Seeing the Light

Over the Christmas holiday, I decided to do a little home improvement. Nothing serious; just a few new light fixtures, an easy day’s work. The kids and I brought one of the old fixtures to the Habitat for Humanity ReStore for donation, and they had a light on display that I thought was a perfect replacement for the one in our front dining/play/music room. The same light was selling for nearly $100 at Home Depot. My wife gave her blessing, and $15 plus tax later I walked out of the store grinning a satisfied-bargain-hunter grin.

It took an hour or so of wire splicing and custom fitting, but I finally had it hung properly. I truly enjoy stuff like that, and I was feeling pretty good about my home-improvement chops as I finished up.

This particular light had a big, beautiful glass shade that I had removed and laid safely on a padded chair near where I was working. The fact that this chair was an antique rocker had seemed immaterial until, brimming with handyman hubris, I stepped off the ladder, onto the front of one of the rockers, and the chair tipped forward.

The shade slid gently out of the chair, fell to the floor and disassembled itself. “Oh, rats!” I said, shaking my head and taking a deep cleansing breath. Except it didn’t come out like that. It came out as a primeval “AUUUGGH!” followed right away by a Christmas-Story-esque monologue that had my dear wife alternating between wide-eyed shock, shaking her head in sympathy, and gesturing toward the kids in an attempt to remind me that they were within earshot.

I did eventually find my calm, and explained to the kids that I’d worked very hard to get the light fitted correctly and was really frustrated that all of it was seemingly for naught since the shade had broken. Tirades like that are pretty unusual for me although, as my oldest was quick to remind me, not unheard of (“Remember when the new front door fell apart while you were fitting it in, Daddy?”)

My youngest, wise fellow that he is, recommended that I go back to the ReStore and try to find a replacement shade. Inside I was skeptical, but I thanked him anyway as I got ready for yet another trip to Home Depot. But first, just in case, I went by the ReStore first and, of course, they had one. But not THE one. It was from a different lamp and wasn’t a perfect fit. I bought it anyway; it was hard to turn down for only $2. I knew I’d need some hardware to fit it correctly, so off to Home Depot (again) I went.

All that driving around gave me some time to reflect. OK blog boy, thought I, time to put your money where your mouth is. What was it that got me so riled up that I set that kind of behavioral example for my kids?

One of the basic foundations of Buddhism is the set of tenets known as the Four Noble Truths. Number one of these Truths is that suffering exists. Seems simple, but acknowledging it isn’t always so. Number two is that that suffering (sometimes manifested by excess profanity) is caused by what is usually described as “craving” or “clinging”, whether to a material object, a thought, an ideal, or whatever.

So, what was I clinging to? Certainly not unbroken objects. Goodness knows I’ve broken way more expensive things than that and not lost my stuff.

I kept coming back to the idea of perfection. I found the perfect light. I got the perfect deal. I was being the perfect dad, involving my kids in the process and teaching them some home improvement tricks. My perseverance had resulted in a perfect fit in the ceiling fixture. It was time for the icing on my perfect cake, and then, <crash>. No more perfection. No more cake, a direct result of my own choice of where to place a fragile object.

Yeah, I’m a control-freakish perfectionist. But, through years of training (really) and practice, I’ve managed to get a reasonably good handle on it. Why the drama, then? Was it a temporary lapse in my perfect acceptance of my own imperfection?

My reflections kept bringing me back to my dad. He’s older now and in a place that doesn’t require much maintenance, but when I was younger, he was the consummate fix-it guy. He built a clothes chute. He plumbed the house with copper pipe. He put a fireplace in our basement. He re-worked the furnace ducting to install an electrostatic air filter to help my allergies. He made the four-year-old me a workbench.

And, he was a meticulous craftsman. Everything was square – measured twice, and cut once. Pipes fit one another like a hand in a glove, solder joints never leaked, and sheet metal was like clay in a potter’s hands to him.

I used to follow him around like a puppy. How I admired his ability to do seemingly anything. As years went by and I came to see both of our humanity and my own identity, that connection has changed. I still admire him, and it’s not like we’ve grown apart per se, but our phone calls are brief and limited to our respective goings-on. They always end too soon.

Now I’m a dad, with my own house and things to fix. I’m building loft beds, tree houses and zip lines. I’ve painted walls. And, there’s YouTube! Washing machine belt? No problem. Thermal fuse on a dryer? Child’s play. Starter on a 2005 Honda Pilot? Pass the metric wrenches. Look what I can do, Dad!

Everything I do around the house, every fixed appliance, every oil change, I get to connect with him. There’s a little bit of him in everything I do, and I’m proud of that.

Makes explaining my reaction to a broken shade on a 15-dollar lamp a little easier.

Noble Truth number three is that suffering can be mitigated, and number four talks about how to do that. There’s a lot to unpack there, but a key part of the process is honest self-inquiry.

This is not an instantaneous process. Self-inquiry in the the way the Buddha intended it involves looking at the very framework of what we think of as our identity. If that framework is fragile, a large part of our identity will be rooted in the fear of it collapsing.

If we do enough of that inquiry, it leads to a place of spacious awareness and equanimity, or the recognition that we (or more accurately, the identity that we think of as ourselves) are a small part of an interconnected universe, and the sound of a broken lampshade doesn’t travel very far in that universe.

I have no doubt that my dad had his own DIY frustrations along the way. But, I never once heard him bless an inanimate object like a sailor.

Something to work on.

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