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    • Dave Van Manen

    • January 22, 2014 in Columnists

    Chopping Wood

    “The ordinary arts we practice every day at home are of more importance to the soul than their simplicity might suggest.” ~ Thomas Moore

    There was a book I read thirty years ago that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. I don’t remember many details of the chapters themselves, but the essence of the book captured in its title, Chop Wood Carry Water,  has been coming up for me a lot lately.   Living in a house heated by wood (and the sun), I am very much in tune with chopping wood, and all the tasks associated with it.

    What is different these days, and why the book is on my mind, is due to a recent change in the way I spend my time. I used to be the Executive Director of a not-for-profit I started fifteen years ago. It seems as if, during all of those fifteen years, my life was so completely consumed with building this organization.  I was totally willing to do it and I have no regrets, as the organization did – and still does – vitally important work.

    chopping wood blogI am still a working man, but, happily, my days – my life – are no longer so completely filled up with the countless details of being the E.D. of a vibrant nonprofit. One thing I’ve been noticing since stepping into this new life is that, instead of a mad dash at the end of a long work day to bring in a couple of armloads of firewood, quickly splitting a couple of handfuls of kindling, taking out the ashes, getting a fire going and then starting on dinner, I now have the time and space to do these daily tasks in a less hurried manner.

    Such chores might be considered nothing more than routine, menial things that have to be done. When I was rushing to do them, they often did seem so. Since I have more time for them, I find I am enjoying them so much more. I now often take my time at the woodshed, frequently pausing to just look around, noticing the way the light hits the trees, or seeing how much snow is still visible on the forested ridge on the National Forest west of my place.

    This is why Chop Wood Carry Water comes to mind. In this ever-so-frenetic modern world we live in, it’s so easy to fall into the mindset that the basic needs of our daily lives – preparing food, caring for our homes, caring for ourselves – are to be done as quickly and mindlessly as possible, so we can spend more time on what we apparently believe is more important – going here, there and everywhere, earning money, buying stuff, getting entertained, phoning and texting and Facebooking and tweeting and Skyping and on and on and on.  The seduction of all of that busyness, of all of that technology, of a pace that, in spite of all my efforts to slow down, just kept sucking me in.

    It feels like it took some equal shares of courage and faith, plus having said to myself around a million times that I just wasn’t happy living my life at that pace, to finally have made the changes that bring me to this place. The mundane have now become tasks that I not only have to do, but I want to do, and look forward to doing. I am recalling that the primary message of that book I read all those years ago was that we can experience deep satisfaction and rich meaning in performing the simplest of tasks – like chopping wood and carrying water – if we do them deliberately, mindfully. I am glad I read that book all those years ago, because I think it was right.

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