The slow life around my house involves chores that I always need help with. Because the water in my neighborhood is exceptionally hard, I buy bottled water and have it delivered to my house in 5 gallon containers that sit on a ceramic crock with a spout I’ve had for nearly 20 years. Although I have become strong enough to lift the ceramic crock off its perch once it’s nearly empty and rinse it out if needed—a joyous little victory all its own–the task of fitting it with a full 5 gallon bottle must fall to someone stronger. When my son lived at home, he did the honors. Now that he’s an old man about to be 28 and living his life across the width of a whole state, I call on neighbors and friends to help.
Help with filling up the water is a year round regular task. For several months out of the year, it’s twinned with the task of splitting wood for the masonry stove and carrying it into the house. As with the water, I’ve gotten strong enough to carry in wood now and then in a pinch. I’ve even devised a way of bringing enough for a whole fire in the door with my market cart.
This is wonderful, since before eating this way I often needed help just building the fire once the wood was in the living room. Or getting down on my knees to do it was extremely painful and exhausting. Luckily, those days are now behind me. But swinging the axe to split rounds of wood must be done by those stronger than I am.
There is a Zen saying that goes “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” Indeed. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know a whole series of greatl college-age neighbors as a result of needing help with what I now playfully call my “Zen chores.”
The first draft of this post started out as a tribute to these young neighbors that have been so helpful over the years, but then, in that amazing slow miracle way, the end of the story surprised even me.
One of the first and favorite of those college age neighbors to help with my Zen chores was a young man from what has been called “Yellow House” for years now. There has been consecutive sets of young people living in that house who have been wonderful neighbors to me. He was one of 5 boys who lived across the street from me a few years ago. They had a band called The Holiday Friends and I enjoyed listening to them practice. They were good; vocal harmony even. (They still are good. You can listen them here.) But at the time, I didn’t actually know them. Then one late Spring day my firewood for the next winter was delivered, dumped onto my driveway in a big pile. It sat there, as it often does, until I could arrange for someone to stack it in the barn. Sometimes this process is further delayed by rain. Once it’s wet, the pile of tamarack needs to sit again until it’s dry enough to stack.
One morning the doorbell rang. It was one of the boys across the street, who introduced himself as Jon (pronounced like “”yawn.”) He said, “I’ve been noticing that wood sitting in your driveway. Do you need someone to stack it?” And actually, I did. I told him I could pay him, too, if he had time to do it. He said he needed some physical labor to throw himself into. (It turned out his girlfriend had just broken up with him.) Afterwards, I showed him my garden. He told me he was a forestry major, and was also learning to trim trees. We talked environmentalism and gardening. He ended up saying, “Wow, you’re really cool! I should have come over here a long time ago!” And we laughed. Thus was the beginning of a fun friendship with the guys at Yellow House.
That summer, or the following summer, I can’t remember now, I had a bad fall. It was a big set back and I was laid up for a few weeks while I healed, unable to open and close the windows or water the garden. As I was mobilizing people to help, I called Jon. He was at work out trimming trees, but within minutes he had summoned his roommate Andy and Andy’s girlfriend Erin, who was living with them for the summer, to my door to help. It turned out Andy and Erin were working at the organic farm on campus. They were delighted to come over and water the garden. They also fell in love with my old golden retriever Tinne.
Later that Summer, Erin, her twin sister Katy, and 3 other girls moved in next door to me. So for a while I was surrounded by what felt like family. My name and number was on the bulletin board in the Yellow House kitchen. When Tinne began her decline about a month after I fell, both households took turns coming over to help me turn her over when she couldn’t get up. Scott, Jon’s brother, even carried her back inside one day when she was able to walk out to the yard, but not back into the house. The night she died, three of them came over and helped me lift and wrap her in an old quilt. The next morning when my dear veternarian friend came to get her body, Andy helped her carry it to the truck. Even Andy nearly cried. (He had developed a particular fondness for Tinne’s tendency to steal pears off my tree, something she did into the last weeks of her life.) That afternoon Jon showed up at the door with flowers for me.
