Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Grass is Always Greener (when it's properly mowed by someone other than me)

If there's one chore I dislike more than dusting, it's yard work. Actually, I'm okay with weeding, but I don't enjoy mowing the lawn. There, I said it. I've never enjoyed lawn mowing and I'm not sure why. Maybe because it's loud and just a little bit scary. I have a girlfriend who loves mowing. She finds it therapeutic and downright meditative to get out there and push her mower around the yard, snipping her Bermuda to a neat, uniform length. That's just not me. For a long time, I've wanted to enjoy mowing and other yard work, but I think I'm finally ready to accept the fact that it's just not my cup of tea.
  One of the reasons I like my house is because of its diminutive yard. Back and front, it should take about thirty minutes to mow, trim and weed—tops. And even better, I haven't had to mow it once in the past 10 months since I took possession of the home! In fact, I don't own a lawn mower. And yes, I have real grass. And no, I did not hire a lawn service.
   You see I live on a street where the houses all have very small front yards that adjoin each other. My neighbors all enjoy the same lawn deficit and therefore, if one of the owners of the three houses adjacent to mine is out mowing his or her lawn, he or she tends to just run the mower over all of them for good measure. I don't own a lawn mower, so it's rather convenient that other people freely elect to mow my yard for me. I've never even had to ask! I would simply come out into my front yard while this one or that one was mowing and before I'd know it, yard karma would take over and the Mower would ask me if I wanted him/her to cut my grass while he/she was at it.  Once—and only once—my boyfriend mowed my lawn, borrowing a neighbor's mower after offering to cut her lawn as well.
  But recently, in a true testament to impermanence, my lawn karma changed. On Saturday morning, one by one, my neighbors revved up their mowers and cut their lawns. By nightfall, my yard alone was unkempt. The site of the tidy lawns up and down my block made me feel guilty. The gig was up. It was time I take on the task myself. I still had to borrow a mower, but I determined to cut my grass sans help. My boyfriend, Jason, offered to do the job, but I waved him off. "I can do it myself!" I said with that Helen Redding I am woman hear me roar tone in my voice. How much time and effort could it take to cut such a small patch of green? I'm rather new (again) to this relationship business and I felt myself becoming defiant about mowing the lawn. For all these months, I'd let other people do this chore and now, for some strange reason, suddenly I felt I must prove my mowing prowess.
   On Sunday, I approached my friend and neighbor Emily and her husband Michael as they worked in their own (lovely and large) yard. They agreed to let me borrow their mower to complete my task. Michael even primed the engine for me a few times to make it easier to start, before I pushed the mower down the alley to my front yard. (Let me state right now that I have mowed yards before. Big yards, too. It is not as though I am a yard-work-a-phobe or a lawna-prima-donna.) 
   Standing on my front walk, I held the handle bar down and yanked the starter cord. The mower roared to life and I pushed it from the walk up a (very) slight incline to the my urban jungle. The mower spit out a mouth-full of grass...and then...choked.
It doesn't look like much, but when behind the
mower, my lawn turns into the Grand Canyon.
(Note: The line of demarkation between my lawn and
my neighbor's lawn is roughly parallel to the
 largish brown spot, upper left.)
   For the record, my lawn only appears to be perfectly flat. It is actually as curvaceous as Dolly Parton. Seriously. There are peaks and valleys in my postage stamp of a yard. And I realized that the grass (Bermuda? Zoysia? Don't ask me what kind!) had grown so thick and tall it overwhelmed the mower's blades. I tried to adjust the wheel-height, but the wheel-adjustment-thingy was stuck in place.
   I started the mower again. This time, I lifted up the back end of the mower ever so slightly so that only the front wheels were rolling through the thick grass. My technique worked but my arms and shoulders soon began to ache. I pushed the mower for a while and then, it chugged, became overcome by the abundance of green stuff and stalled out again. I pulled the mower back to the pavers to restart it, but the beast wouldn't budge. The blades were stuck in the newly cut grass clippings. I tilted the mower onto its side to clear the blades and then righted it again. Handle bar down, I yanked the starter cord and voila! the mower started. This time I pulled the mower onto the lawn and made a small path before the blades clogged again. And so, the slow, grueling process continued.
   By this time, it was 11 a.m. and the cool morning air had turned sticky and hot. I was sweaty and thirsty and miserable. My lawn looked like the head of a child who had cut his own hair with a blunt, safety scissors. And then, there were bald-spots where I felt certain grass would never grow again.
