper Mountain. I grabbed the paint chip from the Behr rack and took it to the counter for a quart of paint. Only problem is that the paint chip I’d originally chosen was Sherwin-William’s Copper Mountain.
I tried it on one of the shelves anyway. I really wanted it to work. I wanted something with the some color. Something that would help tie our still-a-little-disjointed living room together. Something with some of the spirit of the original red/orange, but toned way down.
I brought the shelf up to the living room to see how it looked. (I also slapped some leftover front door paint on a piece of scrap wood to check out that color.)
I wasn’t sure.
“I think it looks kinda weird,” Cane said.
His preference was to choose one of the many browns we already own. I really hated the idea of replacing my Habanero Chile with a staid, boring brown.
I pulled out all the paint chips again. I couldn’t decide. I wasn’t sure about any of them, even my original Copper Mountain. I didn’t want to choose the wrong color again. I didn’t want to waste more money. I wanted to be done with the project.
I hemmed and hawed and got kind of mad at Cane for not helping me pick a better color. And for not knowing that the bookcase isn’t just a bookcase and the color wasn’t just a color.
Because the project had already taken several days and because I was frustrated about all kinds of things at the end of August and I just wanted to be done with it already, I slapped a coat of Espresso Bean (Behr, I think) on it.
Yes, slapped. I grudgingly decided to go with it, and I slapped another coat on. This paint job wasn’t really any better than the original one, despite my careful prep work. But now–more than a month later–the color seems like the right choice and I don’t notice any of the imperfections. The dark TV–which we will never like the look of–recedes into the dark case. When it was orange/red, the case became a focal point, drawing attention to the black box we wish weren’t even in the room at all. The dark case helps keep our eyes on the fireplace, which is where we want them to go. And, the brown fits in with the warm, mellow vibe the room has developed over the time we’ve been here. Once again, I’ve learned that perfection isn’t necessary, and there will likely never be a time in my life in which all the stars line up just right so that I can achieve such a state in our home or any other place. I’m happy with the bookcase and its imperfect paint job.
Still, there’s something more than a little bittersweet in letting go of the red. It means letting go of that time in which something in me really needed a bright red piece of furniture. It means acknowledging that a stage has passed and is gone–that period of time when my kids were still kids and I was full of dreams for new kinds of memories with them. Hard as those years were in some ways, it was also an exciting time, full of new possibilities.
But the case really is better now as a brown one, and I’ve realized that half of what’s in a color is what you choose to see in it. Maybe brown is boring and staid–or, maybe, it’s rich, steady, and calm.
Maybe it doesn’t have red’s zingy zip or orange’s zest, but it does have the easy comfort of a pair of worn boots, the cover of an old book, a steaming mug of dark tea–and ease is no small thing to me these days. And, while brown is ordinary, it’s certainly not simple, with its complex blend of many hues and a chameleon-like quality that can turn it green or purple or gray.
Today, I’m feeling grateful for a life that is much like the palette of the living room we now have: Mellow, harmonious, warm.
Don’t get me wrong–it’s not all peace and light around here. But compared to those first few years the kids and I were on our own? Many things are much easier now. And I can now see the truth of the words Mary O’Neill wrote more than 50 years ago:
Brown is a feeling you get inside
when wondering makes your mind grow wide.
Brown is a leather shoe and a good glove — —
Brown is as comfortable as love.
Would love to know what colors speak to you, and what they say. Hope you’ll share in the comments. We’ve got a long weekend coming up (no school/work on Friday for us this week) and we’re planning to finish the job of stripping that kitchen wallpaper and put a color on those white walls. We’d also love to hear what color you think we should go with. (We’re not totally set on a color yet, but it’s not gonna be brown!)