It isn’t winter yet. Officially it doesn’t begin for a few more weeks. I’ve intentionally tried to spend more time outside this past year, even if it meant I wasn’t really doing anything other than enjoying the fact that I was not sitting on a couch indoors. Thanks to terrible seasons from my two favorite football teams being in the colors of fall was much simpler to accomplish.
When I returned home from a morning of errands this past Saturday I wasn’t eager to go in. I knew that meant I’d shrug off whatever I was supposed to be doing in terms of chores and settle into a marathon of Man in the High Castle or Playstation. It wasn’t really cold out. Surely there was something I could tinker with. Thinking back a few months I realized we’d promised some friends the gift of fresh wood chips for smoking on the grill and my very own barbecue rub as presents for Christmas. The decision to stay outside and hack away at a piece of cherry was easy.
To sate my need to sit next to a fire I set our chiminea out, grabbed my hatchet and a bucket, then went to work. The fire wasn’t needed, it was warm out; a brisk 45 degrees or so. But if I was going to channel my inner Ron Swanson I figured what the hell. I wasn’t trying to feel more manly but after a while I felt like I should have sprouted a bushy mustache or discovered all my clothes had transformed to denim and flannel. I mean really, it’s a pretty funny image. I was certain Alia was taking photos of me from inside, secretly posting them on FB with some witty commentary. But I was outside. I didn’t care.
At first I honestly felt a little guilty. My wife was upstairs toiling away at painting our son’s room, trying to reorganize it before he makes it back for the holiday. There was laundry to wash, bathrooms to clean. All things that needed to be done but at the end my butt would still end up on the couch. I needed to prolong that result. The task at hand was important, these hand-cut wood chips were going to be given to our friends. I was making gifts. That’s productive, right?
There are probably several ways to make wood chips. The easiest would have been to break out an actual wood chipper. I don’t have one of those. The second-easiest option would be to use the table or miter saw and cut the log into manageable pieces. That would have also required me to drag them out from behind the stuff we stored in the garage for the season. Also, saws are noisy and obnoxious. No, I went with the tougher choice: just a hatchet. Sometimes I think doing things by hand should be a requirement. Like learning long-term methods of finding derivatives in calculus. You have to understand what it’s like to accomplish tasks in the most basic way in order to appreciate just how easy things really are. I’m serious. We don’t have to haul water up to our homes in buckets or catch our own food. Most of us have it pretty good.
So as I was chipping away at the cherry log I thought about Thanksgiving, the holiday parade from the weekend, the upcoming Christmas morning and the long-awaited beginning of a new year. Between small swings of the axe I’d pause and look out on the tree house we built, smiling at the hope it would all translate into something meaningful for my son later in life. I listened to the quiet of the city. It’s incredible how reclusive everyone becomes when it gets a little chilly and gray. No calls from Xena the Warrior Hawk. I assumed she’d moved on for the season. I wondered about the foxes that lived in the back of my neighbors property, if we’d see any more of them before the spring.
Some people meditate, some do yoga. I find random stuff to do outside. My grandfather used to do the same thing and my dad still does. I didn’t get it when I was a kid but I sure as hell do now. Everyone has their own way of clearing their thoughts, of regaining focus of what really matters. As usual, it all came back to a sense of appreciation. Gratitude. 2016 was a year of change for me and my family in a lot of ways. We always have a choice of perspective.
When I finished I looked at the five gallon bucket I’d filled with shreds and chunks of fresh cut wood. Two hours of quiet contemplation and sore biceps to show for it. I stared at the fruit of my labor and realized that even when I tell my friends I cut the wood myself, it won’t resonate with them. And why should it? It’s about the giving, not the getting. Even more so about the center I found while sitting outside “doing nothing”. I hope my gratitude carries over from the end of this cycle into a fresh start in 2017. I hope, for all of us, we continue to choose to see the good.