   I gave one final attempt to push the errant mower across the overgrown yard. Only when the damn thing sputtered to a stop (again) did I realize that I had worn a blister on the inner side of my thumb and it had burst. It was all I could do to not plop down right there in the middle of the crazy hair-cut yard and cry. Instead, I did what any sane woman would do when faced with a surmountable task that had become insurmountable: I gave up. 
   With only words of thanks, I returned the mower to Michael. Then I went into my house, ran a cool shower and stood under the flow of water until my face returned to its proper color. After I cleaned up and dressed, I came back downstairs. I glanced out the window at my front yard, hoping it wouldn't look as bad as I thought it did. Nope! It looked worse.
  That evening Jason came over. I'd already warned him about the yard. By then I was laughing at myself and my crazy determination. He shook his head and (wisely) kept his mouth shut, except to assure me that my lawn was very overgrown and it wasn't as easy as it looked to mow, even for him. Then he offered to finish cutting it for me and, this time, I gladly took him up on the offer.
  One of the nice things about getting older is realizing one's limitations—and preferences—and not feeling vulnerable because of them. Sometimes simple tasks are not simple at all. And if you have a nice man who wants to do your lawn work, why not let him?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Dust Collectors

  Last week, I invited my book club friends over for dinner. (We loosely call ourselves a 'book club," but reading a book is just an excuse to get together and compare notes on life. ) Not having had the chance to entertain much lately, I was excited about hosting a dinner-party in my new house and I set aside the better part of the day to prepare. I love to grocery shop and to cook, so that aspect of having friends over is always appealing. But in readying my house for guests, I found myself facing the one household chore I like least in this world: dusting.
   What is it about taking a clean cloth and wiping it over what appears to be a clean surface only to discover that it's filthy? The process is at once fascinating and disgusting. Fascinating in that dust is a total mystery to me, a world unto itself. (Think "Horton Hears a Who.") I can easily imagine an alternate universe living on my sideboard. And then again, the thought  that my sideboard—and every semi-flat surface of my house—is slowly accumulating an ever-thickening layer of detritus that might contain the particles of God only knows what—Skin flakes? Dirt? Bug shit?—is more than a bit disconcerting. Honestly, I don't want to know the true composition of dust. The fact that it appears unbidden is disturbing enough. Many a mess I conjure and bring upon myself, but dust just exists with the insistence of the tide. I know as soon as I wipe a surface "clean," the specks are reconnoitering. There is no reprieve.
   One way of staying the war on dust is simply to possess less stuff upon which it can settle. Downsizing my collectable collections upon moving into my new house helped. When I separated from my husband, I only took the things that I felt had use or meaning. I did not want a lot of unnecessary clutter in my new life. But I did take care to retrieve my books; and books, of course, require bookshelves—which, of course, require dusting.
   To dust bookshelves properly, one must remove their contents to get down to the bare, dusty surfaces. Plus each item must be dusted as well. It is a time-consuming task. As time ticked down until my guests' arrival, I wondered if I could avoid the chore altogether. With the lights turned low and enough delicious food on the table, perhaps my friends could be distracted from the dust-covered copy of The Riverside Shakespeare and my dust-glazed framed photo of Baby Jack on a (faux) bearskin rug. Maybe they wouldn't look too closely at my collection of manuel typewriters or the vintage Barbie (the model that required wigs.) Dust isn't so discernible as long as the layer of detritus is evenly frosting the surfaces. But a casual finger-swipe reveals the truth. Whether I wanted to acknowledge it or not, a fine layer of dust existed.  I had to clean my bookshelves!
   I donned my trusty dust mitt and got down to work. At first I moved quickly from shelf to shelf, removing photos and brick-a-brac to one side while I dusted the surfaces beneath. I'd wipe each object clean, then replace it and dust the other side of the shelf. My instinct was to work quickly. Get it over! But when I came to the shelf that held the collection of tiny, white porcelain cats that once belonged to my mother, I slowed down and gave the task my full attention.
   These cats have been in my life for as long as I have memory.
   There are six of them, each wearing a bright orange jacket and little black slippers. (Apparently, musical cats are not required to wear pants.)
    Together they create an orchestra with a bass drum, banjo, cello and French horn and saxophone.
   There's even a conductor leading the band, but some time long ago, he took a spill and lost an arm. (I don't recall how it happened, but there's a good chance that I—at a young age—was responsible for his amputation.) When friends questioned his appearance, I tell them he was a war veteran. His remaining hand  stretches up high and there's a hole in the center of his fist where a baton should be. 
   The baton had long-ago been lost and from time to time my sisters and I fashioned a toothpick into his hand, but it never stayed and made him top-heavy, so he ran the risk of falling (again). At some point I gave up trying to find a baton to his scale and just let him lead the band without it. His players don't seem to mind. 
