Chop Wood, Carry Water

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The scenery from the train crossing the Canadian Rockies was spectacular—a smorgasbord of snow-capped mountains, emerald lakes, deep canyons, and rushing waterfalls. After a while, the view started blending, impossible to focus (and digest) on a singular object.

Today’s exterior landscape looks and feels a bit like traveling on a fast-moving train. Every day, the latest this or that. Results of new studies are popping up overnight like mushrooms. The Covid-19 vaccine, from creation to fruition, happened so quickly my brain flashed red and green, warning and gratitude. 

We have new technology (mRNA) to thank for the success of the COVID-19 vaccine. But when it comes to finding peace within, instead of speedy, we need slow-go with reflection and mindfulness as our travel companions. Like good wine improves with age, time provides deeper understanding and meaning. It’s how walking the same trails again and again taught me the sequence of spring blossoms in northeast Florida: Carolina Jasmine, Azaleas, Magnolia trees’ flowers. As my awareness increases, I’m likely to discover new blooms between the ones I know. 

There is something slow and earthy about living in tune with the continually changing world around us. I leave Florida when the Magnolia trees are in full blossom. Whether or not we follow the movements of the stars or the time of the tides to make decisions, many of us have started comparing the benefits of doing more—to doing less. Instead of a trip around the world, visiting US national parks feels like a better option.

The first episode of Down to Earth (Netflix): two Americans tour the world to see for themselves how countries are learning to live in harmony with nature, enjoying less more. Perhaps you’ve heard of the “Slow Food Movement,” explained in Down to Earth’s first episode. Visiting a restaurant in Reykjavik, the chef explained how every morsel of food was as nature delivered it, with no genetic modification. Starting with a salad that looked like fallen leaves in autumn, the main meal was reindeer the chef had hunted, killed, skinned, and butchered. (No, it wasn’t Rudolph.) Nothing wasted. Everything used. Without forests, instead of wood, the deer meat was cooked in dung. “We are eating meat cooked in dung?” the Americans asked repeatedly.  

Diners, farmers, gardeners, and restaurants are revisiting the idea that food should be savored, not devoured. Our fast-food society is inching away from fast food to slow food, carefully prepared with fresh ingredients, smaller servings with bigger flavor, enjoying conversations around the table with family and friends.

Inspired by friends who’ve moved far from the fast-food movement, I signed up to get my vegetables from a local farm. Your six choices included cauliflower, chard, rainbow carrots, etc., delivered to your house for $27. But Tim doesn’t like cauliflower, and I find chard too tough, even when cooked. Lesson one, eat what’s offered. When a friend, Zoe, searched for a local source of eggs, she connected with a woman who invited her to visit and see how her chickens lived. Know the animal that feeds you. 

Slow and mindful living is showing up in other places as well. A new movement in academia is called “Slow Scholarship.” The fast scholarship is when scholars send out quick responses to talks they hear or articles they read via Tweet or Blog. Compare this to years of studying, thinking about, conversing with others or performing experiments before your conclusions are published. In the tortoise and the hare race, the hare was impressive coming out of the gate, but we all know who won. The tortoise was steadfast and sure-footed.

Growing up, I was taught that patience is a virtue. Nobody explained why it was, and I didn’t buy it. So I fast-tracked through life until I ran out of steam. Eventually, to get it, to have it, then throw it away lost its appeal. Less doing and more living came into focus. Less “haring” around. This feeling I might miss out on something is leaving me. The river is in no hurry to return to the source, I tell myself. Taking in the view of the Rockies might be more fulfilling when we settle for less, a few days at Lake Louise, and a few more in Banff feels about right. Instead of a bucket list of visiting every national park in the United States, getting acquainted with parks nearby may be better.

I’ve reduced how often I look at my Fitbit, comparing my step count to others. Walking now includes the view from different benches, and my interest in birds, especially the ones that chirp, “pretty pretty,” is growing. We’ve added more nature shows to our viewing lists, like learning about our winged friends’ migratory habits. Returning home from a shopping trip, I sat in the driveway listening to Fresh Air (NPR), an interview with an author writing about birds. Before, I’d chosen the news. Does it mean I never walk like the devil is on my heels? No, this is an effort in progress and missteps happen.

For me, putting on the brakes, slowing down, is about tasting life’s offerings in every moment. Mindfulness of ourselves, others, and the environment is about being better and better human beings, our evolutionary calling. The need to find heaven on earth didn’t start with us and won’t end with us. 

A young boy dreamed of learning great things that would take him to enlightenment, the story goes. At the monastery, the monks told him to chop wood and carry water. In his free time, he attended prayers and meditations. But the teachings on how to reach enlightenment were rather sparse.

One day, he was told to take tea to the Abbot’s chambers. Noting the young man’s downcast demeanor, the Abbot asked why. 

He said, “I came here to be like you, to learn and understand things.”

The Abbot gestured to the scrolls on shelves lining the walls. “When I came, I was like you. I understood that someone had to chop wood and carry water, but I was eager to move ahead,” he told the young boy. “In time, I’d read all the scrolls, visited all the places, and met with kings and gave council. I became the Abbot. What I learned is that the key to everything is chopping wood and carrying water. If we do everything mindfully, we have found the only treasure that is, peace of mind.”

When we live mindfully, our mind remains tranquil. Instead of being preoccupied with externals, we are grounded in the moment, doing what we are doing.

3 thoughts on “Chop Wood, Carry Water

  1. Dear Edith,

    Thank you for this posting. I needed it and I’d been doing my own thinking about slowing down… Wishing you and Tim a safe journey back to Colorado for the summer.

    Steffie 🌷

    Sent from my iPad



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