“What the fuck are you doing?”
“God damn it.”
“Fucking A Spaulding…”
Those words roll off my tongue with an alacrity I didn’t know I had. I didn’t know that is until I started buying power tools instead of ropes and sanding blocks instead of carabiners. I didn’t know it existed until I started wiring circuits instead of rock climbing and buying houses instead of going to Patagonia. What the fuck Spaulding, stick with what you know.
I think he attributed it to the legendary Bob Villa, but I remember my uncle George once saying “measure twice, cut once.” Well that is all well and good when you are good, but I measure six times and cut four. No matter what I think I am doing, or how proficient I think I have become, I always seem to forget some detail. “Well shit, that sure ain’t level” has been spat through my lips more than once. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. “God damn it, Spaulding, you sure fucked that one up” I say to the ghost of my father that haunts all the miscuts I make and all the nails I can’t pound straight.
And it happens again and again. I pick up the hammer and bend the nail, I miss measure the hole I am drilling, I pound the nail without forethought. I have pried out over half the nails I have pounded in. Over and over.
Somewhere on a mountain, several thousand miles and several lifetimes away, my partner and I top out at sunset. We share the requisite high five before turning and inching our way downward. Before long we are tossing our ropes into fading headlamp beams and watching a light snow begin to fall. We are tired, there hasn’t been much sleep, but we push on, one rappel after another, deeper into the darkness, deeper into the unknown, deeper into a snow squall. Just above our knots, we swing back and forth, scraping, peering, kicking at the darkness till it produces some sort of tat. We clip in and do it over again. There is no room for error. But it is rote, we are on autopilot. We have never been there, but we know. We are competent and we know what to do. There are no miscuts, no bent nails (well, save that I left our breakfast rations in town…)
The books lay open on my lap. Renovations 4th Edition, Black & Decker Complete Guide to Wiring, 6th Edition, Home Depot 1-2-3. They all show some sort of set-up, some sort of circuit, or some sort of process. I read them again and again. I take out my pencil and the hours tick away. I draw a schematic, then I draw a picture of the kitchen with the wall taken out. I sit. I plan. I think it through. There is no rote memorization here. Deliberateness and intentionality rule, though even in the best of times, they don’t always let me get it right. In this moment, I am a novice. I am by myself, with only me, someone learning, someone wholly used to being an expert. Someone used to teaching novices something I could do with my eyes closed, whether that was the technical skills of rock climbing or the more necessary skills of being a human being. For the past twenty years I have honed a craft of rock climbing, being in the mountains, feeling mostly competent, though not always confident. I put in the 10,000 hours requisite for mastery. Rarely did I push myself in any other direction. It was life, it was passion, and it was good.
“Well, let’s try to figure this out” I say as Claire and I stand back, looking at Red Duck’s load. It is a bit caddy wampus and is likely to cause him some grief and pain on the trail today. “Guess we should probably just re-do it huh? I say, realizing that I have more or less just fucked it up. “Yeah probably” Claire, a student on the course, responds, somewhat resigned. We are camped deep in the Central Winds, a place in which I know most of the nooks and crannies. I have scaled several of the towering walls of the Middle Fork Valley, stood on top of some of its craggy summits and swam in its cold lakes, but here, now, I can’t help feel like an imposter. And I can’t utter the expletives that rise inside. It is my first time working a NOLS horse course. A year and probably less than a month of days on a horse prior, I saddled and mounted up a horse for the first time. A rank novice, I ventured off onto the NOLS horse packing seminar. And somehow I passed. Now, Claire and I, almost equal in our novice-ness, trouble shoot the basket hitch. We undue the lash rope, take off the manti tarp, re-stack the lash rope, re-fold the manti and try again. We talk technique, pull things tight, and offer each other encouragement and tips. Claire finishes off the basket hitch and tucks the tail under the loaded rope. We step back, bumping into each other as we angle to observe the load from behind Red Duck, who stands their patiently, half asleep, as we practice our skills at our leisure and his expense. We talk the finer points and Claire reaches under to reassess the cinch for centeredness and tightness. “Welp, better’n last time” I pronounce with only a bit of certainty.
Earlier in my horse world there were no books, no instruction manuals laid out, just Jim and Jesse, Ari and Liz, Kelsey and McKenzie, and everyone else who answers my questions. Same abilities, different approach. And so I learn. And it is more about me that I learn, than it is about horses. So I grab a book to read in the empty moments.
I wrote a post a couple years ago now about ruts. I also wrote about the emotions I experienced as I shed the mantle of “field instructor” for one of “sal-fac” and the identity loss that came with it. Now I sit and ponder when the next time I will climb will be. And it almost doesn’t matter. Last night at the bar, Anne and I talked about Patagonia and I felt the fire burn in my gut. I felt the twinge of fear that the words Fitz Roy elicit. I felt the aching in my heart for the Patagonian jungle, for the harsh winds that signal that it is time to go home, get off the mountain. And I felt an inadequacy because I was out of shape, out of mindset. “You’ve already climbed it twice” though she said. “I’d climb it again and again” I said, knowing that while my words were true, it still didn’t stop me from feeling the scareyness that mountains bring out in me. It doesn’t matter when I will climb again because that fire is there. It doesn’t matter because I have escaped the rut. It doesn’t matter because I have changed my name.
Now as I go to nail up another piece of trim, it turns out I fucked it up again. I swear, I curse myself, and engage myself in a thorough tongue lashing of negative self-talk. I am a novice with a brain and personality wired to be an expert. I don’t do it in the horse world, where I am just as novice. I can’t. It isn’t professional and with people around it would be embarrassing to throw a little tempertantrum, putting myself down and cussing myself out. It is not how I want my students to respond when they don’t get it right, and truthfully it is not how I want to respond when I don’t get it right. But it is natural. I hold myself to high standards. I expect much of myself. Yet my brain hasn’t caught up with my hands. Sometimes it forgets that I haven’t put in 10,000 hours of carpentry, of packing and working with horses. It is real though, and it drives me on; it keeps me honest and aware. And teaches me more than I ever thought I’d learn.
Being a novice has reintroduced me to myself. It has created empathy for my students, for the ones who, like me, are rank novices. It has brought me clarity in how I learn. It has allowed me to venture into new terrain. It has made me think that things are possible. And it has made me wonder, as an oft quoted poem from an earlier time says. “do you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments?”*
Featured Image: another, wild, hare brained idea for my dining room/kitchen. Can’t wait to get bring it to reality.
* From The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer