We tell stories in order to live. Joan Didion
I used to hate yard work almost as much as I loathe grading papers. When my dad would ask me to mow the lawn I would sink into a surly funk. Even the sight of a shovel or hedge trimmers or a chain saw would trigger a rush of rage and aversion that sometimes resulted in my breaking something.
This all started when my father told me I was the man of the house. He was going to Korea. I was four years old. I did not know how to fix things or how to do yard work, but somehow I felt I was supposed to do that. It went pretty bad when I tried to fix a faucet or take out a branch with a pruning saw.
After too many failed attempts to fix things, I took the dark path. You could say I worshiped at the altar of fear, took communion with the wine of anger, and flipped a flying bird at tasks I could not complete.
You could also call it a stage -- a bratty, piss-ant, hard-to-love stage that lasted about 45 years or so.
Last Sunday, after a brisk (read hard and good and full of camraderie) fifty mile bike ride, I decided to dig out a china berry tree stump. While not as thirsty, invasive, or as monstrous as a tamarisk, the china berry is aggressive, opportunistic, and robs the soil of water. There are many species that have spread through the Southwest like a plague; they have pushed out native, sustainable species and threatened whole ecosystems. My china berry is one of them. If I followed my default story about yard work, I would just leave it, let it take over, turn my yard into a gloomy, dust-bowl of a wasteland.
Can't let the tree have that.
As I grabbed a shovel, the dragon reared its head. Mythological dragons, as you know, are not really so much real monsters as they are the twisting demons of the mind. They are the living stories that poison happiness and connection and ecstatic delight of all things, including digging out stumps.
They go something like this: "Hissss. Thissss ssssucks. Thissss is a pain in the asssss. Wee don't like thissss."
One of the perks of aging is that I have learned to change the channel, to pick my poisons, to tune into a different story.
So I wrap a bandana around my head to keep the sun off my neck, grab my shovel, my loppers, my pick, my axe, my fuzzy security talisman, and head out to do battle with the dragon.
The ground is hard, but those of you have read previous blogs know how to handle that. I break up the crust before encountering the first roots. They are as thick as my wrist and bleed when the shovel breaks the thin membrane covering the woody core.
"It's hhhot out here. We are sweating, tired, grumpy, angry, frustrated. Get mad. Swear at the unfairness of it all. This is just more of why you need to say no, say no to all of them. Tell them to ff -- off."
The dragon does not go quietly and has many heads. I reveal root after root. When they are clear, I take my loppers and sever them. One by one they go down. The stump begins to loosen, but there is a thick mother-of-all-roots, the taproot, that is beneath them all, that goes straight down into the core of darkness, of the Earth, of childhood shadows -- the places where stories are forged, where dragons are hatched.
The battle rages. Roots bleed and moan and spit, threaten, cajole, and flex. The stories vie for attention. A war is fought over the quality of this moment, the timbre and tone of this experience. A newer, but growing voice rises from the fray. "This is not so bad. Stay calm. You can handle this. Look at your progress already. this is a fine thing to do, a way to open your yard, to express your presence in this place.This thirsty stump has to go, or else it will come back, threaten to native mesquite, may kill the aloe."
I dig. Like William Carlos Williams in "The Use of Force" I pry open the very maw of the dragon to cut free the poisonous supply line to the hungry stump. I spread the loppers as wide as they will go, wrap the jaws around the root, and then squeeze the levers together. It takes some strength, but the root succumbs as the loppers bite through with a clean "snap."
I lift my prize from the pit, hold the trophy high, see Hydra, the Cyclops, Smaug, all rolled into one. My treasure is not just the yard, it is contentment. For once in my long life I am taking steps on the long haul toward happiness. It's not so bad after all.
I agree with Didion. We do need stories to live. But I would add that it is better to pick the stories we want to live by, that stories of fear, separation, and control are not the best ones. While I have not yet graduated beyond the need for any thoughts, I like the ones that boost a sense of peace, a willingness to be part, to play a role in rooting out the dragons, unless those dragons take the form of ungraded papers.
Time to again gird the loins, take up the shield, sharpen the sword, and put my pen in my pocket protector. There is another dragon on the loose.