You’ve probably heard the Zen parable:

The novice says to the master, “What does one do before enlightenment?”
“Chop wood. Carry water,” replies the master.
The novice asks, “What, then, does one do after enlightenment?”
“Chop wood. Carry water.”

I suppose it means different things to different people. To me it means it doesn’t matter how my life changes or what happens in the world, there are still tasks to be done. And sometimes those mundane tasks are meditative and cathartic.

These past four years are the longest I have ever gone without a fireplace. Even my dorms had fireplaces. And, well, there are two in this house, but my mother declared a moratorium on their use some thirty years ago. I have scheduled a chimney cleaning next month. I’m ready to fire them up.

Today I moved wood. It was stacked in the trees at the edge of the meadow last summer when I had 35 dead Douglas fir cut down. I hired a team of mostly non-English speaking Hispanic workers to do the job. They were amazing. They did everything I wanted, including taking care not to trample the tiger lilies along the path. Including some branches on big trees that weren’t in the quote. I didn’t expect them to stack the wood (and they would have moved it to wherever I wanted it). I really didn’t expect them to practically sweep the forest floor.

I didn’t expect that the whole crew, including the foreman, would give the entire payment for their day’s work to one quiet one among them, whose wife had been killed in a car accident that spared his infant daughter. I am worried about what will happen to all of them.

That’s really what I wanted to say. Except for this: there were other things I wanted to accomplish today, but it felt good—after the second wheelbarrow load across the meadow, down the driveway, through the woods to the rack I had assembled—to let the other stuff go and just breathe the air, discover the fungi, listen to the wind in the trees, observe the deer at rest under the apple trees, and move my body. I only moved a fraction of the stacks. More enlightenment for another day.

Chop wood, carry water. Life goes on.



6 thoughts on “Chop Wood, Carry Water

  1. I love thinking that you’ll get some time to yourself soon. Just being the daughter will be exhausting enough on its own. What you have been doing has required great discipline and great commitment. It is such a loving act to be available in this capacity for so long. I’m so honored to be able to hear this story. I am looking forward to hearing about crackling fires, weeks without fish and your visits to your Mama in her new home. I like the way you view these moments of enlightenment. It seems you truly are leaning toward the light *


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