February 15, 2012 § 23 Comments
The student asks the master: “What work will I do as I seek enlightenment?” The master replies “Chop wood, carry water.” “And what work will I do once I achieve enlightenment?” asks the student. “Chop wood, carry water,” replies the master.
The summer after my sophomore year in college, I received a marine biology internship at the University of North Carolina Marine Lab in Morehead City, North Carolina. I remember boarding the plane in Ithaca, desperate to leave it behind as quickly as I could. That April, I qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 5000 meter run and then the next month, I came in last place in the NCAA championships in Austin, Texas. Of course this was only a single race, and in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t a big deal, but at the time, it felt like Disaster. Until that point, I thought I could be a runner for the rest of my life, or at least until I turned 30. But stumbling off that burning hot Texas track in May, a wet sponge in my hand, I knew then that I wasn’t among the greats. Even now, it is still one of my biggest memories of failure.
My internship that summer offered me an escape. For two months, I would be working with a team of scientists along North Carolina’s barrier islands, researching endangered sea scallop populations. We would be sailing around the same islands that sank Blackbeard’s ship, which seemed fitting. The head of the lab was a grand professor who only visited once a month, and my boss was a cranky lab tech named Hal, who was afraid of the water. Most days, I hopped on the boat with a grad student named Hunter, who had just returned from studying penguins in Antarctica and another named Thea, from Greece, who was as beautiful as her name. We rode around in a motor boat the university purchased at auction, that used to belong to drug runners. Every couple of weeks Hunter would toss our research logs and sunscreen from the console and reach his big hand in there, feeling around for a secret panel. “Don’t you think they would have hidden a stash of something in here?” he would ask about the drug runners. “Wouldn’t it be great if we found something they left behind?”
Before I left Ithaca, I had started dating a sweet engineering student who was on the cross-country ski team, and who is now the godfather of my youngest son. He made me a mix tape before I left and all summer long he sent me 5-page letters and brown cardboard boxes full of banana muffins he baked from scratch. Instead of answering his letters, I spent many of those summer nights on the back of a motorcycle with a boy named Wilson, a grad student at the Duke Marine Lab. One rainy night, Wilson showed up at the door of the horrible house I shared with the other interns with a helmet in his hands. “This is for you,” he said in his southern accent and as we rode away, he yelled back to me that it was really easy to crash a bike in the rain. I thought he was the most dangerous boy I had ever met.
If I believed I had failed on that Texas track, then my summer in North Carolina was research into the other side of failure, into what happens when you no longer care about the consequences. I drank beer on the front lawn with my other underage roommates late at night, Jimmy Buffet blaring on someone’s boom box. Karen, one of the roommates, came out of the closet that summer, and every time I washed my dishes, she tried to give me a massage. I went running late in the evening and the marines from Camp Lejeune drove by in their pickup trucks and sometimes threw bottles at me, their Semper Fi bumper stickers bright in the glow of their tail lights. I hated those marines with their short hair cuts and their tattoos. By the time August rolled around I hated the fleas and the roaches too. I was sick of the heat and a bit tired of Wilson and his Yamaha. I wanted to go back to Ithaca and be myself again. I was homesick for my roommates on Catherine Street and for my old life. Before I boarded the airplane bound for Ithaca, I kissed Wilson goodbye, grateful that it would be the last time, confident that I would never see North Carolina again, that it was a random chapter, a couple of months of bad decisions, a fluke, just like that day on the track.
Late this October, I removed the mosquito netting from the sand box, thinking that even in DC, mosquitoes didn’t hang around this long, but I was wrong. Even though the sun had already set, I saw three mosquitoes land on Gus’ cheek by the glow of the citronella candles. As I was swatting away, Scott came home from work and ran out to meet us. “Well,” he said breathlessly as the boys drove their trucks in the sand, “I know where we are moving to next.”
I held my own breath for a second. “Where?” I asked, hoping he would tell me that we were heading back to California.
“You’re never going to believe this,” he said. “North Carolina. I got the CO job. I’ll be in charge of the construction project on Camp Lejeune.”
