A few months ago I snapped a photo of the gleaming white concrete steps and glanced upward into the narrowly ascending tile stairs.
How many people had come down those since they were made, stepping slowly so as not to slip, hearts pounding, anticipating the bottom, the backwards fall, the sudden sucked-in breath, the deadly shock?
Only a few hours earlier I had kneeled in the bottom of the pit, the tank, the concrete coffin and pounded away on the floor with a power bar. Paint chips flew everywhere, green paint, yellow paint, white paint. Dropping the bar, I grabbed my paint scraper and pushed it down hard, dragging it across the accumulated crud on the top of the paint and concrete. It screeched along the cold surface like fingers on a chalk board.
What was it? I wasn’t sure? Sediments from the water? Oils from people’s skin? The thin greasy yuck of ten or more generations of yellowing anger, lust, hatred, selfishness and pride? I sanded it, I TSP’ed it, I pounded it again, and it slowly yielded to the onslaught, as it is want to do.
I rose up from my knees thinking, “Jesus may have died for your sins, but somebody eventually will have to clean them off of the bottom of the baptistery.”
The whole experience had been rather unique from the beginning. I thought it would be simple, repaint the old baptistery. It wasn’t.
Even the trips to the paint store, three trips, had an interesting aura about them. “This paint isn’t really meant to be submerged,” the clerk said, turning the gallon can in his hands. ”It’s water proof, but … maybe you should go to a pool store.”
At the pool store Mark, the pool expert, added another wrinkle. “You need to bring in a paint chip. I’ll test it to see what kind of paint was on there. Then we can pick a paint that is compatible. Otherwise, it will just peel off.”
But when we pooled the paint chips I brought back, dunking them in three different kinds of solvents, nothing happened. The thick, adamantine pieces stubbornly resisted dissolving in anything. “I think the paint is from the 17th Century,” I quipped. Mark looked nonplussed. But we still didn’t know what we were painting over, just that it was really old, really hard and resistant to solvents. It looked a lot like the peculiar texture of human corruption to me.
Mark wanted to sell me two cans of paint at $90 a gallon and a cleaning kit for $37. I settled for the $59 per gallon epoxy paint after he said that it would probably stick just about as well as the other. I had some TSP and an acid based concrete cleaner back at the church, down in the basement, in the old supply room where you can pretty much find anything if you look long enough.
Mark took a long time. He was really slow. His every movement was in slow motion. He had all day. I didn’t; I fidgeted. Murderous thoughts surfaced in the back of my brain, not compatible with my mission. I chipped away at him in my mind. Why did Mark push the more expensive products? After all and with all due respect, it was for the baptistery! You’d think he’d offer a discount to try to score some points for himself on the side.
Maybe he did. At the register he took 15% off, but I think it was because there was a sale going on. Earlier he had told me he didn’t go to church and that they didn’t give discounts to churches. Other thoughts came to mind. His name is Mark, and his story isn’t over.
Back at the church, I kneeled again in the baptistery, paint roller in hand, the thick white paint dripping off the cover, onto the floor. The moment was sacred. It was an honor to be in this place. The concrete enclosure had a unique, historical, purposeful presence, like the ancient baptismal tank at the Baptistère Saint-Jean in Poitiers, like San Giovanni in Fonte, the Lateran baptistery built by Constantine in Rome.
But this baptistery is no museum. People will not come to look just to look. This baptistery will receive the devoted ones on this very upcoming Sunday.
They will step down into the rippling water, shining brilliant white, reflecting its new paint. They will stand in the water before their friends, families and God, and they will make their professions of faith in Christ.
They will dive backwards into the water in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit like people have for thousands of years, and they will lie still below the surface, dead to their crud, dead to their old selves, dead to their sin, and they will be lifted up from the watery grave with faces shinning white – new ones, redeemed ones, fresh ones, life-splashed, righteously strong and beautiful ones.
I hope the paint is dry. Otherwise the saints looking on may see an ethereal, white glow on each baptized face and mistake it for a miracle.
No matter, paint in the water or not, this moment will be a miracle, new life springing up in an old baptistery.
I like it; I always have. I like something old scraped, sanded, repainted, restored.
I grew up with restoration; it’s part of my DNA. My Dad renovated the Christian campground that I grew up on in Missouri. He built a kitchen out of rocks and cement for the camp, and he built a bunkhouse for the alcoholics who came down from Kansas City to get away from the environment of their addiction. They were in a renewal process themselves, getting away from poison in glass, learning the Bible, working with their hands. It was there that I found old Red, the stray tom cat I took in. It was there that my mom made a yard out of a woods, in the home my dad built for us on the campgrounds. In that front yard she planted Iris in the front yard and put up a bird feeder in the back that the brilliant red cardinals came to feed at.
