39. That tea-in-hand attitude

“I was roped in with a group of us to help out a friend and fix up a room, which was part of a bigger house renovation. There was no way of knowing at the time when I wrote it in the calendar, but this home improvement working bee ended up coming at the end of some very busy few days for me — one of those pointless hustley and busy times where everything seems to need to get done all at once.

“Although that’s not all that unusual, is it? Isn’t there seemingly always an endless stream of things to do or things to get done? Some days it just doesn’t seem to stop. But everyone knows hectic times can and do just happen, and it can be the busyness that we don’t necessarily think about too deeply that can fill the day — what with having to top up supplies with one thing or another, getting low on petrol, bills that are close to being overdue, even cleaning the odd thing here and there, dishes, clothes, yourself. And there can be the jobs that weren’t ticked off the list the day before, so they just bunch up into the next day as you try to catch up. It can be tiring. And it can be a headache.

“Anyway, that’s the flustery place I had just come out of when I turned up to help that day, and it was sort of a relief to know that there was just one duty to get on with for a few hours. I was given the job of peeling off layers of old wallpaper to prepare the plaster for patching up, if it needed any, and then painting — no more paper for these walls, was the plan. It was easy to do, and I don’t know if that was because it was an old sort of wallpaper or if it just hadn’t been put on properly. Mostly I just had to mop water all over the wall with a wet sponge and keep it wet for a while, and it wouldn’t take long before the first layer of paper just lifted up with a scraper — or even just my fingers if I kept it really wet for longer.

“I say the first layer, because once that ugly green and brown autumn leaf motif lifted off there was a second layer of another sort of dated patterned wallpaper… and as the wetting and peeling process continued on, it showed that there were more layers to get through, which probably represented years or maybe even decades of repeated wallpapering. Soon there were about five layers exposed, but I guess each could have been up for years at a time.

“I could have dug in a little with the scraper and tried to get to the base layer, wherever that was, so I could get all of the old paper off and have done with it — and that’s just what I would do soon enough. But actually just for then it was intriguing to try to have a peek at the old fashioned wallpaper patterns that were being revealed, one under the other. I wasn’t going to carefully peel away at the whole roomful of old wallpaper, but just this first area, and just to have a look at how people’s ideas of what they thought looked good on a wall had changed over the time this room had been occupied. At the time I started out peeling back the layers carefully, I was sort of hoping to find a really kitsch wallpaper pattern under there… you never knew.”

Benny had the playful thought of finding wallpaper with, say, 1950s style spaceships or maybe cowboys, and that he could have cut a rectangular shape of it to leave stuck on the wall so that, he imagined, an empty picture frame could be hung over it. It was a humorous whimsy, and would have been cute, he thought, if the person who had the room was on board, but he had no such luck with the patterns he found.

“It was a very old house, so it was interesting too to think that over the years there would have been a lot of different people occupying this space, living with these different patterns on their walls, maybe the same wallpaper for a few rotations of occupants, until someone else’s urge to redecorate took hold or a new owner came along and the next layer of wallpaper went up. All those past lives and the living days that went on in this house weren’t something that I would normally think of if this was just a room that someone I knew lived in right now, even if it was a bit rundown and had that ‘lived in’ look. But somehow these layers of wallpaper that were being revealed were more obvious evidence that people existed here, had good times or stressful times and just lived their lives and probably felt ‘at home’ and safe right in this same room.

“I bet they had some hectic busy days too, like I’d just been through, full of ordinary hassles or maybe something more serious, a busy time that just buzzed along for them, keeping up with one thing or another from morning until night. Just ordinary things, but they can take up so much of someone’s time.”

A mug of tea was brought in and the progress he’d made so far admired. Then Benny sat down and had a break, looking at the area of wall he’d been working on and the layers of different wallpapers he’d so far exposed. Sitting there quietly, his train of thought couldn’t help but blend those notions of bustley existence with the evidence laid bare on the wall — that past and unknown people had lived their busy lives and fretted about their own problems, had to go to the shops, ran out of petrol, missed paying a bill… and that now it mattered not one little bit. These old wallpapers had witnessed times that were full of busyness in their own way no doubt, but that was all forgotten now, and could be peeled off and swept up.

Benny would much prefer to keep the frame of mind he sat with now — tea in hand, and helping out a friend — just taking in the moment, rather than with that running-around head he’d been saddled with lately … I knew we could both benefit from that. In fact, it wouldn’t hurt for Benny to remember what had been shown to him in that room today, to remember this the next time he started to get that frantic feeling on future hectic days… and this was that those times that are filled with a never ending string of demands that he has been lost in before needed to be approached with more of a ‘tea in hand, helping a friend’ attitude.

The things we have to do and the obligations we need to face are naturally always there; they’re not going to go away. But if Benny could face all the usual and everyday activity that naturally makes up the day-to-day with that one intention — to take on that attitude — then no matter what came along, it wouldn’t sweep up his attention and mix that up with its own clutter. This could be a worthwhile goal to keep in focus.

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