Ramblings: Zen and the Art of House Painting

I hate painting houses with a passion. Yet, that is how I’ve spent my summer so far. Up on ladders, brush in hand, paint on my nose. But it is nothing new. I painted our houses in Marquette, Michigan, Duluth, Minnesota, Spring Valley, Minnesota, and our previous house here in Anacortes. I never painted our apartment in Cairo . . . or did I? I did build a tree house in Egypt. But this house is even more challenging than the others because in one spot it is three stories (walk out basement plus two more floors) and it is on a very hilly place. Unleveled ground makes each ladder placement like landing a rover on Mars, an inch that way is disaster and an inch this way is a mess.

But the reason I’ve always painted our houses is that I worked as a professional house painter in college, and in graduate school, I had my own painting company. So why wouldn’t I paint our houses and save us thousands of dollars? I’m sure that people who were plumbers in college do their own plumbing. Wait a minute. I do our own plumbing too. My brother was a plumber and my father was a manager of a plumbing supply shop so I guess that counts.

I also hate plumbing, especially late at night on a Saturday when the hardware stores are closed and water is everywhere. But that’s another story.

Our house really did need painting. It was the color of a lemon, a faded and worn lemon. I wanted it paint it green or blue. Denise wanted yellow. So, we compromised and I am painting it the blue of a banana (wink).

The reason I decided to take on this momentous job is the same as before, however, this time there was even more at stake. I was even more motivated because, if cancer was not enough, I got laid off from my career because of it. While I did have some disability payments, a small portion of what I was earning, I dropped from being the main bread winner and that was painful. So, Denise and I decided that I would make up for not earning income by doing things that would save us money. . . like painting the house, fixing the cars, and etc. That seems fair, however, I would much rather be taking care of headache patients.

My motivation to not paint the house was also enhanced this year. Before I got my bone marrow results just a week or so ago, I didn’t know where my cancer stood. I could have been on the threshold of sudden decline into death. Wouldn’t I hate to spend my last 12 weeks on this planet doing something I hate?

Also, I’m not the man I used to be. It is more than age. While age is the reason that my knees ache from climbing ladders all day. The renal failure has caused me to have some significant neurological weaknesses. My legs sometimes gives out when I’m perched up high. And then there’s my friend diarrhea. While much better now, It is not that uncommon to get all my supplies up on the roof and then I am poised to paint and it hits.

With all of that said, I am happy that I am seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, thanks to Eli’s help. Normally when you paint house, you start at the highest point and work your way down. But my 24 foot ladder would not reach the highest point, plus there are some places that I could not figure how to get to. I am down to those bad spots. Sitting precariously like they are daring me to paint them.

My ace in a hole is my son Tyler, who, like me was a professional painter. I was expecting him to have a way to reach those last spots and he could do them for me. He came to look yesterday for the first time and he is as puzzled as I am as how to do it.

“Tyler,” I said. “I thought you were a professional and would know what to do?”

“Dad, hard spots like you have are the reason I got out of painting.”

All this above is the introduction to what I really want to talk about and that are some things I learned as a painter. I will first state that I have a “hyper-rational” fear of heights. What I mean is, I don’t have an irrational fear of heights. I mean, I can climb ladders, cross bridges (Deception Pass bridge doesn’t scare me) and I have even rock and mountain climbed. I’ve stood on the edge of a 200 fool crevasse with just crampons and a thin glacier rope holding me. But I do like to be very safe. For example, I’ve had friends who had no qualms about free climbing (without gear) up the face of a cliff. I would not do that.

Back when I first started painting, I was working with a Presbyterian pastor friend of mine. If you know theology, Presbyterians emphasize God’s sovereignty over everything. God is the master puppeteer and we, and everything on this earth, His puppets.

This guy, I will call him “Ted,” also was one of these people like Alex Honnold who seemed to have no fear of heights. It has to be genetic. But Ted spiritualized it (as evangelicals tend to do about everything) that my hesitation of climbing to ridiculous heights in precarious rigging was because “You lack faith.” He always made me feel so horrible about myself. . . as evangelicals often do.

