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“Dances with Ladders”

Updated: Mar 12, 2021

The charming perks of mindful movement

I won’t normally do “straight” painting projects. I think they are both difficult and boring. In this case, however, I was in need of work, and, what is more, it was an opportunity to work with one of my favorite people, Sue Lansil. She is a blast to work with. She’s funny, witty, smart, knowledgable, and well-organized. So I agreed to help her out on a project.

This was how I found myself, on a Tuesday morning, struggling to move a rickety particle-board entertainment console (still loaded with the client's stereo equipment) far enough away from the wall that we could get a ladder behind it. Luckily, we didn’t have to worry much about the floor. Once we had committed the unforgivable sin of painting the beautiful, virgin redwood, tongue-in-groove, post and beam cathedral ceiling of the rec. room an icy white, and the warm red brick hearth pale blue, they were going to replace the goldenrod shag carpet. I was betting that they would be replacing it with a nubbly indoor-outdoor job in navy blue heather.

The room in question was roughly twenty-five by forty feet. The ceiling went from twelve feet at the outer walls to fifteen feet at the peak in the center, with big, barn-style support beams going across. Since the clients didn’t want to move their furniture out, we would be doing this whole project from the tops of twelve-foot ladders. Due to the style of construction, we would be rolling the paint on, and then brushing it by hand into the grooves. The whole thing was to be done in oil paint, using toxic “Penetrol” to make the paint move well, so as a concession to health and safety, we had big rubber gauntlets to wear while we worked.

After the first two coats (each coat took the two of us nearly three hours to apply,) it became apparent that Sue had got the wrong kind of primer. The knots were showing through like big yellow spotlights. We applied one more coat, just in case that one would do the trick, and admitted defeat. We had worked a ten hour day. We were both bruised from hauling the ladders around and drenched in sweat - it must have been close to ninety degrees up by the ceiling. I had discovered that I was having an allergic reaction to the rubber gauntlets. My forearms were covered in tiny, painful red dots. I had managed to drop my new cell phone into a tray of oil paint. Not only that, but the loud rock music that Sue had been playing to keep our energy up was giving me a headache. We were both staying philosophical, but it was pretty dreary to think that all our work was a waste.

As we cleaned up, I was thinking about an article I had read about the difference between male and female modes of energy, and I had an idea.

“Sue,” I said, “Do you mind if we try something different tomorrow? It will mean changing everything about how we work, but I think it might be worth it.”

“Sure,” she replied,” What do you have in mind?”

What I had in mind was this:

Men, and the work model we had been emulating, relied on adrenaline to maintain speed and high energy. They listened to loud music, with a fast-pounding rhythm, that kept the heart pounding and the blood moving. They moved fast and pushed hard.

I proposed that we would do the opposite. We would listen to classical music, like Debussy, and Brahms, and folk music written by women. We would move smoothly and gracefully. We would be as feminine as possible. We would move like women.

“Think like a ballerina.” I said.

She laughed. “A ballerina with a step ladder?”

“Why not?” I replied. “All we have to lose is a few bruises.”

The next day, armed with fresh paint, a new playlist, and a new attitude, we began again.

Moving with grace took concentration and control. Every action had to be deliberate, careful…mindful. I was worried that this would slow us down, and make the job take even longer. I was worried that it would wear us out to be thinking about every single stroke, every movement.

Sue didn’t seem to be worried. We started to play with it, discovering ways to balletically maneuver the big ladders, and the five gallon buckets of paint. We laughed and made jokes about the ridiculousness of the idea of painter-ballerinas.

By the second break, we noticed that we weren’t as tired as we had been the day before, and that we had covered about twenty-five percent more square feet in the same amount of time.

Somehow, thinking like ballerinas had made us faster painters.

It was a powerful demonstration of the old aphorism, “make haste slowly.”

I realize now that what we had decided to do was to move mindfully. It worked, too. we stayed in that mode for the rest of the job. If we didn’t make up all the time we lost, we did make up a good chunk of it. It just goes to show that mindfulness has practical applications, as well as spiritual and psychological ones. Really paying attention is safer, better, faster.

What have we got to lose but a few bruises?

Two women balletically painting from a step ladder
"Waltzes with Ladders"

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