A Little More Serious · Adventures in Imperfection

Chop Wood, Carry Water


Winter sucks.

Christmas is my favorite holiday and now it’s over. My brothers and sisters (all of whom have been filtering in and out since Thanksgiving) have gone back to their respective corners of the country leaving me with a little bit of the melancholy “missing you” syndrome.  Since I’m an introvert, time spent with the extended family borders on “almost too long” coupled with post-departure feelings of “not long enough.” Tanna is home from college and Dane doesn’t go back to school till next week, but I’ve been so glum the last couple of days that I’m not worthy of their smiling faces.

But don’t worry. I’m not going to bring you down with a sad, sappy post about missing people. We all do. It’s part of life and we get through.

In my typical do-something-about-it fashion, I attacked this most recent funk head-on with physical activity and distracting OCD tasks. Off goes the Facebook, out comes Yoga Mama as I embraced the mantra from my favorite Zen proverb:

Before Enlightenment…chop wood, carry water.
After Enlightmenment…chop wood, carry water.


I know what the proverb is supposed to mean, but I don’t think it matches what I want it to mean.  Nonetheless, I’ve adopted it and applied to my situation.

When the winter blues engulf me in a white suffocating blanket, I try to burst out from inside my flannel fetal position and do the most basic cavewoman tasks to get me through to another day.

Chop Wood. Carry Water.

Simple, primitive habits and functions that force me to focus on the task at hand. The motion, wood and work takes me away from mourning about the past. The stretch, the muscle extension and catching a breath in the cold air diverts my worry from the future.

Before you think I’m  drowning you in metaphors, let me assure you that I take this quote literally. The woods behind our house are beautiful, but the sycamore trees have been swallowed up by invasive grapevine, wild honeysuckle and trees my husband affectionately calls “piss elms.” After my brother and his family went back home to Minnesota on Saturday, something had to be done to ward off the dread that had wrapped its tendrils around me.  For me, trimming trees, stacking logs and burning brush would be the best remedy.

With each pass of the axe, I destroyed a spindly honeysuckle and felt an emergence of purpose, gratitude and hope. I was only aware of the earthy smell of the wood, the sweet sting in my muscles and the complete blank page that my mind had become.

Before I knew it, five hours had passed…lunch had been forgotten, hands were bleeding, arms were covered in scratches and a weary, but a happy smile was sitting in the place where a scowl had been earlier.  

A student once asked his teacher, “Master, what is enlightenment?”
The master replied, “When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep.”

KISS. Keep it simple stupid.

Destroy the garbage, carry the wood to the pile, clean up the mess and reveal the emerging beauty springing forth with each new section of cleared forest.

Many of our friends have made fun of the lithium battery-powered chainsaw my husband got me for Christmas. It was exactly what I wanted and one of the most sincere and thoughtful presents I’ve ever received. Scott knows how messy my brain gets and that the well-worn hand saw and clippers weren’t going to provide enough manpower to handle the challenges the upcoming year would be throwing at us. The saw battery lasted just one tick longer than I did, and I walked away from the woods at dusk with a happy heart, exhausted body and a huge ready-to-be-burned brush pile.


But ugh.

Imagine my dismay when I woke up with similar melancholia on Sunday. I couldn’t chop wood again–the wind chill was below zero and this old gal wasn’t up to the bundling that would be required.

Going to Plan B, I organized every little nook and cranny in the house only to quickly discover that labeling and boxing up items was not going to give me the satisfaction provided by a wooden axe and water pail. My mind was racing and regrets about the past and uncertainty about the future started to weave its way into my brain.

It wasn’t long before I was snapping at unsuspecting  (and undeserving) victims. I hate being grumpy. It’s not me, it’s not who I am, but it’s who I’ve been for the last couple of days.  My funk doesn’t usually last two days, so I was reaching for something, anything to get me out.

That’s when I saw the catalog pile.



“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”
–Audrey Hepburn

I promptly retrieved my 2013 garden journal and reread the play by-play on the dirt covered pages. I looked at the haphazardly inserted photos and fondly remembered the best gardening season ever. Once the lingering memories of dinner plate dahlias, juicy tomatoes and busy little hummingbirds subsided, I tucked my journal away and looked toward the future. I made a huge wish list from the seed catalog and then plotted the planned architecture of Spring on graph paper.

I charted my course, sketched out the design, strategized the perfect companion plants and dreamed about building more raised beds. Before I knew it, my future vegetable garden was brimming with colorful peppers, heirloom tomatoes and kaleidoscope carrots. I filled the cutting garden with new variety zinnias and “prairie star bloomers” proven to outlast late frosts and harsh Kansas summers.


After being in a dark cocoon all day, life popped back into my body and a smile teased the corners of my lips as I re-engaged with the forgiving people who love me no matter what my mood.

Even though Saturday was purposefully spent “in the moment, ” I learned Sunday that it’s also important to acknowledge and remember the past in order to have hope for the future. So often, I’d bury and avoid the past only to have it sneak up on me at my most vulnerable and public moments. An unpleasant surprise that left me feeling paralyzed and weak. On the flip side, I often avoided thinking about the future because it was so overwhelming and sad as I imagined getting older, seeing kids leave and friendships end. Instead of embracing the past and hoping for the future, I’d get stuck in the present and stunted by being unable to move backward or forward.

As important as it is to “be here now,” the last two days have taught me that all three time zones serve a purpose. If you’re an English teacher, you may have even noticed that I uncharacteristically used all three tenses in this post–something that’s not grammatically correct, but seems to work for this message.

“Happy is the person who knows what to remember of the past, what to enjoy in the present, and what to plan for in the future”  —Arnold H. Glascow

So, how does a person know what to pick when given the choice to focus on the past, present or future? For me, I grab the chainsaw and axe and work away until I figure it out. 


