It was intended to be a simple project: recondition an old, rusted, industrial light fixture, and install it as the porch light on the small office/art space I recently built (The Asylum). From the wiring, rewiring, custom cutting a new gasket seal, to finding and retro-fitting a new socket into an old housing, I have had to assemble, backtrack, disassemble, reconfigure, and, not least of all, resist the urge to smash the thing to the ground out of total exasperation. Avoiding any obvious wine parables, summoning new light out of an old light fixture has been anything but simple. Nothing is easy, not even shining.
I discovered the fixture years ago in my mother-in-law’s Louisiana back yard. Hidden not under a bushel, as the Sunday school song goes, I found it beneath an interlocking mat of weeds in a mound of fire ant dirt. I extracted the piece, not with the intention of reconditioning it for use, but for the sake of its aesthetic—its color, shape, curves, maverick appeal—and for its possibilities. Only years later, after I had begun construction on my office, did it occur to me that I already had that which I needed for a porch light: the piece had been collecting years of dust and brown recluse spiders on a low shelf in my tool shed. Surely, I thought, even with zero experience, I could manage to coax light from the rusted, decrepit fixture.
Nearly every step of the DIY building project was a trial by fire. Though untrained and lacking legitimate carpentry skills, the one trait I have going for me is that I am a willing and stubborn learner. When someone reacts to seeing my now-complete office (“You are so handy. I could never do that.”) my inner response is something like, “I have no idea what I am doing. If I can do this, anybody can.” And I absolutely mean it.
I have never been good at making plans; mostly I invent them as I go. At each stage of construction I had no choice but to learn how to do what needed to be done in order to move on to the next phase, that next step requiring yet another tutorial (and trial). I didn’t want for physical assistance or advice from friends who had construction experience. Were it not for an old friend—who just so happens to be a carpenter—I might still be perplexed atop my ladder, pencil behind my ear, attempting to calculate correct roof pitch and bird’s mouth rafter cuts. Imagine snow falling, me in winter coat and gloves, still perched atop my ladder, pencil chewed down to a nub, and you begin to get an idea of how slow a learner I am, and how easily I freeze and get overwhelmed.
Mathematics aside, the physical challenges of the project were accompanied by massive overdoses of self-doubt, frustration, and exasperation. Even this innocuous porch light, intended to be a token of memory to my late father-in-law, caused me moments of crippling defeat. Some things, like some people, shine more easily than others.
Nothing is easy. While growing up, I heard my father say those words numerous times, typically through gritted teeth while he was in the middle of a household repair. It was not difficult to tell when dad had reached his boiling point. To his credit, he did his best to collect himself and avoid exploding in rage in front of his family, particularly his two young sons who had, more than likely, insisted on “helping” him. Now in my forties, with two boys who like to “help” me with projects, I look to my dad with awe for his ability to keep it together during those high-blood-pressure moments of anger at not only a temporary challenge, but something far bigger. Which, in a way, is what any one of us is ultimately angry about. An apple rarely falls far from its tree.
Like any homeowner, I’ve had to face household repairs head-on in the interest of frugality—along with a morbid fetish for a challenge. Due to a recalcitrant gene, however, I continue to bite off more than I can chew, and were I able to step back and see myself from a distance, I might plead, “What on earth makes you think you can do this?” I suppose I can’t—but the foolishness, as far as I can tell, seems to lie not in failing, but in failing to try. Failure is unworthy of fear. Like being brave, maybe shining and joy are things we learn by rote, by taking apart and reassembling, by trouble-shooting, by rewiring and reconfiguring, by rethinking. And by making use of the tools and materials already at our disposal, perhaps covered in dust, weeds, and neglect. We persist. And in persisting, we do what needs to be done in order to move forward and realize completion.
Though nothing I’m saying here is new under the sun, I will always need to learn to take the few, small, short-lived victories as they come. I must revel, however briefly or silently, in those small victories, and whether I flip my office light switch on for the first or the umpteenth time, with incandescent light bursting forth from the filaments, I should remind myself that I do not belong to the Fall, but rather to the living and the lighting to be done in its wake. Nothing is easy, not even living.
Eric Peters, affectionately called “Pappy” by those who love him, is the grand old curmudgeon of the Rabbit Room. But his small stature and often quiet presence belie a giant talent. He’s a songwriter of the first order, and a catalogue of great records bears witness to it. His last album, Birds of Relocation, blew minds and found its way onto “year’s best” lists all over the country. When he’s not painting, trolling bookstores, or dabbling in photography, he’s touring the country in support of his latest record, Far Side of the Sea.