Carry Wood

My 3 cords of firewood were delivered and I set about stacking it to dry. I worked a little each day, in chunks. Partly because it was a good mental exercise break, but also because the heat was pretty serious at times.

There’s been volumes written about the merits of manual labor – in case you haven’t read any of it, the TLDR is that it’s good for you.

I most often stack my wood in silence, choosing to enjoy and absorb the sounds around me and the voices in my head. On one particular occasion, I decided to listen to some music via my Air Pods. It was different.

I was stacking my wood like usual, thinking about all the other things I had to do, what was currently wrong and all the other things that had to be sorted as my playlist churned out in the Air Pods. Gary Clark Jr’s live version of ‘When My Train Pulls In’ came on. I thought how amazing it was that I was walking back and forth in the middle of my yard, in the woods – in the middle of nowhere essentially – on a nice overcast day with a slight breeze keeping the bugs down and at the same time I was being steamrolled by the music this man was making – or channelling – in another time and another place.

As the solo in the song peaked, I realized that none of that stuff I was thinking about prior really mattered. That, indeed, there was no place I could be other than where I was right at that moment, doing what I was doing, because everything had led to that moment – there was no way things could be otherwise. There was no way I could be anywhere else, doing anything else, there, or in the Universe at large. Nothing could have changed the things that were wrong, or sorted what needed sorting, or finished what needed doing. I was supposed to be right where I was. So everything was alright – and couldn’t get alrighter.

That was my satori moment with Zen master Gary Clark Jr.

Zen and the Art of The Snow Shovel

Round 2 of 3 rounds of shovelling in one day during a recent snowstorm.

In the section of Atlantic Canada I’m parked in we average around 100 in/250cm of snowfall per year. It’s not uncommon to get 2-3 feet in a single storm, several times a winter.

A few weeks ago, we got a big dump of snow. Around 2 feet if I recall correctly. I went out to snowblow my driveway the next morning before heading to work and the snowblower wasn’t having it. It would blow snow, but the drive mechanism wouldn’t engage so it wouldn’t go anywhere. The machine weighs more than I do, so simply pushing it was not an option.

Was a time when I would have beaten the thing with a shovel and swore up and down at it – as if this action would have compelled the inanimate object to somehow change its mind and work. Instead I realized I had two options.

I could haul it back in the garage and take it apart and see what the issue was and if I could fix it. Bear in mind it was around -19ºC at this point – even in my unheated garage – and dicking around with some small mechanical parts in those temps didn’t seem too appealing.

Or I could shovel.

Either way I was going to be late for work, but just accepting that fact was half the battle. I decided on option 2.

I begrudgingly began to shovel, but as I did so I started to become more aware of things in that moment. It was a bright, sunny day – as weirdly enough, it often is after large snowstorms – it was quite still and quiet, and generally just pleasant to be outside (assuming one is properly dressed for the cold).

Once I’d accepted that I was going to be late for work anyway – and the fact that there was nothing really I could do about it – settling into work at a reasonable vs. rushed pace was actually quite satisfying. I felt good using my body to do work. It was much more meditative without the constant racket of the snowblower engine and the crisp air was untainted by exhaust.

Shovelling snow is one of those tasks where you can actually see your progress in real-time. You can observe that you’re actually getting something done and absorb the satisfaction that provides.

Sometimes, I wander the house, circling, not sure where to go or what to do. My wife will often ask me what’s up – I usually reply that I feel I have so many things I need to do, I don’t know which one to do first.

I was listening to a podcast the other day (I forget which one) and one of the people mentioned a story about Albert Einstein. Apparently, Einstein had a closet full of very similar, or indeed, the same clothes, and would often dress exactly the same every day. When someone once asked him why, he is said to have replied “to avoid Option Paralysis.” I get that. I have had that. I’ve been paralyzed by all the options. And consequently rendered non-productive at various times as a result. I don’t know if Option Paralysis is a real thing or not, but it’s real to me, and when it hits, and I can’t move forward, it really does a number on my frame of mind.

What I’ve started doing though is just pick one thing and do it. Do it completely. Do it with all my focus and finish it. Then move on to another thing. It often turns out to not really even matter which thing gets done first, because invariably what happens is when you can get one thing done – and feel good doing it – then that mojo translates into the next thing, and the next thing, and – you get the point.

In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki wrote:

“In order not to leave any traces, when you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely. If you do not burn yourself completely, a trace of yourself will be left in what you do. You will have something remaining which is not completely burned out. Zen activity is activity which is completely burned out, with nothing remaining but ashes. This is the goal of our practice. That is what Dogen meant when he said, “Ashes do not come back to firewood.” Ash is ash. Ash should be completely ash. The firewood should be firewood. When this kind of activity takes place, one activity covers everything.” 

That day, shovelling snow became such a thing. And the next storm, when I went out to shovel three different times while it was still going (it’s easier to shovel a small amount of snow three times, vs. a large amount once). I dedicated myself to the one task, only that task. I wasn’t trying to do several other things at once – or worrying about what I was going to do when I was done. That would be then. This is now. “Burn yourself completely.” This doesn’t mean exhaust yourself into fatigue – I take it to mean put all your attention in that moment into what you are doing, whatever it is.

“But you’re shovelling freaking snow,” you say. “How satisfying or interesting can that be?” Well, quite, actually. David Cain over at raptitude.com mentioned this awhile back in his post “How to Enjoy Life” wherein he talked about finding happiness even in things society tells us we probably shouldn’t enjoy (or just flat out don’t):

“To the mind that’s looking for it, there is pleasure to be taken in the warmth of dishwater, the fresh air on a walk to the store, and the relaxing sensation of sitting in a chair, even if that chair is in the waiting room at the oil change place. We don’t do these things—or most things—for reasons of pleasure, but pleasure is available in most things.”