My Dad and I repainted my first truck and car in the camp shop there. My dad was always renewing, running a chain saw or a brush hog to clear more land, putting up hay for the couple of milk cows we had, building a building, building a man. Eventually the chain saws and tractors got to his back, and he couldn’t do it anymore and we moved back to California, but he and my mom never quit this kind of thing. I talked to my dad on the phone the other day. He is now in charge of a program at the retirement home where he lives in that goes into the apartments after someone has died and cleans up. He takes out the trash left when a life is over, and redistributes the things still useful to furniture a life still being lived somewhere else.
When my parents moved to Los Angeles near the ends of their careers, my mom transformed an old mansion into a home for homeless women and children. My dad continued his work with addition, setting up a really cool treatment program for men at the Los Angeles Rescue Mission.
About that time my mom got involved in turning the big house into a half-way house for women and children who were homeless. That’s when I came on the wash stand. My mom found it down in the basement. The style was good, three drawers, sculpted legs, but it was painted white, chipped and dirty. I expressed interest; she said I could have it, so I took it home and began to sand it. Nice, from what I could see. As the paint came off I could see that it was quarter sawn oak with a kind of zebra striped grain.
I used paint remover, sanders and then hand sanding. The problem was that the white paint was in the grain. More sanding and more sanding, and then I made the test. I rubbed an oak stain into the smooth surfaces, and on the backside of each stroke, beautiful golden grain patterns appeared. I rubbed on a light, protective layer and added some new pulls on the drawers. It has had a prominent place in our home for the last 25 years.
Progressively larger and better TV’s have sat on the oak piece. I really like modern technology, but the technology has come and gone, was new, then was old, and was given away, and the oak stand has outlasted the black plastic boxes, circuits and wires.
I like it. I like my hands on a surface, adding an new gleaming finish. And like my mom, I like my hands down in the earth bringing something blue and purple and yellow out of the ground. I find it more meaningful to find, restore and preserve something old than to get something new. I love old homes, old baptisteries, old cars and old wash stands fixed up – they rock.
The other day I was at Sophie’s Gallery in Liberty Station. Liberty station was formerly the Naval Training Center (NTC). It is now a beautiful Point Loma shopping mall. On the walls of Sophie’s were wooden boxes and box tops, with the bottoms painted in scenes and the sides acting as frames. I asked about the art; the owner called it “repurposed art.” I like that. The Naval Training Center was repurposed. The boxes were repurposed. I like repurposed. I am repurposed.
I know now that I am the greatest restoration project I will ever work on or experience is me. I too am a piece of work, under restoration. I have been scraped and sanded, and I too have been repurposed.
Early in life I got old. We all do. It is the kind of old where our social and psycho-personal surfaces oxidize, rust, dull and fade from early psychic dings and wacks. Then we flake and rot, inside. For me, this premature aging was hurried along by my own bad choices and from the stupid mean choices of others. I was this kind of old by the time I was in third grade.
It was the old that couldn’t tell Teresa, my fourth grade crush that I loved her. It was the kind of old that chased Roy Coons into a shameful corner on the play ground. It was the kind of old that had to hit a homerun over third base to feel good, the kind of old that held my brother down and screamed at him during a basketball game, the kind of old that threw over the monopoly game board when I saw all to clearly that I had lost, and then all the fake money and green houses and red hotels went flying through the air and bouncing over the braded rug in the living room and the game was very clearly a mess and over and ridiculously done.
Enough of the stupid and embarrassing examples; it’s the kind of universal old that comes straight out of outhouse of our interior corruption, from the nasty chamber pot of selfishness and competition and judgment and ranking and exclusion. I hate it. It’s so stupid ugly. It is so deeply pressed into the grain of our psychic wood. It is so ground into the psycho-social floor of our very existence. And it is so mean-hard to scrape off. “Help! Call that guy that advertizes about doing remodels. Help! Call the police. Help! Help! Call 911 and get an ambulance here, now! We have to go to the hospital!”
When I was eight years old I told my mom I wanted to pray. Just before that I remember walking down a road and kicking a rock and thinking I’m destroyed — eight years old and done. I remember thinking, “There is something horribly wrong with me! And I am going to be punished; I am going to rot in some kind of ugly, insane and horror-house place forever if something isn’t done about this. “ It may have been imperfect contrition, but I don’t really think that was all of it. I wanted to be young again and I knew that the only one who could do that was the youngest one in the universe. It wasn’t simply fear; it was fear compounded with hope.
