Thursday, March 4, 2010

I Paint, Therefore I Am?

Isn’t it odd how we don’t recognize just how much we define ourselves by our occupations, until that occupation is somehow taken away from us?

For ten years I’ve painted houses, sometimes as an employee, sometimes as a sub-contractor, but mostly as a self-employed person, my own boss, queen of my domain. I never planned to become a painting contractor. I didn’t sit in my room as a child and dream of someday getting my contractor’s license. During the first couple of years when someone would ask what I did, I’d give a short answer, “I work for a painting contractor, “ or “I pick up odd jobs.” Then as my business grew, I could answer, “I’m self-employed, I own my own painting business.” Sounded a little more credible.

Then I came to enjoy the responses I got from people when I said I was a painting contractor. “Oh REALLY? You must have a crew.” “Nope, do it all myself.” I was then met with eyes that opened wide, mouths that dropped open, and the next inevitable question, “How did you get into that line of work?” My pat answer was, “By mistake.” I usually said it jokingly, but it’s not far from the truth. I hadn’t planned it, but it has worked out well for me.

One of my favorite memories was when a client, who has since become one of my favorite clients who gives me a lot of repeat business, asked me if my truck belonged to my husband. Clearly, a young woman (well, young being relative to his age) wouldn’t be driving her own truck. My other best memory was when I was painting an entire house, and the woman’s husband, who was at work every day, could NOT believe how much I got done by myself in one day. He ended up taking a ½ day off work so he could stay home and see for himself how a “girl” could get so much done.

I got a lot of satisfaction and self-worth from building a business in a blue-collar trade dominated by men, building and maintaining a loyal client base, and being more financially successful than I thought possible as a one-woman show. So when I had several months when I physically couldn’t paint and had to put my business on hold, I suffered a slight crisis of identity.

The first thing I noticed was that I experienced a complete loss of self-confidence. That one blindsided me. When I wasn’t able to contribute financially, and I physically could not do many things that I once took for granted, the vulnerability set in. Who was I if I couldn’t paint and couldn’t earn a living? I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but I wasn’t comfortable with that label since I haven’t proven myself. I started referring to myself as a self-unemployed painting contractor.

But what else was I? I had to start looking inward and redefining what made me, me. I certainly wasn’t defined solely by the fact that I could paint a house faster, neater, and better than most anyone I know. There HAD to be more to me than that. I had to start letting myself remember what I used to like to do when I wasn’t working my body into the ground every day. I took a walk with the dogs, a leisurely walk, not a 4 mile run that I HAD to get in before I went to work. I read a book, an actual book that I held in my hands, not an audio book that I listened to on my iPod while I painted. I started an intricate cross-stitch design because my fingers and hands weren’t sore at the end of the day. But most of all, I remembered the things that used to be important to me before I started chasing a fatter bank account. Friendships. Being there to listen to a friend rant and enjoying every minute of it. Ranting to my friend, and for once not feeling alone with my emotions. Family. Thinking about how I can plan my future so that I’m there for my parents as they age. Planning my summer visit to see my nephew’s new baby. And last but not least…me. Taking chances to pursue things I’ve only dreamed of, not for the sake of a dollar, but for the sake of my soul. At this point in my life, I’d rather have a fat soul than a fat bank account.

We are all more than our jobs, whether we are painters, lawyers, doctors, or teachers. We are sisters, mothers, wives, daughters, and friends. And I believe we’ll be remembered far more for those roles, than for any job we do.

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