The real transformative effect isn’t in the subtle pleasures you can find when you look (although they’re pretty great). It’s in the completely different way we’re aiming our minds in ordinary moments. We’re looking into our experience, not outwards from it, for interest and pleasure.”

It’s easy to give lip-service to this idea in the form of, “yeah well anything can be at least moderately enjoyable with the right perspective,” but how often do we actually employ those changes of perspective?

I still haven’t fixed my snowblower. At some point I will, but I think moving forward I will be more selective about using it (and saving gas money and getting more exercise in the meantime.)

“Burn yourself completely.”

The Empty Suitcases of the Past

The other day, my internet Pen Pal Steve shared a post with me from Derek Sivers about keeping a daily journal – something I have scattered experience with.

Here’s a portion of my response to Steve’s initial email:

I have, for many years, kept a conventional paper/pen journal. I have lapses where I haven’t entered anything for months, and other periods that are relatively prolific. My current stint is pretty much daily for a few months now. They are usually pretty boring, but I do go back and read old ones once in-awhile. They are scattered in 10-12 different journals as well as I would fill one and start or get a new one and start in that one. Some of them start in one year and then end maybe 5 years later with spans of the time in between either missing or in other journals. 

Thinking about these journals got me started thinking about my past in general. As I said above I don’t read these old entries too much and when I do I’m often struck by a sense of reading something by another person. They are often times embarrassing – “geez, what an idiot I was then” or “I was so freaking out about what eventually turned out to be nothing” – as well as all kinds of other cringe-worthy moments that can only occur when we read things written by a past self. It’s very hard to view them with anything other than a “hindsight is 20/20”-type of mentality. I realize I was – and possibly still am – far more likely to write about bad things, or when things weren’t going right – I made a mistake, was worried about something (invariably that was out of my control anyway), etc. Of course they are often packed full of complaints and general discontent. Very rarely did I crack a book and jot down, “Damn, everything is unicorns and rainbows today!” As such the journals often seem characterized by a general malaise. Perhaps something I should work on – or not. There’s no rules to these things – unless you want there to be. Mr. Sivers certainly applies more structure to his process than I ever have – or intend to.

We Carry Our Pasts Like Baggage

But those bags are empty – there’s nothing in them. I can’t go back and find any of those moments from the past anywhere. They’re gone. The I that was me then is gone too. As are the people I interacted with. They’re no longer the same people – even if I still see them everyday.

“We can only truly live in the present moment… so we should be sincere, in our conduct at the present moment.”

Gudo Wufu Nishijima

Obviously events of the past have led to where I am today and some of the effects of my actions – and the actions of others – may still be felt, but most likely they’ve dissipated, changed, or I don’t even remember correctly how or what happened. Statistically speaking, our memories are biased, flawed – in many cases flat out terrible – and in addition entirely unique to us as individuals. Everyone else remembers the same thing entirely differently from me.

I am not a product of my past and the person that I was during all that time no longer exists. That time, those moments, no longer exist – they are gone, no matter how real they seem to me in my mind or how often I choose to dredge them up and revisit them.

I am a product of my thoughts and actions in this moment – and only this moment. And then the moment ends and I am a product of the next one. This is a liberating realization. The only thing that is real and that I have even a modicum of control over is my conduct in this moment – therefore that is all I need to focus on.

Taking a Stand by Sitting

“Sit down, shut up, and watch yourself for awhile, every single day until you figure out what the hell is going on – well, you’ll never figure out what the hell is going on by the way – just a hint to the wise, but that’s a better strategy than hitting someone up with my opinion on it, and taking a stand. My taking a stand is taking a sit – and you can join me by sitting here like this for awhile.”

Brad Warner

Canada

CANADA

So after Monday’s commute home on the fat bike via heavily melted, mashed potato trails was a total gongshow sufferfest (I’m not too proud to admit some walking was involved), for today’s commute I opted for the road and the Disc Trucker.

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This one is an interesting story. I was trying hard to sell this bike at one point.  I wasn’t feeling it at all. I’d tried a few setups. Riser and flat bars. Different saddles and racks. It had some noisy Surly Mr. Whirly cranks that wouldn’t stay tight. Rattly fenders that bothered me. I hate fender rattle. I was done with it.

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But no one wanted to buy it. So I was stuck with it.

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I started to rethink it. @mikkelsoya was doing some cool shit with his Disc Trucker. This inspired me. When I’d bought it I had a specific setup in mind but abandoned it. In hindsight, I was trying to make it something it wasn’t. Dirt Road Bomber. Roadie/Townie. Moderate Bikepacker. Truth be told, and @surlybikes will tell you as well, that it *can* do all of these things in moderation. Finally though, I let go and let the bike be what it wanted to be – a ‘tourer’ and that’s when everything snapped into place.

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I got out of it’s way. I put on the @jonesbikes bars I’d wanted to from the beginning. I got new cranks.  I silenced the fenders. Now the thing is fantastic.

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It’s a joy to ride. Smooth. With the upright position, you see so much more traveling by bicycle. Things I saw today aside from great scenery: birds, squirrels, deer. Lost mittens. Some nice graffiti and a ginormous Canada sign. Also saw someone with their Christmas tree still up, and lit, in their house. It takes all kinds. I guess.

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Commuting for me is very meditative, very Zen. I’m a far better human days I ride my bike to/from work, physically and mentally. Appropriate then, that I had to get zen and let this bike ‘be’ to figure out it was awesome. I’ll still never be able to abide aesthetically the massive head tube on it (#circusbike), but its place in the stable is now secure.