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The Red Wall


We just painted our living room wall red.

Not “rust” or “terra cotta,” or “rose,” but red – a deep, vibrant, striking, dramatic RED. And we dyed our curtains a wine colored shade to match.

I mention this because we are not, by nature, “red” people, but more “almond” or “ivory” kind of people. Our furniture is wood, our window treatments beige, our walls pale comfortable shades of green or blue, our floor a tan ceramic tile, our carpet some brownish hue. Our house is a yellowish sort of white with terra cotta accents. Our cars are unremarkable shades of green and gold. Our dog is black and tan.

We are – were—a neutral kind of folk.

Somewhere, at some time, my husband and I saw an interior red wall and liked it. For years we talked about painting one of the walls in our living room red. Finally we decided to do it. Our teen aged children equated this with a mid-life crisis.

“You want to do what?” they asked. “Why?”

Because we were tired of living in our box of bland crayons and ready to step outside the rut of our comfort zone to try something new. Because there was a rebate on paint at Home Depot. Because we could.

I know. Painting a wall doesn’t sound like much of a mid life crisis, or an “out of the box” kind of thing; not a wild stepping out as elaborate as skydiving or rock climbing or buying a Maserati. But getting out of your well-fitting little comfort zone, we found, is a great exercise that doesn’t have to be physically demanding or break the bank to be satisfying and life changing.

The kids watched dubiously as we scanned the rows of paint chips at the local home improvement store. They went into giggles suggesting outrageous possibilities like purple and puce. Gradually, we narrowed our choices down and settled on something called “awning red.” As the clerk added the necessary dyes to the base, my husband murmured something about our place looking like a bordello when we were done. When the clerk handed us a can of pink primer, we all stared.

“You’ll need this as your base coat,” he explained. “Or it’ll look like this.” He indicated a streaked, patchy example of blotted red paint on a board next to the counter.

We took the pink primer and the gallon of awning red paint and headed home, our eldest trying hard to keep her eyes from rolling in her head.

It’s hard to do something completely different, something outside the routine of daily living, especially as you get older. And that’s all the more reason we have to. To not try new things, explore new ideas, even those as benign as considering new colors, is to grow staid and placid and stagnant. Living forever in a beige house might be comfortable, but is it really living? If we never change our view, everything always looks the same. Without new perspectives, rooted in old ways, in old ideas, in old habits, we become old.

In that respect, we were carrying a lot more than just a gallon of paint out the door.

The wall became a family project. We dragged all the furniture out into the middle of the room, taped off the baseboards and the adjacent walls, and pulled the dusty artificial greenery off the plant shelves. We cheered and laughed when the first shades of pink rolled across the wall. We took pictures of our pink room and sent them to friends.

Several hours later, we rolled on the red. The effect was a little more sobering. This stuff was *red*! This was serious, decisive and bold.

“Wow,” one of the kids said, as we stepped back to look at the finished first coat. “That’s red.”

Yes, we told him. We knew.

But when the second coat had dried, we all applauded. The effect was phenomenal. The room went from unremarkable to stunning overnight. We rearranged the furniture, added some track lighting and sighed with satisfaction at the final results. My husband and I felt like we’d just gone on vacation, like we’d had a night on the town, like we’d created a masterpiece.

The kids were impressed.

“This looks great,” one said.

“It’s alright,” said our biggest doubter, giving us her strongest seal of approval.

“Way cool,” said our son.

I often catch my husband gazing admiringly at our red living room wall. I stand beside him and we put our arms around each other and feel a sense of shared accomplishment.

Sure, it’s just a room, just some red paint, just a weekend home improvement project that turned out surprisingly good.

But it’s also a tribute to seeing something through, to having an idea and not just talking about it, but doing it. Our kids got to see us step out and try something new, and worked with us while we did it.

We said all along that if we didn’t like, it was only paint and we could redo it. We took the opportunity to explain to them that it’s okay to try things out, with common sense and good humor, and to be objective about the results, but open minded about them, too.

Don’t ever stay in a rut, we told them – in your work, in your life, in your habits of thinking and being and doing. Keep learning, trying new things, exploring new ideas, and sharing them with others to keep your relationships, and your surroundings, fresh and interesting and alive.

It’s amazing what a little can of paint can accomplish.

(This story originally appeared in the St. Petersburg Times in 2005)

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