   Suffice to say, the cats were very old and precious to me. I was always a cat-lover. My Mom had given them to me long before she became so ill with dementia.
   With exquisite care, I gingerly held each cat and wiped it clean of dust, noting the details of the shiny gold accents and the subtle expression on each cat's minuscule face. This little band had played together for decades now without missing a gig. Their beady-black eyes steady on their leader, waiting for his emphatic gesture to strike up a new tune. The drummer bore a stamp on the bottom of his drum, "Made in Japan."
   As I examine the cats, I wandered whose hands painted these little cats so long ago. The precise placement of pigment of little pink noses and shading in the ears shows a careful, loving hand. I imagined a young woman, who worked in the china factory creating these little pets, dreaming of becoming a great artist someday. I wondered where she is now? Did she use her talent? Did she follow her bliss? Is she still alive today? I will never know.
These shelves hold a lot of memories.
The sign on top of the shelves was painted by
my Mom for the produce stand she and
my Dad had decades ago.
   I moved the band to one side of the shelf and wiped, clearing the dust patterns left around their little feet. Then I spent not a little time placing them back together as an orchestra. Should the horn section be positioned on the left or the right of the drummer? The banjo-player was always a little off balance due to some error in the factor long ago. He teetered and fell, but fortunately was not injured. I position him so that he could lean against the side of the shelf. After all, he's more than 60 years old and deserves to take it easy.
   As I shifted my focus to clean the next shelf, I was no longer hurrying through the task. I was actually relishing the process and the proximity in which is placed me with things I cherish: the old family photos, the handmade Mother's Day gift from Jack, the wooden animals my Uncle John made for me, and, of course, my books. On the shelves were my worn editions of The Norton Anthology (from Freshman year in college); collections of poetry and essays by Naomi Nye, a wonderful writer whose house I "sat" the summer after I graduated from college; and Tom Wolfe's seminal 1980s work, Bonfire of the Vanities, signed by the Man himself at a luncheon I attended on one of my first forays to New York while working in my first publishing role. There's an entire shelf devoted southern fiction, and another loaded with self-help and spirituality, including works by Thomas Moore,  Joseph Campbell and M. Scott Peck, most of which I amassed after my first divorce. And there are two shelves packed with cookbooks of all shapes and sizes, many given to me as gifts, some spattered and worn with use.
   As I dusted, I recalled Nye's essay entitled Maintenance, which is about housework and I thought,  "I need to read that essay again, maybe I'll even share it with my not-a-book-club-book-club friends." Naomi knew a lot of things then that I am only learning now.*
   I cannot say I will look forward to dusting now that I know how to turn a chore into a meditation. But I do appreciate that "things" can have a spiritual meaning, and that my bookshelves aren't just dust-collectors but rather a time-capsule of my life.

* "I'd like to say a word, just a short one, for the background hum of lesser, unexpected maintenances that can devour a day or days—or a life, if one is not careful. The scrubbing of the little ledge above the doorway belongs in this category, along with the thin lines of dust that quietly gather on bookshelves in front of the books...I am reminded of Buddhism whenever I undertake one of these invisible tasks: one acts without any thought of reward or foolish notion of glory." 
From the essay "Maintenance" in the collection Never in a Hurry by Naomi Shihab Nye (University of South Carolina Press, 1996)

Friday, August 17, 2012


As far as I know the esteemed Zen Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn has not written about the meaning of driving one's Honda Civic smack into a ditch. Perhaps he has, and I just have not gotten around to reading it. 
Walking meditation is a daily practice at
Magnolia Village.

I wasn't sure about taking a 10-year old boy who values Minecraft and Left Four Dead and all things zombie to a Buddhist monastery in remotest Mississippi in the middle of the hottest summer on record, but it was (sort of) on our way to a Fourth of July family reunion in Little Rock. At the end of the retreat there was the promise of swimming pools and fireworks and fishing awaiting us in Little Rock. Honestly, I just hoped to stay at least one night at Magnolia Grove. But now it was Day Three and we were leaving on schedule without so much as a eye-roll of complaint from Jack. Remarkable.
   Thich Nhat Hahn's monastery in Mississippi is a remarkable place. Thirty Vietnamese monks and nuns welcome visitors throughout the year. The 120 acres of rolling forest and farmland are the perfect setting for a simple kitchen/meditation hall, dormitories and a few small, private huts. (Camping is also an option.) Retreats are open to all ages, and I was so impressed by the presence of children during my previous visits to Magnolia Grove that I determined to bring Jack with me. What I had not foreseen was the excruciating heat of one of the most interminable summers in recent history, which turned even the slightest effort into perspiration.
