Thursday, June 19, 2014

Chop Wood, Carry Water

There is a saying in Zen: Before Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

After Mike died I couldn't function coherently at all for about a week. I couldn't focus on the basic necessities of cooking, cleaning, errands...even driving. I really could not drive for at least a week. Thank goodness my family and friends were around to help. They literally had to do it all those first days. It's why I understand now the Hawaiian tradition of immediately showing up at someone's house after a death, bringing food, and staying around to help out with whatever was needed. Back on the East coast where I grew up people may be more likely to think they should leave you alone to grieve - I don't know, maybe some people might prefer that. But I don't think I would have made it that way. I am so grateful my house was full that first week.

I see people writing and talking a lot about "widow's brain" - that state of mind where you forget, you're confused, discombobulated...your mind, your spirit even maybe, is elsewhere. You forget why you went in that store in the first place. You forget who you just called on the phone, and why. You forget appointments, you forget to call people back at all...I've heard of people realizing they aren't even wearing matching shoes or socks.

I used to be a very organized, reliable person - but this happened to me for sure after Mike died, and in fact I still have that experience some days. I am still, 16 months later, finding I have to write down every single thing - every appointment, every needed grocery item, every message...or I will forget. Even so, I sometimes still forget; I forget to even check my schedule, or I leave my list at home. But at least the philosophy of chop wood, carry water has returned to my consciousness.

This phrase was, in fact, one of the first things I was reminded of that Mike used to say all the time, after he died. Anyone who knew Mike knows this saying, and what it means. Right. Just git'erdone. Get up. Make coffee. Wash dishes. Get the mail. Pay the bills. Run the errands. Feed the dogs. Feed myself.

For awhile then, this was in fact how I survived, after those first horrific days. And it wasn't easy. But I forced myself to move forward. To get in the car and drive downtown, even if I forgot why I was going there for a few minutes along the way. To go into the store even if I started crying in the aisles. To sit down and balance my checkbook; to return those phone calls waiting on my message pad.

To begin to think about what life was going to be like without Mike.To figure out how I was going to survive this, because so many days I thought I might not be able to.

Another saying I think about often goes something like, when we make plans, God laughs. Whether we believe in God or not, somehow this makes sense. Life leads us on its often unexpected journey. We widowed folk surely understand that. But as scary and unpredictable as it may be, I'm going to continue working on recreating my future. I'm going to continue this new task of personal transformation. I'm going to continue to move forward with my life. I may never "move on" from Mike in my heart, but I guess I'm going to keep walking. I might fall down, but I'm going to get back up. That's something I couldn't have said a year ago.

Now, though, I'm going to allow life to happen, and realize I can't control everything. All I can do is try to dot my i's and cross my t's, so that bigger - and hopefully more positive - changes will have appropriate space to happen. To chop the wood for the daily fire, and collect the water for the daily wash.

To keep my space tidy and warm, so the next chapter of my life can feel comfortable, and welcome.


  1. I recall that week 15 months ago, of lapses, pushing through the motions of everyday basic needs. But not driving for I realized sometimes I simply wasn't "there". Honestly, my brain still hasn't returned to it's pre- state, not sure it ever will. Folks around me haven't realized that. Now I've tried to establish some small routine things I do for myself - simple like applying face lotion at night, etc. To have a routine and to remember myself after caring for the kids and dealing with whatever house catastrophe has poked up. Peter always made sure I didn't forget myself in the midst of it all. Now, it too is my job.

    1. Thank you for sharing this. I guess we all share that experience of life interrupted, and the idea of pushing through is something we all face. Blessings to you.

  2. That's right Stephanie, just put one foot in front of the other and do whatever He puts in front of you today. That's all we can do. That's what surrender looks like in my life today. The phrase "Chop wood and carry water" is used commonly in some of the circles that I hang out in, only we use it in reference to doing so for the higher good, for the good of the group, or the good of others in general.

    I love how you said "when we make plans, God laughs". R and I were talking about something similar last night. We were talking about the story behind the story, and how we can't always see His purpose in things when they happen. It was impossible to see that the events that took place years, and even decades ago were leading up to us having the life that we have today. The requisites for the gifts of today, were to quit asking "Why", and to simply surrender.

    As always, I love your post. Thanks for doing what you do!

    1. Hi Glenn - yes as you wrote recently, and interestingly as the above commenter said, "pushing through" is sometimes the best we can do. And thank you again for reading and supporting. I'm glad we share the experience of wonderment in the journey of our lives. Blessings to you and R.