Years ago I shocked one of my Thai language classes by writing on the whiteboard, “What’s worth doing is worth doing badly.” In a country ruled by perfectionism, this was heresy, I went on to explain that nobody does anything well at the beginning; practice was the key to perfection and practice involved doing things badly until they were finally done well. Then I proved the truth of my statement by speaking their language, an action that they all agreed I did very badly indeed.

I paid lip service to my twisted maxim but I rarely incorporated it into my life. I did the things that came easily to me and ignored the rest. My halting attempts to learn Thai were the exception–but if I didn’t stumble my way through that language, I was going to go hungry or worse. My first piece of language acquisition after getting off the plane from Seattle was “Where is the bathroom?” No matter how much I mangled this phrase, my tone of urgency and face filled with panic helped to get the point across. And although I knew what came out of my mouth was laughable gibberish, perfectionism was a frill I couldn’t afford.

Like every child in the 1950s, I was given a box of crayons as soon as the adults in my life felt assured that I wasn’t going to eat them. I fell in love with the colors immediately and gave each one its own personality. When I wasn’t putting them through silent dramas of my own invention, I scribbled happily. 

Then my younger sisters stopped eating my crayons and were given boxes of their own. Their scribbles rapidly turned into recognizable figures and landscapes that gave them the praise that eluded me and I decided the hell with this.

I still loved color but I transferred that passion to the clothes I wore and much later to the furniture I bought. Colors made me happy but I never willingly put them on a piece of paper–the lowest marks on my elementary school report cards were in Arithmetic and Art. I told myself I hated them both.

Seventy years after I stopped using my crayons, a conversation with a friend made me walk into an art supply store and buy paper, brushes, and four tubes of paint. When I brought them home, I spread my purchases on the table and wondered what the colors would look like on the paper. A couple of hours later, I stopped, only because the sheet of paper was completely covered. During that time I had no thoughts, no interruptions, and didn’t stop playing with paint even to get a glass of water. It was as though I’d been possessed and I suppose I had been–the colors had taken over.

Since then I’ve bought and have been given many more tubes of paint and different brushes. I use them with enthusiasm and with no idea of what I’m doing. Nothing I put on paper has any resemblance to an image–each sheet looks like a four-year-old’s session with finger paints. And I’m grateful for that. This is one thing I do without planning, without editing, and without any expectations. When the paper is full, I stop. In the meantime only the colors matter.

In spite of myself, I’ve learned a few things–which brushes are my favorites and why I like them; the differences between paper; the garishness of cheap paint. 

Yesterday an artist friend gave me two colors that astounded me and I know that from now on things will never be quite the same. Even though I’ll cling to my less subtle colors, I’ll always know there are other tints that catch the light and use it softly. I’ve discarded what I think of as color swatches, ones I did months ago, because now I can see how clumsy they are. But still I resist anything that will let me know what I’m doing. All I want is to have the delight and freedom that my perfectionist self denied me when I was little. All I ask for is to be in love with all the colors, in my second childhood–me and ROYGBIV, BFF forever.