   So by the time I loaded the car with our clothes and snacks and Jack's menagerie of stuffed animals— including a very large Panda—my face was flushed and my sundress, damp. Unseen cicadas droned their endless lament from deep within the nearby oak glen. Once the car was packed, I collected Jack from the shaded playground and he wedged himself beside the large Panda in the backseat and buckled his seatbelt.
   "Next stop Wendy's!" he cried.
   I admit it seemed odd going so abruptly from dharma to deep fried. Magnolia Grove serves some of the most wonderful, fresh, healthy food in the world—but it's strictly vegan and my son is strictly a chicken-nugget-avore. For three days, he managed to survive on fruit, rice and fresh baguettes baked by the monks and nuns, along with peanut butter crackers and Chips Ahoys and granola bars that I smuggled in to supplement the monastery menu. Wendy's was to be our first stop upon reentering the Western world.
    I slowly edged out of the gravel driveway and turned my wheel to enter the country lane that runs in front of the monastery. But instead of easing onto the pavement, my car lunged downward. Too late, I realized my mistake: I had not cleared a four-foot-deep ditch adjacent to the drive. We stopped with an abrupt jolt. The nose of my bright blue car planted its front fender's "Loving Kindness is My Religion" sticker in terra firma. The rear spoiler tilted up to the heavens. I heard the sickening crunch of fiberglass. There was no going forward. There was no backing out. I was stuck.
   But you'll be happy to know I reacted in the manner one might expect of a good, Buddhist practicer.
   "Oh shit!" I muttered.  (To my credit, normally, I would have said something much, much worse.)
   "You owe me a quarter, Mom!" Jack said from the backseat.
   "Are you okay?" I asked.
   "Yes," Jack said. "But holy crap, Mom, you wrecked the car!"
    The car was wedged at an awkward angle, making the passenger door impossible to open.
  "C'mon, get out on this side," I said, adding "Be careful" when I realized that we were in a rather precarious position and I wasn't sure the car was stable.
   I leaned my weight against my door. It took more effort than I expected to get myself out of the tilted vehicle. Jack scrambled over the console and out to safety. I shut the car door. We stared at the car for a moment in quiet disbelief.
  "Wow, Mom," he said, "You really wrecked the car!"
   "I didn't wreck it..." I said slowly. "The car just...went...into the ditch."
   I crouched down to examine the nose of the car. The driver's side looked hideously crunched. The sound of cartoon cash register bells sounded off in my head. Cha-ching! And for a moment, the familiar feeling of wanting to blame this mishap on something or somebody—even myself or Jack—welled up inside of me, but only for a moment. After three days of rising at 6 AM to chant and prayer, eating in noble silence, walking in contemplative meditation, listening intently to Dharma talks and experiencing the sublimeness of "Total Body Relaxation" sessions, I couldn't muster my usual, "If only I had..." regrets or frustrations. I had not been distracted by worrisome thoughts or the desire hurry to our next destination. One minute Jack and I were turning out of the driveway, the next, we were stuck. I had miscalculated the turn. It was an accident. And certainly it was karma—but not necessarily "bad" karma or even karma in the sense of destiny.
   At other times in my life, I would have followed that karma down the proverbial rabbit hole trying to wring out meaning. (ie: "We weren't meant to leave at this time. I still have something to learn.") But today, driving my car into a ditch was simply driving my car into a ditch. It was life. It happened. I made a conscious decision to set aside the "why's?" and focus on the "what now?"
   Then a happy thought crossed my mind: I had road side assistance through my AT&T service! This realization cheered me until I recalled that, out here in the middle of nowhere Mississippi, AT&T didn't have reliable service. I walked around the grounds of Magnolia Grove holding my iPhone up in the air as if it might attract more more satellite waves from the heavens. Finally, I found a spot that could manifest enough bars to complete a call, but although I could hear the customer service representative, he could not hear me. This would have been completely frustrating had I been anywhere else, but screaming into my iPhone at a person who was in no way at fault for my dilemma, while standing by the lotus pond that surrounds the large marble statue of Shakymuni Buddha hardly seemed appropriate. The truth is: I didn't have the urge to get upset. My car was stuck. I was not.
    Without my car, I would have to ask someone to drive me to a hotspot—and every someone who had a car at this retreat was still seated in the large meditation hall listening to the conclusion of the dharma talk entitled, "Beginning Anew." We would have to wait until the talk was over to ask someone to help us. I explained the situation to Jack.
  "But Mom," he said. "What if we're stuck here FOREVER!"
   I could think of much worse fates that being stuck at Magnolia Grove forever. In fact, the tranquility and simplicity of this remote haven held hypnotic appeal. I understand why young nuns and monks are drawn to a lifestyle where happiness is the chief objective.
