When my wife and I moved into our first house, we decided we would change a few things. We moved the refrigerator out of the hallway and into the kitchen. We covered over some hideous wood paneling with drywall. We even made consistent archways out of every entryway. Well, we didn’t. A really good contractor did all of those things. He and his band of builders rewired fuseboxes and resurfaced wood floors. He did everything, including install a new kitchen sink. Still, we weren’t satisfied.
The house wasn’t fully ours yet even if all of the most glaring errors had been taken care of. The cabinets were still a dozen shades too dark with awful hardware to match. We decided that this was how we were going to make it a home. We would tackle it ourselves. Or, more accurately, I would tackle it because my wife was newly pregnant and she was getting sick every day.
The project seemed easy. It seemed like in a couple weekends and we would be back to a fully working kitchen. So, one Saturday I took down all of the cabinet doors. I sprayed goop on them in the hopes that some of the veneer would come off. It didn’t. Next I tried sanding with my hands. I got nowhere. Every time I was starting to peal of a layer, I would find that the sand paper was out of grit. These cabinets had multiple coats of stain on them and there was only so much elbow grease and chemicals could do. So, I borrowed some hand sanders. I borrowed a Dremel (a very small handheld sander for fine sanding in corners and the grooves of cabinets). I set aside every evening in the shed for sanding away every bit of dark finish on those cabinets. It took a month.
At the end of that month, I was staring at some very uneven pieces of wood. From far enough away you couldn’t tell that anything bad had happened to them, but the closer you got you could see the little grooves that were made by frustration. You could see the dark lines when the Dremel’s sandpaper had heated up too high and made it into a wood burning kit. You could see everything that was wrong with those cabinets.
But they were ours.
There are no cabinets like those, and I would do it all again if I could. I would stand in the cold shed again with the music blaring out of an old boombox. I would yell at the sandpaper for breaking apart in my hands. I would try and match up the right cabinets with the right spots on the wall without really knowing which screw holes were right, having to unscrew and try again moments later. I would resand sand the drawers that we took out completely only a few months later when we decided that a dishwasher was more essential with kids. I would do it all again because the sanding made it special.
I pealed back the style and lack of creativity of someone else and I instituted my own statement about kitchens. They are to look at if you must, but to use and be happy in all of the time. I sanded those cabinets so that we could call them something other than what we were given.
And that is why I sand at other things too. I sand at the work that is given to me because I don’t know it well enough. After I have sanded down everything that is inessential, I will know each inch of the work and be able to talk about the journey of figuring it out. I sand at my life because those are the ways to the best stories. Only by taking off the first layer of veneer will I actually understand why I have made the choices I have. Only by sanding away at the experience can I really see myself in it.