But a decade later, when we'd assumed the mantle of professional life, most of those ambitious, somewhat competitve friends and I avoided trying anything at which we weren't already pretty good. So we'd say "I can't dance/fly fish/make pastry/shoot pool".
That attitude, the prizing of the Competent Self, held constant for our working years. It's not that we didn't continue to learn, but we played to our talents. Now, released from what another friend called his "achievement disorder", we've begun to realize that being incompetent is no crime: lives don't depend on whether your origami frog looks like a crumpled wad.
The pleasure of incompetence first requires being able to laugh at my ineptness. In fact, it's often more fun than proficiency.
One current example of that effect is two anglophones speaking terrible French to one another. Our mangled syntax jars francophones and stresses their patience after two minutes. Since so many speak fluent English in Montréal, they can't wait to switch.
But anglos determined to practice will happily spend an hour or two engrossed in conversation, bashing their way through the subjuncif and plus-que-parfait; understanding each other perfectly, freed from the paralyzing self-criticism that guts them in front of a native speaker. We continue even if murdering the terminisations, infused with the giddy pride of "Look at us, speaking another language!"
|Photo: Kino Lorber|
Mom's novice artist friends presented lumpy oil-painted bouquets that embarrassed me at 30. (Not Mom, who displayed them with affection.) Now I'm making them! When Beginner Self speaks, it says, "So what? The world can always accommodate another inept still life."
I received a gift from Bernard, boxes of art supplies left to him by his friend, Michel. While sifting through these, the man came back to life. He was a physician–his copybooks were from the College of Physicians and Surgeons. He was meticulous, everything organized neatly. Michel liked to paint barns and country houses; books on the subject were in the bags.
He attempted large works; the bigger brushes show far more wear than the fine:
Several sets of watercolour paints were untouched:
Books on using various media were stored with sketchbooks and papers:
What moved me most was his palette, a slice of burled maple. In it, I felt his presence and a whisper of encouragement. A cigarette burn; a single grey hair stuck in an ochre dab.
How many years had I spent in a straightjacket of excellence? Finally, at 65, I'm bashing away, willing to be less skilled than ever, but curious and engrossed. I want to learn so many things, and am not particularly concerned that there isn't time left for mastery.
Just to begin: that feels like enough.