I love to mow.
I love to mix fuel stabilizer with premium gasoline in a 4 gallon gas container. I mix it, then fill the mower so I don’t have to cut the engine once I start it. I check the spark plug and air filter each time because I love my mower. She’s a 10-year-old Toro recycler I inherited when our neighbors moved to Philly.
My front yard dog legs and wraps around a colossal Willow Oak. The Willow Oak received a buzz cut after a limb nearly landed on the dormer where my daughter sleeps. Stripped of half its limbs, it still shades our entire property most of the day. The yard slopes down to the street, like sand dunes before the beach. The unique topography makes it impossible to cut the grass the same way twice.
And that is where the love comes in.
It’s about the pattern. Do I take the hill first or wrap the tree? Do I navigate the long horizontal path or the shorter stretch that leads to the porch?
Like grill marks on a ribeye steak, patterns matter. I think I love mowing because when I am done, I get to see the progress I’ve made. When I’m done with a good class period, students don’t come to me and say, “that was great Mr. Goodson. I’ll never forget this.” When I’m done reading lapbook number 4 to my son who refuses to tire at night, he doesn’t look up and say, “Dad. I sure appreciate that you take this time at the end of a long day to entertain me before I go to bed.”
When I mow, the work of my hands reveals the progress.
And sure, I can be obsessive about the pattern.
When it begins to emerge in my mind, there are no other ways around it. I must take this line uphill. I must bank left here. I must round this edge there. If I don’t, the pattern will be compromised.
My boy loves to imitate. So much so that we’ve wound up with 3 toy mowers. He mows alongside me. But sometimes, his play interferes with my pattern. He stands there in my uphill line, or where I bank left, or in the edge I need to round. He stands there like the Tiananmen Square protester in front of my mower.
His play and my pattern collide.
He can’t hear me over the engine. And remember, shutting the engine off kills the joy of my time.
“Buddy, you need to move out of the way!”
“No, no, no. I’m Daddy!”
“OK.” I pause. “Daddy?”
Please note we are screaming to each other over engine noise.
“Please move, Daddy, so I can come through.”
“OK son, just let me finish mowing first.”
I shut off the engine. Time to re-boot. It turns out his imagination is as staunch and stubborn as my mental projection of a finished yard.
Maybe we don’t lose our imaginative power as much as we think as we get older, it just hardens into the things we must do.
He’s ‘cramping my style’ but I am over that frustration the minute I approach him. He tilts his head and furrows his eyebrows. He is in full-blown daddy-imitator mode. He points his finger. His voice drops an octave as he says, “Once I’m done mowing son, then you can use your mower.” He turns his back and continues on, Fisher-Price plastics clicking to simulate engine sound.
I laugh to myself. I take a break. I watch him and smile. My heart fills with joy.
Ain’t it true that people we love can’t cramp our style? They change our stubborn plans for the better.
Here is what I’m getting at.
If my son weren’t out there causing me to re-direct, I would have gotten everything I wanted from my mowing experience. It would have been perfect. It would have been boring.
It’s when what we need to do takes us from what we want to do that we realize what is truly worth doing.
I need to be a father first. I need to be a sober father first. If my son hadn’t halted my progress, I would not have been reminded of the joy he brings me—the joy we get when our loved ones remind us our lives are worth sharing.
It reminds me of a poem by David Yezzi. It is the first poem in his excellent book Birds of the Air. While the poet describes the art of origami, he also articulates a beautiful notion that reducing our lives leaves us with more.
I’ll leave you with the poem re-printed below with permission from the poet.
BY DAVID YEZZI
Paper creased is
with a touch
made less by half,
reduced as much
again by a second
fold—so the wish
to press our designs
what we hold.
But by your hand’s
how this unleaving
makes of what’s before
and finally more.