Last Monday, January 18, 2021 marked what would have been my son’s 28th birthday. Numerous times he declared that he wouldn’t see 30, and he fulfilled his statement.
Last year, the first year without him, my daughter, his Godmother and I commemorated the day with a chocolate birthday cake. We lit 28 (one for good luck!) candles, topped off with a solemn rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
Initially, this year, I planned to spend the day with my daughter, who lives in the next state, especially since we both had the day off. As it turned out, she is a teacher and had to prepare for her next day’s class.
“Chop wood and carry water,” I told her after she conveyed the update. In other words, get what’s done in front of you.
There are many interpretations to the Zen saying. In those early days after losing my son, my friend Betsy, who also lost her young son a decade prior, gave me faith like no other when she offered the wisest advice. “Chores need to be done.”
Washing dishes. Scrubbing the sink. Vacuuming. During the earliest days of the horrific period, it wasn’t a monumental moment that kept me alive, it was those dull, little duties in life that made it possible for my unbearably battered heart to beat.
Taking it a step further, “Chop wood and carry water” also refers to mindfulness and living, breathing, moment-to-moment. “Pay attention,” my loyal friend Bob reminds me often. “Be present.”
Accepting the present moment as is, sans judgment or inner conflict, helps lighten the load of the griefcase I transport on a daily basis.
So, “chop wood and carry water” for me meant two days of baking turkey pot pies that started one day before my son would have been 28. I imagined him eager to tear into the flaky crust. Then I could picture him in agony, but at the same time satisfied with a “it’s-worth-it” twinkle in his eyes after he burned his mouth on the food as he always did whenever I served his freshly made meals, which was most of the time, at least before he went out on his own.
In my kitchen, as I created these little golden sensations, I threw a Pot Pie Pity Party. Me and the Pies. When I was first getting sober in the early 80s, I was wisely instructed to throw pity parties for myself–with a time limit! No more than one hour. And so, there I was, my eyes sobbing until I couldn’t visualize the pot pie assembly line in front of me. When the hour was up, it’s a lucky thing a pot pie is the ultimate comfort food. Soul food it was, slice after slice.
I should add that when I made those pies, through my tears, I was able to bear to open another can of my son’s corn.
I imagined him tossing the can into his shopping cart at Kroger in that stupid “Unbridled Spirit” State that I have come to love and hate. I know he would have not noticed the brand name, only the price. Corn, especially on the cob, was among his favorites. Happy Harvest. That was the brand name. It was sweet and crunchy and was a perfect ingredient for comfort food.
Charlie Ambler wrote a very interesting post, Chop Wood, Carry Water
He starts it by saying, “There’s an old Zen saying— “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.”
Then he says, “Zen requires us to make peace with ourselves, our time, and our place on Earth. We don’t do anything remarkable after we realize that the key to life is simply to live.”
Here is what he wrote that I find mind-boggling:
“There’s no reason to strive for any sort of higher living, or to do extraordinary things just to feel extraordinary— it’s all one and the same. Once we make the distinction between higher and lower, we create boundaries that cause us endless suffering. Instead, we can follow our own bodies and the intuitive gleanings of meditative practice to reach a place where cooking rice or cleaning the toilet are no different from conquering the world or becoming rich and famous.”
A level playing ground is a part of what Charlie is talking about here. My son would have done much better living on this kind of plain. I know I sure do. I decided not to post anything on Facebook on what would have been my son’s 28th birthday. I relished in slices of homemade pot pies with sweet corn. I washed dishes. Cleaned the stove. Washed office windows. In other words, I wrapped myself in my unremarkable little life, and it felt warm like a faith blanket lined with kernels of extraordinarily sweet corn.