When I look back on my life sometimes – not something I like to do often – I think about my struggles to learn, my life long struggles with education. A life of not knowing or wanting to know. Perhaps now, the system might see me differently.
I got through high school but couldn’t make it through two different colleges. My grades were mediocre, except for English, I was never close to a single teacher, nor was I able to learn much of anything. I know nothing about grammar, and still can’t do even the most elemental math. The only course I ever took that I really excelled in was Latin, at a Quaker school in Atlantic City. I always liked the Quakers, and they always liked me.
This problem was compounded with family problems. My father and I never got along, and I shut myself off from him early on, I can’t think of a thing he taught me that I recall or learned. I remember an incredulous Uncle had to teach me how to knot a tie when I was 15 years old. “Didn’t they teach you anything?,” he asked.
In recent years, as I began to understand myself and undertake the long and intense process of self-discovery, a trip, I now see, is never over, I began to learn. It is never easy for me, but it is getting easier.
I learned how to love and be loved, and most essentially, I began to learn how to live my life in a knowing and responsible way. Before that, I took responsibility for nothing. I didn’t handle money, balance checkbooks, fix even the simplest thing. I never talk to repair people, took part in any kind of repair, asked for estimates, worried about cost, learned a thing about how the world really works. For me the world worked this way: you carried an American Express gold card around and bought what you want. Somebody else saw the bills and paid them.
I thought I was stupid for much of my life, and so did many of the people around me, including most of my teachers, but I know now it wasn’t that simple. Even I knew that you can’t write 28 books and be totally dumb.
I was too distracted and frightened and disturbed to learn, and because I was able to hide my problems, no one ever really picked up on them, until eventually, as was inevitable, I fell apart. One way or another, you pay the piper for obliviousness and denial.
I was totally dependent on others, and spent money thoughtlessly and recklessly on things I could have done myself, or done more cheaply and sensibly. Since I learned nothing and knew nothing, I was responsible for nothing. When I got divorced, I was quite suddenly alone with the details of life, and I began to learn. When I broke down, I began to learn more. To gain perspective, to take responsibility. It turns out I am not as bad a learner as I thought, although I have a long ways to go.
The crisis over selling Bedlam Farm has helped me mature and face reality. It has taught me quite a lot.
I was made aware of the change in me yesterday, in a surprising way.
Maria and I were putting up storm windows in her studio and the glass on one of the broke. We couldn’t push the window into it’s frame, I said we have to get a planer. The truth is, I didn’t even know what a planer was, I heard a carpenter mention it while he was fixing our rotted porch.
Maria knows a lot more about this stuff than I do, but she hated doing restoration work for much of her life, and it upsets her to do it So I decided to handle this one myself, perhaps the first time I ever decided to learn about even the most simple thing dealing with windows or carpentry. It was the sort of thing I always called on someone else to do.
It upset Maria to even think about it. She worried it would be too expensive to take it to the hardware store, wondered if she should be doing it herself. It was obviously very upsetting to her to be doing this work again, I could see it was bringing her back to a dark place. That’s when I really knew I had to learn about it. I started to learn. I Googled “planing,” I knew the term but wasn’t sure what it meant or entailed. I learned this was what the window needed.
I took the window to the hardware store and left it there to have the glass repaired. I ask if they knew about planing. They said they had an electric planer for $89. I asked if there was such a thing as a hand planer, I thought this would be cheaper. I was aware as I asked this that I never thought this way before, I would have just bought the electric planer.
They said they didn’t have any, and couldn’t order any. I ordered the electric planer and paid for it. On the way home, I was bothered by this. It didn’t feel right to me. We only had a few windows, the others were all in. Did I really need to spend $89 for an electric planer? I got back on line, watched a You Tube video or two on planing, and I saw many hand planers for a lot less money. I am learning that I don’t need to go to class and face scowling and disapproving teachers, there are many new ways to learn.
Then I went on Amazon and found a bunch of Stanley hand planers, one for $14 that was in stock and that I could get quickly. I went back to the hardware store and cancelled the order. The cost of repairing the big window would be $50, they told me. Hmm, I thought, we can do all of this for less than $70. A carpenter or fancy planer would have practically doubled the cost. I am quite conscious of money these days, it feels good to save money, to find responsible and less expensive ways to live. I do it all the time now, with food and dog treats and many other things. It is coming naturally to me to think about the cost of things, about our budget, our bank balance.
Today, we had the planer and the window together. I called the hardware store and went out to pick it up, the Stanely planer came via UPS. I wanted it all to be a surprise for Maria, who was still kicking herself for not replacing the glass herself. She had, she said, done it too many times to count. I had never done it.
I could not figure out how to adjust the blade in the planer, mechanics and things that have to be assembled are still something that is frightening and confusing to me. Maria put it together in a snap. We planed the window in about 30 seconds and installed it. It all felt good. It is frightening to live in a world that is so unfamiliar, it feels good to begin to learn how it works. That is, after all, how you take care of yourself. You never learn if you always let others do it.
The odd thing is that I like learning very much. I am learning about money, checkbooks. I am learning about the cost of things, about what I really need and don’t need. I am learning to ask questions, search online, talk to friends, ask for advice. I am now learning all of the time, and I love learning it turns out. There are great new tools for learning, they are free and available.
Sometimes this makes me sad. I wonder what would have happened to my life if I had been willing and able to learn, and if someone – anyone – had seen the trouble I was in. I try not to make that mistake with other people.
But you know what? If I had been able to learn, then I wouldn’t be me. I probably would never have ended up on Bedlam Farm, never been a writer, never met Maria, or had dogs and animals, or written about them. Nostalgia and regret are both traps, I will not speak poorly of my life or regret any of it.
I see that one can learn at any age. Sometimes I feel like a refugee from another world, staring in wonder at the world that is now around me.
It perhaps will sound like a foolish and very small thing, this two-paned window in Maria’s studio barn. But I came back into the house today beaming, feeling like I just got admitted to Harvard, or won a genius award from the MacArthur Foundation. Wow, I said aloud to Red, you will never believe it. Often, it is the small things that make a life.
I suggested planing the window. I took it to the hardware store. I picked it up myself. I figured out that I didn’t need an electric planer. I saved a lot of money. I found a hand planer, I helped plane the window and helped to install it.
I remembered something Gandhi said about learning that stuck in my mind, but I couldn’t recall it. So I decided to get back online and learn what it was I found it in seconds, Google and I have become close: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow, learn as if you were to live forever.”