This week I have spent over two hours chopping paper – at our children’s school. As I sipped my hot tea and simply chopped numerous colors of paper into various shapes, this Zen phrase came to me – “Chop Wood, Carry Water.” I had to quietly laugh at myself, because while in my 20’s and on the meandering path to my life’s purpose, I found comfort in the concept behind this idiom. And now, 20 years later, with two degrees, a wonderful husband, three natural child births, and a richly blessed global-lifestyle – and I’m still “chopping wood and carrying water.”
The concept comes from a simple Zen expression. “Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.” What’s the difference? The tasks are the same. The need is the same. What is the frame of mind? Who is chopping and who is carrying water?
Do we really ever change I wonder? What I do know is that true joy comes from the very moment I am in. Real misery is at the source of multi-tasking – either mentally or physically, and especially both. Even with greater “maturity” that I can claim after 43 years of diverse life experience, formal education and accreditation from the school of life, my greatest “accomplishment” is meaningful joyfulness. I know this with confidence now as I’ve seen many have great material gain and yet live devoid of true happiness.
Often I am critical of myself – expecting that I should be “producing more” in this world. Ironically, it is at the chopping block that I find my center again – and realize what a privilege it is simply to be of service. Here merriment finds me in the making of colored paper turkey cut-outs. In this place, at the proverbial well of the school, I too receive unexpected gifts that come from simply being on task – like friendly, spontaneous conversations with my children’s teachers about sweet moments that touched their hearts, and about how our children contributing to the classroom.
“When we open awareness to the tasks in our lives they become lighter. When we are able to be in the moment, we no longer feel compelled to watch the clock. Whatever your work might be, bring all of yourself to it. When you are fully present, you may find that your labor is no longer a burden. Wood is chopped. Water is carried. Life happens.” – Tom Barrett
I close in gratitude for peace in humble work. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” -Colossians 3:23. With God, all things are possible, in the most unlikely places!
It’s snow cold! The temperatures during waking hours have dropped to 5 degrees this week. Burr. I just don’t remember it being this cold this early on in winter the last two years.
I’m amazed at how Alaskans just get on with their lives – hardly slowing down for anything, but shoveling the snow out of the way. I’m thankful we love to ski. Otherwise, I might just join the bears and hibernate, too. This cold runs deep.
There was talk about building supplies for surviving winter supplies. Of course there’s no worry about food going bad if the power goes out – we just use the outside freezer! Oh the adventures of living in the frontier state are grand.
I’m thankful the snow invites more playfulness for the children than anything else. Today I found myself saying for the second time, “I’d like my child’s life….being driven to dance class, attending juggling class, taking piano lessons, getting tucked in by the tickle bug.” It’s a sweet life here and I’m very grateful. We pray that our children have thankful hearts too, and it seems they do, mostly.
Today our daughter said she couldn’t wait for recess – because they would be sledding. What a fun recess activity – that’s Alaska.
I fell in love with Alaska all over again as I got out into the 10 degree temperatures and shared a brisk walk with a friend this afternoon. We took a new road that was near our children’s school. To our delight, this path lead us along a fabulous creek that is not yet frozen and so it’s running with that peaceful sound of fast-moving water. At noon, the sun was bursting in warm glows of yellows over the freshly covered snow-capped mountains that stood tall all around us. The trees have become decorated in the fluffy white powder, too.
Suddenly I was filled with a spirit of Alaska that consumed me. A voice came through my head and said, “Wow, this is where I am! This is where I live!” Indeed, the pristine beauty here is as extreme as the climate. To get out into it – with four layers on, was liberating.
Crunching in the snow as we walked, talked and prayed along the mountain road side, I felt connected to all that has been and is good in my life. The sound of walking on fresh snow takes me back through special moments over three decades in which this meant very fun times of skiing, friends and vacation. Now the sound of crunching on snow is simply every day life – something that is still quite novel, even as we enter our third winter here.
Oh the magic of the present, of the happy associations of our senses, and of the fullness of our life. Thank you Alaska for these marvelous gifts. Thank you God for the privilege of living in this grand place. I’m thankful to be here today! I’m thrilled our children have the opportunity to build happy memories for life while crunching on the snow.
Recently I was reading aloud a blog I had written to the kids around the kitchen table and was eerily transported back over 30 years – to when I was the child, hearing my father happily read his musings and waiting for the part I was in. It was a rich memory to have unexpectedly rediscovered. All of this reminded me of the unique passion for life and joy I remember my father possessing – and sharing with others through his writing, his sense of humor and loud laughter….as if I had just seen him!
As you can imagine, having been 11 when his life was ripped out of mine, left me with few memories from which I have been able to easily draw upon. And yet all this felt perfectly orchestrated, as if there was no coincidence that on the eve of the anniversary of my father’s death, his aliveness would be uncovered. Reading one of his hand-written pieces that is dear to me reinforced what I had remembered to be so true.
The last time I saw my father was on Halloween, the night we celebrated my brother’s 10th birthday, the night that Dad revealed his motorcycle to grandma and grandpa – who were quite distraught by it, (and then had it in their backyard a week later, reminding them of the horrible death their son had on it) and the night I was nearly abducted by drunk people. That night, frightened for my life, my father held me against his cold leather jacket and told me “I’ll always be there for you.” Then he was taken four days later.
It’s no mystery that Halloween – pop-culture style with all its gore, conjures up deeply painful memories I wish to never re-experience. Therefore my focus has been on Hallow’s Eve and All Saints’ Day instead. This year when our ten-year-old bellowed that this was “the worst Halloween Ever!” because she didn’t get a full bucket of candy and didn’t see her friends (new neighborhood), I was deeply triggered. As we prepared for bed, I gently asked her if she wanted to know what was my worst Halloween. She said yes, so I briefly told her about the night I last held my Dad. We cried together. She said she was sorry for her comment. I told her I understood her feelings and we had resolution. Education takes the most unexpected forms.
All Saints’ Day on November 1st is a Catholic holiday that is widely celebrated Europe, a national holiday, and a day that family members gather and visit grave sites of loved ones who have passed. While living in Italy and The Netherlands, I found solace for the first time around this season, even though I’m not Catholic. My experience on this day was that it was a time when we honor the significance of the ones we have loved – and did so as a nation. The unification of doing this with an entire culture of people normalized my experience of the loneliness of loss in a way that was new and oddly liberating.
Join me in honoring those who have left footprints on our hearts and light a candle for them on All Saints’ Day. I’ve made an altar on our bookshelf with two photos of my father, one with his arm around me, and his poem – in his handwriting. I pray for great peace and joy as we move forward into November, and the closing of this calendar year.