A week ago we all went to Florida for a 5-day vacation. We spent a day at a nature center in Polk county, a day in Legoland, and 3 days with my parents in their rented condo on the ocean. The Spanish moss hanging from the trees made me feel as though the entire state was haunted. It made me think of ghosts. Moving every two years is a bit like being a ghost. You stay on the outside for a long time, watching what goes on in this new place. You hover at the edge of playgrounds and school yards, standing alone while old friends gather in tiny, intimate circles. You circle neighborhoods, trying to remember which street you live on now, you take exit ramps often, because you have gone too far. Three times now, we have moved back to places I used to live as if I am haunted by my own Ghost of Lifetimes Past.
This spring or summer we will do that again. I will once again return to North Carolina, to the scene of that crazy summer, Blackbeard’s wreck, those hot, hot barrier islands. Sometimes I wonder if that summer really happened, and then I look down at my left thumb, where a scar remains from where a blue crab got me, and I am reminded that it was real.
This winter, I have been crossing paths with a red fox. The first time, I was taking a walk at night, and something raced by me so fast I thought it was a ghost. I didn’t see it as much as I felt it. I heard the rush of it as it ran by me. I saw it again the other morning as we were going to school. It trotted across the street in front of our car, its red tail floating behind like a banner. I told Bruce at Privilege of Parenting about it as he is the ultimate resource for all things mythical and magical.
“It does seem the clever Trickster has arrived,” he wrote to me in an email, “And I imagine he has much to teach us.”
One noticeable thing about doing yoga is that I have begun to realize that most of my 30-some years before doing yoga were spent in a state of abject panic. What yoga has given me is a new voice, one that says, It’s going to be OK, and Take a deep breath, and Soften. Last week, I was on the phone with the head of Early Childhood Education of one of the schools in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Camp Lejeuene is three hours from the nearest Waldorf school, an hour away from a Quaker Friends school, 168 miles away from a Trader Joe’s and over 50 miles from a yoga studio. Trying to find a school for Oliver, who has only known Waldorf education is proving to be a daunting task.
The woman on the phone was lovely, and despite the fact that there are over 700 children in her elementary school, despite there being only one twenty minute recess each day and that the school lunches begin at 10 AM in order to accommodate all of the children, I liked her. And then she said, “Don’t be intimidated by all the tattoo parlors and used car dealerships you see as you drive through Jacksonville. It’s really a nice town once you get used to it.”
The yoga voice tells me to take a deep breath, that it’s all going to be OK. But still, that old voice pipes up. “Tattoo parlors?” It asks. “Used car dealerships? Are you out of your mind?”
I wonder now if knowledge of this move was the source for some of the anxiety I experienced this autumn. For twenty years I have blocked out that summer in 1992, and now pieces of it come back, as if it were something I dreamt. I remember Amanda, the intern who answered every question with “Boy Howdy.” I remember that Wilson and I sat on the edge of a dock in Beaufort while he told me about his traumatic childhood. I remember how sick the heat made me and way the air smelled on the beach while the pelicans flew in formation along the sunset.
One day this November, I needed to run so badly that I called a sitter to come for an hour. When she arrived, I pelted down our block and onto Russell Road, Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto blasting in my ears. I ran as fast as I could until my lungs started to hurt and my legs began to ache and still I kept going until I hit King Street in Old Towne Alexandria where I leaned against a telephone pole.
As I turned back home, still thinking about North Carolina, a new voice appeared out of nowhere. Even over the music, it clearly said: “Your work will be there, waiting for you.”
Work? I thought. What work?
I thought of the work I do now, that of wiping noses and folding tee shirts with trucks on them, cutting peanut butter sandwiches in half. Reading Magic Treehouse Mystery books and feeling little boys curl into me with their signature scent of sweat and dirt and Johnson’s shampoo.
As my feet moved more slowly, towards home, I realized that this work might be enough, even in this strange new town, in this desolate outpost with its tattoo parlors and Piggly Wigglys. In the absence of organic tomatoes and coconut water and Lululemon reatail stores, there will still be this work of caring and cleaning and comforting. When we move, I will assuredly be a ghost again. I will get lost going to the grocery store and I will hover on the outside of conversations. I will take Oliver for a tour of his new school while he stays glued to my side and tells me that he doesn’t like this school, that he won’t go and I can’t make him. Afterwards we will find a place that sells ice cream cones and the next day, I will fold laundry and wipe counters. I will perform what seems like mundane tasks, but which are really my sustenance, my necessary work. Maybe this is what comforts me now, this notion that no matter where I go, there will be wood to chop and water to carry. That really, this is what we all do, every day, whether we want to or not, each of us stumbling towards enlightenment.