   The monastics of Magnolia Grove beautifully demonstrated the practice of mindfulness in everyday life. Visiting here was like touring a working farm, except instead of seeing how a person might, say, milk a cow by hand, the monastics give example of how to apply the practice of mindfulness to all actions of life. Washing dishes becomes a meditation. Walking becomes a prayer. Talking with friends becomes spiritual communion. To live each day with this sense of heightened awareness is, indeed, joyful. There's no conflict. No anxiety. It's strawberry fields forever. But let's face it, how difficult can it be to maintain inner peace when you're living a simple life that does not involve deadlines, mobile phones, e-mail, mortgage payments, entangling romances, or children who don't comply with your no-dirty-clothes-on-the-floor requests? Yes, in many ways, leading the life of a monastic seems easy compared to applying the Buddhist principles outside the grounds of Magnolia Grove. Now that's a trick. And as it happened, I was given a "wonderful" opportunity to "practice" even before I left the grounds!
   "We won't be stuck here forever," I said, smiling. "I promise we'll be on our way as soon as possible. Why don't you go play while I wait."
The damage was remarkably minor.
   Without further complaint, Jack ambled over to the playground and contented himself to sift through the cool, smooth stones that covered the ground beneath the swing set. The retreat had a calming effect on him as well. I knew he was hungry. Now fast food had to wait for the dharma talk's conclusion. It would be at least another hour before we could call a tow truck. And there was no telling how long it would take a wrecker to get here so we could be on our way. Of course, that was assuming Honda would be drivable once it was dislodged from the ditch. An un-drivable car meant a day's excursion in the nearby town dealing with wrecker services, repair men and rental cars. Our next destination was my sister's house in Little Rock—four hours away. And although we didn't have to be there at any exact moment in time, our hope had been to arrive in time to get in a swim and relax a bit before dinner. Now my hope is that we could get there. Period.
   The dharma talk concluded. Helpful retreat-goers offered their cell phones (with equally bad access), and the use of the monastery's tractor (a good idea unless the tractor lunged and yanked the bumper clean off my car.) One of the elder nuns looked at my car nose-down in the ditch and—after being assured no one was hurt—smiled in a knowing way that said, "There's another good reason to NOT own a car." Then, she insisted I join them at the picnic tables for lunch beneath the oak trees.
   After the bell rang concluding the noon meal's noble silence, Pete, a Magnolia Grove regular,  offered to drive me to a hot-spot. About that time, Jack came running up from the playground.
   "Mom! I found an arrowhead!" he shouted.
    He held out a flat, triangular stone that appeared to be honed to a point. It did indeed look like an authentic Native American weapon. I marveled at the find. Had we zipped away as planned, Jack would not have turned archeologist. You never know what treasures are to be discovered in mishaps.
   We hopped into Pete's car and drove toward civilization until I had four bars and my 611 call could be completed. (I'll spare the details of how I then discovered that AT&T roadside assistance did not cover the tow-truck charge..) The truck was summoned. For $125 the tow service would remove the Honda from the ditch. I was told it would take at least thirty minutes for my rescuer to arrive.
You've gotta look closely to see the dent.
   Waiting at the monastery in the mid-day heat, I still didn't know if I could drive the car once it was righted. And yet, there was no use jumping to conclusions or getting upset. The tow truck would arrive and pull the car from the ditch. We would either drive away in the car or we'd climb into the truck cab with the car carried on its winch and make our way into town to continue our misadventure. Either way, getting upset would not change the circumstances or outcome, nor would it get us anywhere any sooner.
  As I thanked Pete for driving us to the hot-spot, we heard the sound of a diesel engine changing gears. A truck was just down the road, but heaving closer to us. Was it possible? Yes. In Thich Nhat Hahn's world, Hal, the friendly tow truck driver, lives just down the road from Magnolia Grove. And he just "happened" to be sitting in his kitchen finishing his ham sandwich when he received the dispatcher's call.
   Thanks to Hal's expertise, my blue Honda was unstuck in record time and was remarkably unscathed mechanically, and just slightly bruised cosmetically. (The little dent adds character, don't you think?) In no time, Jack was happily eating chicken nuggets and french fries and sipping a large Dr. Pepper—very, very mindfully.

   Later that day as Jack nodded off in the back seat, clutching his prized arrowhead, his head resting on the giant stuffed Panda, a feeling of wonder settled over me. Something remarkable had occurred. I was grateful for my dented car, and for a story that I would share with Jack for the rest of our lives. Had we departed Magnolia Grove as planned, I might not have realized just how much we learned there.