And so I did something that was more like letting someone else do something than doing something myself. I told my mom I wanted to pray. Pray what? Pray a prayer that said that I was old when I was still young and that I wanted to be young again. So I did. I prayed that I would be forgiven for the choice that I had made that made me old. I prayed that I would be made over, fixed back up, as restored as an old baptistery fixed up or an old wash stand refinished.
After I prayed, I remember feeling shiny. I remember feeling like I had just been scraped, sanded and repainted. I remember walking out into the backyard and feeling ridiculously light. I remember feeling young again. It was unexplainably crazy good, just what the doctor ordered, what had to happen to avoid being ruined and discarded.
I wasn’t finished by that prayer; but I was begun. The restoration had begun. It is still in progress, like road work in Boston, never really finished but apparently further along, frustratingly slow, but headed in the right direction.
The thing is that more scraping is required than it looks will be necessary in the beginning. The sediments on the floor are harder and deeper than you think. Later, in mid-life I began to realize that I had put on a mask in the first act of the play and that in the second act it was still on and it was keeping me from playing the role that I was now being asked to play.
We had a marriage. We had a Rosalind, our daughter. We acquired a mortgage. We snagged careers. We had friends. We discovered that in having Rosalind, we had a disabled daughter. And it was needful that I understand that there was pain to be faced in working at a minority isolated high school and pain in my wife being overwhelmed and pain in being overwhelmed myself. And yet I couldn’t I couldn’t be overswhelmed because I had to win the game and hit the best hit and fix up the house and fix Rosalind and it just wasn’t okay to be weak or vulnerable or to grieve or to admit that I couldn’t actually repair brain damage.
I went to the doctor. I went to an interior specialist, a therapist, a MFT. It was hard. Men didn’t do this, not so much then, at least not the men I knew. I didn’t want to go. I kicked a rock down a road first and seethed. In the end I went because I couldn’t not. It was too painful. I went in the same way that I had prayed when I was eight years old. I went because I needed someone else to fix what I couldn’t .
Bill, my soul doc, gave me a test. I figured I did well. I had a history of testing well. I did, and I didn’t. I figured I answered in a way that made me look good. I did, but that made it come out that I was trying to look better than I was. I remember Bill sitting down with me and going over my test. He said, “You have a tendency to present a carefully constructed self. You aren’t being congruent.” I was shocked, offended. He didn’t back off.
He gave me a copy of a book. It helped. I could take it easier in book form — read the concepts, apply them to myself, nobody else in the room pointing a finger at my heart, just me and the cool ideas. I have always loved ideas, particularly the ones that operate like a paint scrapers or the shiny ones that work a lot like new paint.
Congruency is where what goes on inside is like what goes on outside. If I feel weak, I express weakness. If I feel overwhelmed I say so and take cover in others love. If I feel angry I find appropriate ways to express that. In the past I had hidden these emotions. I wanted to be respected, so I presented a respect-worthy self. I presented a fortified, intellectualized, managed, attractively storied image. And it worked, kind of. I was respected, and I was perhaps even feared in the way people fear someone that they feel is superior to them.
But it didn’t work in one very important way — I wasn’t loved. People admire a strong man, but they don’t necessarily love him. To be loved and to give love I needed to be real, authentic, congruent. I needed to take off the mask and let people see a whole person, strong and weak, intellectual and confused, right and sometimes wrong. I needed to be remodeled into a more complete person. I needed not simply to be spiritualized, to not just say a prayer, but I needed to be humanized, to live openly with my own flesh. I needed to be comfortable being human in all its rotted and rusted and dented essence.
I began, the first tentative steps of disclosure, of honesty, of humanness. It worked, almost magically. Disclosure begets disclosure. Be open, people are open back. Rip off the mask and others do too. Quit pretending to be a saint and you actually begin to have friends. And then there was the best. I came to a startling conclusion. If I could learn to accept weakness in myself, then I could accept it in my wife and children and friends. If I could quit criticizing myself, I just might begin to quit criticizing others. This was transformative for me then, and it still is now.
This scraped and sanded the crud out of me. This put a new coat of paint on my inner baptistery. This made my face shine, and it made the faces of those I dunked in my waters of acceptance shine too. This began to put to death an old life. This began to repurpose me. I began to live more connected to other people. My face began to shine more, to shine with tears more and to shine with a smile more.
It isn’t done, not by far — scrape, scrape, sand, sand, paint, paint, paint. This week I rolled a new coat of white paint on the old baptistery floor. The last baptism loosened some of the new paint. Weird, the improvement of the old is never done. I’m thinking of tiling the floor now. Paint isn’t going to cut it.