I gave life hardly a thought when I was eight. Get up when Mom wakes me, be on time for breakfast, and be good at school. Play. Use good manners at supper time. Play. Read. Don’t argue about going to bed. Do it again tomorrow, and play hard Saturday. All day.
Long-awaited adulthood rounded the bend, and like a splashing puddle in the sun, eight evaporated.
Not all at once, but it did. Today I miss it. Carefree deferred to responsibility a week, a year, a decade at a time. I’m still optimistic –I probably always will be– but I’m tired.
In sixth grade Mr. Herbst told us a frog in a pot of water on the stove won’t jump out if you heat the water slowly enough. We all wanted to know how you get one to sit still that long, but he said that wasn’t the point. An amphibian will sit there and let you boil him to death. Well, it’s taken quite a while but the water in my pot is approaching 212°. This isn’t the first time; the dilemma is cyclical. Life amps up half a degree at a time until I’m about to boil from within. I nearly die. Then comes a reprieve, a new phase with some relief, and we start anew.
In college the would-be stew included arranging, practicing, and the rigors of recital prep (I was a music major), a part time job, an internship, wedding plans – oh, and class. At 30 it was 9 – 5 in the office, 5 – 9 as husband and dad, plus graduate school. At 45, parenting teens. Need I say more? Today I’m building my own business, husband, dad to grown kids who’ve decided I do know a few things after all and want to know. Grandpa, the toy. 23 books waiting to be read. My bike on the garage wall whispering now and then, “Remember me?”
You know, Mr. Herbst, it makes me sweat. Frogs don’t sweat, but I do. And I’m glad for that. He’ll just sit there and take it. Let it happen. Not me.
I feel tension’s heat. I interview myself in quiet moments and at long stoplights:
Is this of my own doing, or from without? Is this an unexpected ramification of some commitment I made? Is this temporary? How short-lived might this be? How prolonged? Do I ride it out? Would self -intervention be worth the effort or only heap on more pressure? What would happen if I said “No, thank you” or “No more”? I need to distill this down; put boiling to good use. I silently grouse. Talk myself out of another bad mood. Change a couple of things in my routine, hoping for relief. I consider all kinds of no-guarantee options in my silent fight to preserve my sanity.
Mine is a genuine quest for excellence, the disciplined pursuit of less1, but here I am again. How do these things keep piling on? I just wanna go play. I want to call over my shoulder as I hit the screen door on the way out, “I’m going for a bike ride, be back for supper.” Only now I know better than to let that screen door slam. I’ve had to fix a few.
Out of nowhere I remember coming upon my old neighbor, Curly Burgess one afternoon, vigorously slashing with a garden hoe at the woodbine vine smothering his back fence, pieces of foliage flying through the summer air.
“That’s ambitious!” I commented.
He smiled and leaned on his hoe to catch his breath. “Now and then you just gotta’ remind it who’s boss. Otherwise it takes over.”
I wonder if taking a garden hoe to my everyday is overdue. I no sooner start down that path but opposing thoughts interrupt. “Oh, no, be selective. You know, like a vintner wanting the largest and sweetest fruit from life’s vine. Remove what you don’t want, but carefully. Be precise.”
“But I’m about to lose it! This is going to ruin me if I don’t act, like – yesterday,” I counter.
“Then act. But be wise about it. Prune if you must, and you probably should, but prioritize first.”
“Easy for you to say. This is nearly all good stuff. Duty calls. People expect …”
“Are you going to let others decide for you?” self interrupts, “I thought you liked to be in charge.”
The internal quarrel silently continues, the heat building half a degree at a time.
Then, as it did in college, at 30, 45, and times between, self makes self stop. Breathe. It’s in that forced pause that I realize: It’s when I try to live too much of life at a time that I get myself in hot water. I’ve done it again.
“Each day has enough trouble of its own,” a wise man said2. He had a sundial. Me? I have a watch with a second-hand, a clock on my phone, my computer, my nightstand, my kitchen wall, the cable box, the dash of my car, my desk. I need to live today today – but only today. Live this hour. This one. Right here. Not the whole day at once.
The flame shrinks and dies out for a while and life cools. I make it cool; I can’t handle 212°. I only like sweating after bike rides, workouts, and mowing the lawn. I can’t hear the phone when I’m mowing and I like that I can’t. Mowing is great think time for me. “That’s it! I’ve got it!” Leaving my mower mid-round, I slip into the garage, find a cheap pen on my workbench and write on the back of a scrap of worn-out sandpaper:
God, grant me
that comes from living unhurried
to superintend life’s varied demands
“There. My version. My relief and my release. I may even frame this version and hang it next to the famous one,” I smile to myself Folding it, I shove it deep in my back jeans pocket and head back outside. “Twenty more minutes and this lawn will be flawless. For a day. Maybe two”.
1 Greg McKeown – Essentialism, the Disciplined Pursuit of Less
2 Jesus – Matthew 6.34
©2016 by Philip Ransom philipransom.com
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