A while back some of the tiles in the shower fell off. Clunk. It was not the first time this had happened, but the first time it had happened when we were about to put the apartment up for sale. I contemplated the mess, which included crumbling cement-like backing, and cleaned (and covered) it up for a while while my brain got around to grappling with the concept of another big repair.
When the workmen were here to do the ceilings, I had the contractor look at the bathroom and he said, "I can't even give you an estimate until we take off the tiles and see what we're up against." That is not the kind of thing one likes to hear.
One day a while later I mustered the courage to start removing loose tiles. About 20 came off. Part of the wall came along for the ride. Twenty minutes later the floor of the tub was covered two inched deep in chunks of grit, with a few pale yellow broken tiles scattered about for diversity of color. But behind the crumbling grit there was a beautiful thing: solid cement. I sighed with relief, since then I knew I wasn't facing a multi-thousand dollar problem, only a major one.
Last week I began to build up layers on the cement to make an even surface on which to re-attach tile. I didn't know what I was doing, but hey -- I'd figured out how to patch 3'x4' holes in plaster beautifully, and I knew that if I didn't get it right the first time, I'd get it right the second or third. It's empowering to go into a project with the mindset that somehow I will figure it out.
I soaked the 1933-era tiles I'd removed, and softened old glue and grout. Then scraped the tiles until they were clean. I tried multiple methods of spacing and attaching them. I worked in fits and starts, and I made progress. It looks pretty damn good. Put it this way: I would be happy with the quality of the work if I'd paid someone to do it.
I'm not sure when I last had such a feeling of accomplishment.
For many years I have returned repeatedly to a half-written blog post about how one of the challenges of parenting is that one doesn't accomplish much. There's no checking-off of the child-rearing goals one has met (good table manners -- check! taught responsibility -- check!); it's a matter of endless process. The increments of progress are so infinitesimal as to be impossible to discern.
The good side of this is that in order to have any sense that you are on the right track you have to abandon accomplishment as a goal, and focus on alignment. You have to align your short-term behavior with your long-term goals. You have to do it Every. Single. Day.
That means you have to know what your long-term goals are. You have to know what kind of person you're trying to raise. You have to check, and double-check, how well you are modeling the behavior you hope to see in your kids.
I brought my kids into the bathroom. I showed them the newly re-tiled wall. I told them, "I didn't know how to do this. All I knew was that I needed to figure it out, no matter how many times it took me. And look -- isn't it beautiful?"