On the Way to Grace . . . Chopping Wood and Carrying Water

by Diana Rankin

red tail hawk
Image via Wikipedia

I guess I should have known the day wasn’t going to go as I planned when the first thing I saw when I stepped out onto the deck Sunday morning was a red tail hawk taking flight from my backyard garden.  Often I see hawks fly over my home, even occasionally see them land in the meadow out beyond the backyard or in the fields when swooping down to pick up prey, but this was the first time I had seen one take off from the garden. He gave me a quick flash of his pale belly with its band of darker feathers, the color of the top of his wings, before he fully spread his broad wings out wide as he rose above the ground and was off among the tree tops and out of my sight. I thanked him for his visit, and then got about my day, well-planned as it was with a full to-do list of outside chores.

Now you would certainly think I would know by now that the best laid plans of humankind usually go astray. The first glitch came when the riding mower refused to start—this after it started up just fine—twice. But it refused to start the third time, and this after I had hooked up the garden trailer and driven all 900 feet to the end of the lane and filled up the trailer with newly-timed tree branches. So here I am at the end of the lane, with my plans to deliver this load of newly-cut branches to the brush pile at the other end of the lane.  On the way, I thought I’d pick up a couple small trees that had come down in the last storm, throw them on top of the tree branches and be off to the brush pile. But here I was, stuck with a mower that refused to cooperative with my well-planned day.

I turned the key again in hopes of the mower starting. Nothing. The engine wasn’t even turning over. Not one single gruuuu or spit or sputter. Red Tail flew overhead going from a tree in the north woods to the utility pole almost directly above my head.  Hawk sat on his perch eyeing me below the way he watches for small mice and moles among the rows of soybeans. I pushed in the clutch, put the gear shift in neutral, and turned the key to start once more. Nothing.

Sheeeee, went the hawk. I turned the key again. Still nothing. A breeze kicked up and ruffled the velvet tops of the soybeans sending green waves across the fields. Once more I turned the key to try to start the mower. Not sure why I kept turning the key. You would think I’d get it that the engine wasn’t turning over, but isn’t that the way it is with our thoughts and deeds? We keep thinking the same old thought and doing the same old thing and expecting a different outcome. So there I was doing the same old thing and expecting the mower to suddenly change its mind and start. It was having none of it.

I pushed the lever to engage the blades, and then disengaged them. Sometimes the blades stick in place, which keeps the engine from starting. Still nothing, but at least I had a different thought and tried something different. But still it didn’t seem to do any good. Hawk looked down at me. The sun was growing as hot as my temper. A familiar panic was beginning to grow in my gut as I started fretting about what to do. The starter probably went out again. How am I going to get the mower to the repair shop without a trailer hitch? Who could I call to come here to fix it? The mower’s old. Should I buy a new one? I need a new roof. Not a time to buy a new mower. And on and on and on.

Red Tail screeched as he took off, circled a few times over the field, and then landed on a utility wire at the other end of the south field. I started walking down the lane, on my way picking up one of the fallen trees and dragging it to the brush pile. I did that a couple more times, walking down the lane to drag back a fallen tree or push the trailer full of cut-limbs back to the tree line. Between trips up and down the lane, I trimmed the trees at the tree line, even bringing out the ladder to reach those over my head. 

It would be nice to tell you that friends unexpectedly showed up and fixed the mower, but that didn’t happen. I could have called a friend for help, but that didn’t happen either. I just spent the next several hours trimming trees and walking up and down the lane, and as I did I let go of control, and somewhere among all this chopping wood and carrying water, all those jumbled thoughts, plans for the day, and questions of what should I do now, all left my mind, replaced by the quiet of the day and the knowing that life was unfolding as it should, so I might as well just enjoy it.

About the time I was spending as much time drinking water as I was trimming trees, I figured it was time to quit and turn to less strenuous work. Mowing would have been perfect, but it wasn’t to be, and I was okay with that. Still, I did not relish pushing the mowed all 900 feet back down the lane. As I started walking toward it, I asked the mower to work, saw it running, saw me riding it with the blades cutting off the top layer of grass for a smooth finish of green along the lane. Thanked it for serving me so well and faithfully. And then I let go, knowing I would have the strength to push the mower back to the garage. So I kept walking, enjoying the day, the breeze that cooled me, the quiet of the countryside, and the way my life was unfolding this day.

Joseph Campbell said, “We must be willing to give up the life we have had planned in order to have the life that is waiting for us.” I suppose that is true whether that life be a well-planned life or a well-planned day. When we are able to let go of our small power and let life move through us, we are able to live in a much greater way.

On the way down the lane toward the mower, I stopped to pick up a feather—a red tail hawk feather. “Thanks, buddy,” I said, knowing that at some level he heard me. And so did the mower. As soon as I sat on the mower and turned the key, it purred into action.


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