Today, please open your English Major Handbook to the page titled: objective correlative. As you no doubt remember, that’s a literary term for objects that represent emotions in written or visual texts. You know, in a movie, we might see a teacup smashing to the floor as a sign that the character’s hopes have just been dashed. I’ve been living with an objective correlative for most of the past year, when I got stuck halfway through repainting our kitchen.
I started the kitchen project in a burst of energy well over a year ago. We have a squat and settling mid-century cottage, and when we bought the house 25 years ago, the kitchen was a realtor-ready neutral grey. It had bummed me out since 1994. So, I flipped through paint chips to land on a bright, spring green for the walls, and a glossy white for the cabinets — all treatments my agreeable spouse thumbs-upped. I hired someone to patch the busted plaster on the ceiling, and then got to work with freshly shaken gallons of paint and deliciously sharp-edged brushes. I was SO into it … until … I wasn’t. I hit one of those patches when I just couldn’t keep all the plates in my life spinning. I lost my jam, and stalled out on the kitchen job, only halfway done.
The room looked awful, but we continued to have friends over. It was embarrassing. I had to keep explaining. Oh, it was an objective correlative, all right. The room? C’est moi. Stuck.
I remembered a drawing in my well-thumbed childhood edition of the Winnie the Pooh story, “In Which Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets into a Tight Place.” Pooh gets stuck in the doorway of his friend Rabbit’s house. Christopher Robin arrives to confirm Pooh’s stuck-ness and observes that he’ll just have to say there for a while. When Pooh protests, Christopher Robin says, “You can stay here all right, silly old bear. It’s getting you out which is so difficult.”
Like Pooh, there was no one to get me unstuck but myself … and, to mix a metaphor, I’d painted myself into a corner.
It only took Pooh a week to get unstuck. It took me a lot longer. But by New Year’s Day — a little over a year since I'd stalled — I got a tiny spark of inspiration from reading my friends’ high-minded resolutions to practice gratitude. I knew that sometimes just going through the motions can be a good enough start. So, I frog-marched myself to the hardware store and bought freshly shaken buckets of paint and stirring sticks. I forced myself through all the horrible pre-painting prep — cleaning and laying out plastic sheets — hating every moment.
And in that objective correlative way, I still had all the terrible parts of the room to deal with. If you’ve painted a room, you know what I mean. I had to carefully edge around the window and door frames that I’d avoided last time around. I had to climb on top of the refrigerator to paint a difficult alcove, stretched miserably on my side like a menopausal Michelangelo. I had to paint the ceiling, its patched plaster still looking like a scabbed knee.
But you know? I may not be ready to meditate or write daily gratitude statements, but there was something to that slow, tedious, and satisfying process of following the line at the top of the walls, steadying my hand as the bright green met the matte white of the ceiling. Grudgingly, I began to appreciate that old room, with its not-quite-plumb eccentricities. The rhythm of stroking the sharp edge of the brush into difficult corners opened a door to remembering why kitchens are the heart of a household. It’s where we taught our kids to sauté onions, roll out pizza dough, and where they taught me to make a tongue-tingling curry. It’s where we held dance parties set to weird CD’s they burned in their bedrooms and labeled with Sharpies, “kitchen music,” and where their friends — and ours — gather, cups in hand, leaning against the counters to chat. By the time I was on my third pass around the room, enjoying the luxury of final touch-ups, I realized I’d painted myself out of the corner.
And because every transition needs a soundtrack, I’ll call on Dolly Parton, whose anthems our children blasted during a long holiday car drive, on a bitter day when winter sun shot cleanly across the horizon. My delight that they knew this song — the soundtrack of my own young adulthood — and the image of paint stuck in my cuticles as I steered us into a honeyed sunset — was the fresh objective correlative I needed: For the present, at least, unstuck.
Music: "9 to 5" by Dolly Parton