19 thoughts on “Chop Wood, Carry Water

  1. Beautiful post. Michelle. I especially love the “time zone” perspective on life, and being able to use to find your comfort zone with life. There is definitely something to be said with the cleansing power of manual labor, and how it helps put things into perspective. I think one of the main reasons society in general seems to have a short fuse these days is that lack of connection with physicality — and going to the gym doesn’t really count. There’s just something about being singularly focused on a task and watching it progress — whether chopping wood, building a cabinet or repairing something. You are not only smart enough to recognize that need in yourself, but wise enough to act on it.

    Oh, and Fr. Robert agrees. By the way, after reading this morning’s post he wen back to his monastery. But he’ll be reading… 😉


    1. Hi Ned,
      Thank you for your kind words and wise perspective. I agree wholeheartedly with your comments on physical activity and society’s short fuse. I’m a bit of a gym rat and run junkie myself, but nothing produces the visual, mental and emotional high that a manual labor, tangible-get-dirty type of day does. I’m sure you experience that same satisfaction in your volunteer fire fighting activities! (I could have used you when the diesel fuel came out for the burn pile!)
      Thank you for sending Fr. Robert back…I was starting to get nervous!


  2. Superbly superb, Michelle. This is my favorite post of all the ones you’ve written thus far. Loved it. I was just sharing with a friend via email that I plan on doing a Winter post soon—contributing to my Season’s categories. Metaphorically speaking, I’ve been in a winter season for longer than expected, but if there is one thing I’ve learned while in this season, it’s that there is beauty to be found in so many ways that can occupy the mind, too. I love to garden, btw.

    In late Winter this year I was taking video from a very old digital camera after it started snowing hard. I changed over to stills and took this image which only lasted seconds to a minute before the sun went back behind gray clouds. The sunlight could be seen through the snowflakes and it was magical. This was taken indoors looking out onto the deck of where I’m currently and temporarily living, which is at my sister and BIL’s.

    Speaking of the past being important in the moment, I took that image last fall but only discovered it yesterday. It was timely.

    Hey — can I borrow you and your saw? 😛

    Happy wood chopping. You’ve got a handle on it.



    1. Hello dear friend!
      Thank you for the kind words and for sharing that lovely picture with me. It looks like a painting! Timely indeed.
      I’m sorry that you’ve been buried in the winter mode a bit longer than expected, but I absolutely love your perspective and the way you find beauty in every season. It’s a great reminder for me and I’ll be practicing it a lot in the coming snowy months.
      I also had a feeling that you were a gardener. We’ll need to compare notes and trade pictures this Spring.
      *drops off saw and seed catalog at your feet*


  3. I’ve spent the evening ‘catching up’ on half of Novembers and all of December’s posts. When they come in, I’ve been sending them to a file for ‘later when I have time.’ Well, I haven’t had time–until this eve. And all were a joy and this one the best to stop with at the moment. They deserve more comment–and I will. Please keep writing–you have much to say 😉 Night.


    1. Thank you so much for reading, dear Ruth! It’s been an interesting couple of months that have teetered between writer’s block and full on upchuck at the keyboard…no happy medium! I’m going to be trying some different things in 2014 as I’m really starting to enjoy this platform. I write for me, but having people actually read it…I’m a bit uncertain how to feel about that.
      LOVED the picture of grandma and your mom that you posted this morning. I think about grandma a lot these days and still wished I could have met your mama.


  4. Beautiful words – and you are so cute!!! I commend you for dealing with bluesy feelings in such a productive way – I just curl up into a ball and continue to feel sad. Perhaps doing something I enjoy would work to pull me out next time’s funk. Thank you for sharing this with us!


    1. Thank you so much, Nicole! Actually, I totally think you deal with your sadness quite effectively. Every time I read one of your poems, I get a little bit of talent envy and think, “Wow. Maybe I should just write more.” My 46-year-old body can only take so many days of wood chopping 🙂
      Bottom line, we all have different ways to deal with the blues…writing, running, chopping. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. Thanks so much for taking the time to read.


  5. There’s something about chopping wood, I have to agree. Not sure exactly what it is about it, but it’ll teach you something about yourself if you stick to it long enough.
    Hi! 🙂 I’m a friend of christy and I just read your post over there and popped by to read around a little. I had to check this one out a little closer since I saw you mention it in another of your posts. I’m just this second noticing a pingback to RoS right above my comment, that’s not how I arrived here. I’ve been scrolling your homepage for about an hour now sooooo that probably really doesn’t mean anything. Anyhow, I like your blog and you’re a fun read. Keep choppin’! 🙂


    1. Thank you SO much for spending time on my site, looking through and commenting. A friend of Christy’s is a friend of mine and I can’t wait to hop over to your site and check it out, too.
      Also am grateful that another soul understands the therapy in chopping wood. It’s been a long winter and my brush pile grows exponentially as the days draw on.
      Thank you so much for your kind words and comments. You’ll be hearing from me again 🙂


  6. There’s something remarkably therapeutic about tasks that don’t need any thinking, that let you look at all three time zones simultaneously and sort out what to do next…


    1. You are so kind and so correct in reference to tasks and therapy!
      Thank you so much for looking at both posts. Writing the first piece was highly therapeutic and I followed its lead today between teleconferences by watering the herbs, plucking dandelions and piling sticks. It’s all I needed to do to get me through another Friday. Thanks for always being such a gracious reader. Have a great weekend!


    1. Hello!!! I am so happy to meet you. Doesn’t it make your skin tingle when you find someone who speaks your language?
      I’ll be over soon to read your posts. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

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