Now, let me explain these painting situations. Ted started contracting doing the most dangerous painting jobs because they paid better. For example, we did a big church with steeple that must have been 60-70 feet in the air. The only way we could reach it was to take our biggest ladder (40 feet?) and put it on the roof of his Dodge van. Then take our next longest ladder and tie it on the end of the big ladder with a rope. It was crazy! However, if I did not go up these ladders, he would make it a spiritual issue, that I was not trusting God. He said that he didn’t have fear because he trusted God completely (again, I think it was genetic, the way his and Alex brains are wired).

To make a long story short, right after I left the company, Ted had a terrible fall, fracturing his spine and pelvis and almost killing him. It is a miracle that he could walk again. He says that fall was God’s will for him. Really? Does physics play any role here? What about reason? I believe both reason and physics are part of God’s wonderful creation.

I do think for 2,000 years, the Church has often put God in a box. That box is “God is in control.” Now, that sounds sexy and spiritual and by me even bringing this topic up again will cause some to doubt my faith. But it is not an issue of faith, but of understanding God and the world. It really is a metaphysical problem.

I now believe that God has created a world full of wonder . . . and thorns. That we humans have been given the mandate to care for this world and to make it better and to watch out for, and eliminate the thorns when we can. Those thorns could be the dangers of falling, environmental disasters, or systemic injustices that plague our societies. We must intervene in our own life experiences and the shape of history.

Too often people become paralyzed in the notion that “God is in control, so I do nothing.”

You can make the jump at this juncture over to cancer. I’ve read some things and a few people (very few) have suggested things that are troublesome. To me, it seems like people like cliches more than they like to really think things through. For example, “You do understand that God gave you cancer for a reason?”


“You don’t need to worry about your tests (or doing anything to change the course of my disease) because God is in control.”

More bullshit.

To raise this question causes people to point at you, like Ted did, and say, “You are a man of little faith.”

Extra Bullshit.

No, I’m a man who thinks these things through and tries very hard not to define God or put Him in a box or to reduce Him to a genie.

In a surreal place, my cell phone just rang and it was my brother Gary. I called him yesterday. He is gravely ill. He told me just now that he has hours, not days. We had a long talk. He is mad at God for not giving him more time on earth (he has gotten to live 7 years more than I have, so far). I told him how much I related. I was not mad at God, but I was very disappoint when at barely age 64 and I was told I was dying, that I would loose my life and my dreams.

However, it would have been stupid of me to have told Gary that this was God’s plan for him. But I could say that this world is full of thorns and is not fair. It isn’t fair for any of us. It frankly sucks sometimes. But it is still glorious. I told him that I will still pray for a miracle for him, but if one does not come, I hope to see him on the other side of the grave. I pray that he can come to peace with God before that departure.

I told him that I had come to terms with death and if I died in my sleep tonight, I would not be bitter. But I do fear suffering. Having tasted it, I found it to be worst than my nightmares could have framed. The terrible nature of suffering is that the further you go into it, the lonelier it becomes. People stop listening to moans that are piercing to their ears. The medical comforts become inadequate. When doctors don’t know what to do, they often blamed the patient. So, I pray to God that Gary will not suffer. . . nor I again. These are the worst thorns on this planet.

I will not say the thoughtless cliche that they say down south, something along the lines of “God took him home because Heaven needed a good plumber.” No, if he is not spared, he died from leukemia. A horrible thorn on this earth, a dis. . . ease. We should fight against these things, not accept them as a gift. We are not puppets. The gift that God gave us is our will and our minds. We have the opportunity to change who we are and what the world has become. That’s our calling. I believe that is God’s plan.

Regarding the “Zen,” no I’m not a Buddhist. But Zen offers meditations into the true nature of our minds and things with the purpose of benefiting others. That idea I can embrace with this exercise . . . and the adventure in painting.



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3 responses to “Ramblings: Zen and the Art of House Painting”

  1. Hi Mike, For me….I believe like birth, death is a miracle. As much as I miss the people that have passed into the spirit life, I do not wish for them to back here on this earth having watched them suffer with so much pain. Death is that miracle that gave them peace. If God knocked on my door today and said “C. you’re coming with me.” I think I would so excited. Realistically, it probably won’t happen for awhile so I will just continue doing what I do. I am trying to figure out what part of this world I fit into. How did this world become black and white and miss the grey area of common sense? Enough said.
    Maybe you could tape a paint brush onto a drone and have it finish the high spots so no one gets hurt.


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