Between the ages of six and ten, what I consider the halcyon days of my youth, I lived on a military base in the Panama Canal zone. Save for when I was in school, I spent the majority of my time dressed inappropriately for entering any business establishment, donning only a pair of shorts in a climate that had only two seasons: rainy and dry.
The base was located on an isthmus, which offered a choice of two beaches on which I would play inexhaustibly that were only a handful of blocks in either direction of our quarters. They afforded me a bevy of entertaining choices: hermit crabs to catch, low tide that stretched a quarter-mile out to expose knee-deep mud sand, the washed up carcasses of manta rays and horseshoe crabs, a large moss covered trunk of driftwood the size of three Escalades upon which we would play that we creatively dubbed “The Big Log”, large fist sized chunks of pumice that would float ashore and smelled like a fishmonger when you scrubbed it on cement.
Regardless of how romantically I reflect on those childhood years, they were still ladened with tedious chores assigned to me. One of the most loathsome of all the chores I was given was mango pickup duty. Sure, having a mango tree that spread its limbs the breadth of the entire yard in which it stood dead center may sound like a treat, offering fresh mangos with skin that tore gently away from the fibrous golden yellow meat, sweet juice that ran down your forearm, bursting with the smell of the tropics. Nonetheless, for every delectable fruit one could eat, there was a dozen of its cousins strewn about the yard, casualties of overripeness, impending rot and fermentation, a veritable beacon for creepies and crawlies and buzzies.
Imagine the privilege of scooping up handfuls of rotting mangos, that once sweet fragrance having transformed into rancid syrupy stench, with leaves as stiff as cardboard in accompaniment, all the aforementioned detritus constantly battling and defying the tines of the rake. This is the chore that made a half hour of work feel like it dragged on more painfully than the first Star Trek: The Motion Picture with the extra twelve minutes of film. On one attempt to shirk this drudgery of a chore I was presented with a choice: either finish the cleanup before my parents got back home, or be grounded for two weeks. Employing the wisdom of a seven year-old I chose the latter.
Nothing will remind you that you are a kid blessed with living in a tropical paradise more than being confined indoors. If I thought raking rotting mangos felt like an eternity, being grounded made the chore feel like shore leave.
Forty years later, in the thick midsection of adulthood, I still sometimes have to catch myself when menial tasks of daily living feel so Sisyphean, when I climb into my mental time machine and go back and whisper in the eight year-old’s ear, raking mangos once a month ain’t nothin’.
I honestly believe we lose sight of the meaning of housework and weed pulling and bill paying and gutter cleaning whenever we declare that these are things that have to get done. The implication here is that these tasks and chores and responsibilities are meted out by the gods of grownupness, that we are condemned to forever have to pick up our socks and put away our toys. We so often forget that these tasks are not sentences, they are actually steps in a process. During those moments when we can stand back and appreciate the sweet charming home we live in, or look at our children with glowing parental pride, or appreciate the peace that surrounds us, these are comprised of a multitude of tasks that were applied layer by layer to build upon the moment that we stand in that is making us smile.
If we were able to fully indulge in a life of nothing but leisure, it would be a life that was not created. The body is toned because the workout was strenuous. The tomato is sweetest because the soil was turned. The beauty displayed on the canvas of life was comprised by many stiff and tedious strokes as well as the ones that glided smoothly and softly. When we see these tasks in that light they become so much less grueling. This Zen saying encompasses it all quite well: Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.