And that’s not all. When the dog became too ill to lay on the back porch, basically guarding the door, the mice took that as an open invitation to sneak in through a gap that hadn’t mattered before, so of course I hadn’t noticed it. So after Tinne died, I had a mouse problem for the first time in over a decade. Of course I didn’t want them, but I didn’t want to kill them either. I’m quite sure I consternated a few of my friends by insisting on live traps. But the kids didn’t mind. They gave me cheese, and Katy, Erin’s sister, a wild life major, told me the best bait for any rodent is peanut butter rolled in oats. She was right. I still remember Scott coming over to help me lift one of these live traps full of a mouse out of the drawer under my oven, and gently taking it with him so he could ride out of town on his motorcycle and deposit the mouse in a far away field.
Whenever I needed my water crock filled, or wood split and brought in, they would help. They were all my neighbors for another year. The boys had a garden with pumpkins growing all over the place that had volunteered from seeds in the compost pile. Halloween brought a congregation of jack-o-lanterns to the front of their house. Jon and Andy especially got into canning and borrowed my hot water bath canning pot, the food dryer, and a book about how to put things up.
The first time I could clean the crock for the water out myself, Jon had already moved away. But I was so excited, I e-mailed him to let him know. He still comes by every once in a great while when he’s in town. I will always remember the happy smile he beamed at me one day right before they all moved to the coast, not so different from one my son would give, saying, “You’re walking around all the time now with Romeo. You’re really doing better, aren’t you?”
Today I am bereft I cannot find his e-mail, because if I could, I have even bigger news to tell him than washing out the crock by myself. So instead I’ll tell you. And when I find him I’ll tell him about this post.
Another one of my Zen Chore helpers is the guy who delivers my water, Paul. He is also an amazing young person, and he loves the idea of the Zen Chores. He rings my doorbell every few weeks and gladly carries the 5 gallon jugs in and sets them under my kitchen table for me. We always talk a little about life, especially how things are going with his son, who is now six years old. Last time he was here, he happened to mention that they also had a 3 gallon size water jug. My heart nearly stopped. Could I see it? I suddenly had the feeling I just might be able to lift it. He brought it in and I tried to pick it up. Amazingly, I could. Since there was still a 5 gallon one on the crock that could not be removed yet, Paul offered to give me the 3 gallon one, the only extra in that size he had, to try out. The rest I will tell you with a picture that, as the saying goes, says more than a thousand words:
Sometimes when my healing process hits a critical mass resulting in an event like this, there are really not words to describe it. Like Dr. Campbell writes about, it is a wholistic phenomenon, with forces culminating from all levels and directions. One of those convergences is the clarity of mind to realize there is a smaller size and to make the connection that now it might be possible to lift it. I had to first lift it onto a chair I put next to the crock, then unpeel the lid (something else I didn’t use to be able to do) and then lift and pour it into the crock. It was so thrilling it felt like breaking a bottle of champagne against the prow of a ship instead of pouring water into a crock.
Suddenly, after years of watching others do it, and thinking I never would, I am on a “whole” new voyage. I am so grateful to all the sets of young people who have lived at Yellow House over the years (where once upon a time I also lived, before it was Yellow House), and next door, who have helped me with my Zen chores during their time on my street. I wish I had room to describe them all here. I have yet to share this wondrous news with the current residents of Yellow House, who have carried on this grand tradition, and will be dispersing for parts as near as the next block and as far as Korea by the end of July. But I have called the drinking water company and told them from now on I would like to get the 3 gallon size.
I can hardly believe it. It’s not easy to do, but it’s doable. Something I have watched others do for years, and reassured them the first time they try that if they spill, it doesn’t matter, it’s only water. And this week I got to say that to myself, as I lifted the bottle myself. This, from a woman, who, as you may recall from my post Better Than It Was, was once too weak to lift her frying pan, and struggled to write a check.
When Winter comes, and the snow is deep, and all the students are gone home for break, and the holidays are over, and Mike and Kelly are back in Portland for New Year’s Eve, if I need more water I will simply fill it myself. And then go sit in front of fire I built myself. Who knows, perhaps even with wood I carried in myself, even if I haven’t (yet?) amassed the strength to split any of it.
It renders me kind of speechless in terms of how to close, so I guess I’ll quote my son’s not very Zen reaction when I sent him the pictures in an e-mail:
“You are a bad ass, Mom!”
It may not be very Zen of me to say so, either, but yes, I guess I am.