Weeding and thinking

The crabgrass is an invader. Not only has it staked its claim on various islands of the lawn, it has mingled with the flowers in the front yard too. What we call “weeds” is socially constructed, you know. Crabgrass is simply one kind of grass, equal to others, but we don’t like it, we can’t control it, so we think of it as a weed: undesirable and to be eradicated.

I’ll live with it on the lawn — and it only grows out front, where there’s sun — but I dislike crabgrass among the flowers I planted intentionally.

Weeding is good to do early in the day. It focuses the mind and then clears it. Was I procrastinating the semester prep I need to do when I put on my work shoes and gathered the bucket and tools? Yes. If one is putting off something else, though, it is good to at least accomplish another task. Recently I read that the highest-achieving people always do their most difficult work first. Ah, not me. I like a little puttering first, sort of like walking around the block before a run. The warm up, the loosening.

It is satisfying to grab the head of a clump of weeks, pry the dirt a bit from below, and then pull, feeling the roots of the weed pull back and my own gentle force eventually overcome their tenaciousness. Is this similar to the satisfaction dentists, doctors, and even aestheticians feel in their work with the human body? The organism resists; the professional — wilier, and with tools — overcomes. This may also lead to the despair that is sometimes felt in working with the human body, with nature in general: ultimately, its own force or fragility asserts itself and the counter force we apply fails. The river overflows the bank; the freckles proliferate; illness has its way; children grow and become themselves; we age.

Working with one’s hands — and typing does not feel like work with one’s hands, although hand writing does — focuses the mind on the task. There are a set of small decisions to make as well as continual adjustments. To any passerby, I probably look quite still as I weed, just my hands and fingers busy, but I inch my way down the front walk and my mind, meanwhile, buzzes with thought: about the flowers and which ones to plant again next year, about the fall tasks around the corner, about water and my access to an abundant amount of it, and about the burden and pleasure in owning a piece of the earth.

Eli once said it’s so weird that people can own property, a piece of the planet, and when you stop to think about it, he’s right. Surely, we have to live somewhere, but strange that only Jimmy and I have a claim on these particular 7,000 square feet of dirt in Brookline, Massachusetts. And how far down do our rights go? A foot? Down to the sewer and gas pipes? All the way to the center of the earth? I picture a cutaway view of my house on the earth’s crust and the massive sliver of geological layers on which we rest. And if I do own the sliver all the way to the planet’s core, do I also have responsibility for it?

The parts of life that touch me have this awesome responsibility: if I know about it, or am associated with it, I am implicated in its maintenance or outcome. To not take responsibility (and I don’t, always) is to make an active decision to *not* concern myself, to shut off that part of my brain or body that could act. I won’t help (though I could); I won’t care (though I do); I will leave this to someone else.

I’m not borrowing the rhetoric of the self-help movement to assert my need for “me time” (I hate that expression). Occasionally I have this dialog with myself because I am lazy or tired or even because I lose faith in myself.

Funny, I tackled the weeding because I didn’t feel like doing the writing I needed to do, but what I ended up thinking a lot about was writing and even despairing over it. In June, the summer spreads itself out in the teacher’s imagination like a beautiful picnic blanket spread on the grass or the shore and laden with a few simple things. There is plenty of space to stretch out. The smooth expanse, with its few pleasures, is soon trampled on, the corners kicked up, overcrowded with others who spied the attractive space and intruded on it, pie crumbs and chicken bones everywhere.

I did do some writing this summer, crammed in among lots of other activities, most of which I enjoyed, even the paid work ones. Yet, there were scant long stretches, no great open space without interruptions.

I console myself: that may be for another time in my life. I am not using up right now my desire to write; it’s in me all the time, a slow fire. Right now is the time for tending others: students, children, property.

I dream of someday living in a ground-floor rental apartment with just a patio out back, with room only for container plants. No perennials, no lawn. Just a little water needed.

After weeding along the front walk and cutting back the clematis that grows over the arbor, I decided to mow the lawn. With fall upon us, the lawn could stand to be a bit shorter, and I tried to adjust the wheel height down. The levers are a bitch to contend with, and I struggled for a while before concluding that I don’t have the hand strength for them. Like any person desperate in the face of a obstinate machine, I got a hammer and blindly banged on the plates that hold each lever to each wheel.

I stopped and studied. It occurred to me that maybe I didn’t lack hand strength and maybe the design of the machine is not flawed; maybe the wheels needed lubrication or adjustment.

By this point I was fully in and determined to mow the lawn. With the hammer method, I had managed to lower the two small front wheels, but not the big back ones. I looked at them for a long time, compared the front to the back, and tried to observe how they work, not just to go about it blindly.

Figuring things out takes patience and persistence. This is the insight that came to me as I took the wheels off, oiled the moving parts, and bolted them on again. If you look at things and quickly determine what you don’t know and give up, you will never figure the problem out. If you sit there for a while, stare at the problem, look at the parts and their relation to each other, test a thing or two, you will at least partly figure it out.

In increments, over time, you could tackle bigger problems and learn something.

As a parent, I have done this, learned so many little things over time. I have gained expertise at something I will not have a chance to do again. When I think of my own old age, what saddens me greatly is the fact that all my knowledge will have no use, no application. It will be someone else’s turn to raise children, to teach students, to care for the plants in this yard, and I will be at a remove, observing or simply looking back at my own life, thinking but not necessarily acting or participating.

Oh, that doesn’t mean I plan to sit around someday, but will the things I plan to do — more writing, senior skating, container gardening, geographical exploring — matter to anyone but me?

The conflict: today, there is not enough time for solitary pleasures and, in the anticipated future, there will not be enough involvement in work that has an effect.

Is it possible, at any stage of life, for inner desires and outer activity to harmonically resolve?

Some photographs are by Grace Guterman.

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