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Judith Leyster: Self-portrait (c. 1630)
" Whatever we do, there we are."

Grand Refurbishments serve as test beds, breeding grounds for new skills. One begins a Refurbish with hopeful optimism and little knowledge of what might be required to complete the effort. One might, upon later reflection, recognize that the work couldn't help but challenge. It could not have possibly been a walk-through exercise. It would prove to be a crawl-through sometimes. Perhaps such experiences build character. I know from my own experience that in a typical year, I might gain a single fresh proficiency. In this Grand Refurbishment year, I've acquired several. This cluster has provided me with a rare opportunity to more closely observe how I learn and how I adopt lessons to become proficient.

I'm learning that it might be best for me if I can presume that I don't really know very much of anything.
Certainly, I've had my share of prior experiences, but always under different circumstances. Context seems to be king when it comes to experience and resulting knowledge. Understanding gained in another context might help frame fresh learnings but it rarely if ever precludes the necessity of learning over within a fresh context. I thought I already knew how to paint, but Kurt Our Painter quickly dispelled me of that notion. I had become the sum of my bad habits, acquired not through scrupulous study but through simple repetition, a self-referential kind of understanding. I didn't know underlying theory. I had only the narrowest of experience. I had been self-taught by an ignorant teacher. I was not learning over, but unlearning first, then learning all over again for the first time. Proficiency first emerged from blank slating, then from repetition. Doing anything over and over and over again might eventually lend deepening skill.

I'm revisiting something I've known about myself forever. I am a terrible learner. I tend to be inattentive. My head already seems crammed full of too much knowledge, so I always resist acquiring more. This sense has been my lifelong companion. In grade school, I resisted instruction. Part of the reason I deferred my college education came from my sense that I simply couldn't absorb by any more instruction. I rarely engage in any new undertakings. No hobbies interest me. The Muse adopts new skills quite easily. I do only by considerable kicking and screaming. But a Grand Refurbishment depends upon a certain fluid progression. It might fail should the chief promoter refuse some charter. I had to accept whatever this old house dished out to me, however unattractive. Better if I could at least try to accomplish whatever came up, at least attempt a contribution. We would have never gotten over the hump had I not decided to pursue baseboard refinishing and doorface mending.

With almost every task, I felt like a phony at first. I felt like a fraud. I probably was. Installing the first lockset came after nine long days of serially failing to install it. It seemed as if I would never manage to get it right up until the time I finally did. Every time except that last iteration, I'd run into something unanticipated that would stall or redirect my energies. I'd go interrupt Kurt Our Painter or Joel Our Carpenter from their critical assignments and ask them to come and dispense some advice or to assist. I felt as though my purpose had become to disrupt the flow we were all depending upon. I'd sometimes just excuse myself for the rest of the day, go sit in some corner and wonder how I might get around the latest stymie. Kurt finally confided to me that that one damned door had probably presented every complication possible when installing new lock sets. He suggested that I might consider the lengthy learning cycle immunization from future stalls. Once I'd successfully installed that first one, I quickly mounted two more. A sense of proficiency came fast.

For me, I realize that I didn't really notice my proficiency until I was very nearly finished with a task. I started feeling as though I knew how to refinish door faces when I had only about two left to do. Up until then, I was still experimenting. I had not settled upon a firm technique, was still hunting and pecking my way through. When an approach worked, I'd attempt a repeat performance. When it worked again, no blinding insight came. I sort of shed another dread instead. I sensed increasing comfort but not mastery. I caught a glimpse of mastery in my rear view mirror after I finished the last door. Mounting them on their door frames again, I see their fresh perfection as well as their abiding dings. They just look beautiful to me and I wonder how it could possibly be that it was me who accomplished that, me who lacks Proficiency in almost everything, each a pretty decent self portrait. It might be that we're all proficient in self-portraiture. Whatever we do, there we are.

©2021 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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