Years ago, my elderly neighbor and I would have philosophical conversations in the midst of shoveling our driveways or raking our lawns. We noticed that no one else on the street, with the exception of the mother and daughter next door, still raked leaves the old-fashioned way or used shovels instead of snow-blowers and plows to move the white flakes that had fallen so quietly upon the ground.
We shoveled or raked at our own pace, not hurriedly or impatiently, which was the only way hand tools would allow. This offered an opportunity to slow down and synchronize ourselves with the rhythms of nature; to experience the exhilarating feeling of our muscles bending, stretching and later aching from a job well done; to remember people and times gone past; and to contemplate great thoughts.
We felt privileged to enjoy this time with Mother Earth and somewhat saddened that others on the street did not know this joy. Why, we wondered, did people plow their driveways so they could rush to an indoor gym to exercise?
Today, as I raked, I remembered one of the gifts given to me by my parents. They could have afforded to hire landscapers, but instead we four girls and later my brother were engaged in outdoor work projects. I have fond memories of raking leaves, mowing the lawn and hauling brush as part of a family project. At one point, we even took it upon ourselves to try to dig a canal through tangled tree roots to connect two ponds so we wouldn't have to be bothered with putting on ice skate guards going from one to another in the winter.
We learned the value of hard physical work and that it served as an important complement to intellectual pursuits. Indeed, my dad would sometimes come home and chop wood to relieve the stress that had built up during his day at work.
My parents gave me a simple and inexpensive gift, teaching me that I could find pleasure in learning to work with and appreciate rather than fight nature, that I didn't need costly equipment to do this, and that my body and spirit would benefit.
I hope and think that perhaps I have passed this gift on to my son. When he was a child, we raked leaves together, forming a huge pile in a sheltered depression just beyond the right of way, a pile into which he could jump, squealing with laughter. We gardened together and he learned from a very young age how to distinguish the weeds from the crops. Later, he took up pruning the orchard behind the house.
Even today, at age 30, my son puts on old clothes and sneakers and grabs the pruning shears when he comes home and takes to the field. I don't ask. He simply does, suggesting to me that he derives the same pleasure from working with nature as his grandfather, his mother and his aunts and uncle.
We seem to have traded this eternal gift from nature for the speed, noise and energy-intensive, labor-saving devices that give the illusion of quality of life. These devices teach us to be dissatisfied with where we are and to believe that we are not good enough unless we have them. They also separate us from the earth and from one another. Some of the best conversations I ever had with my neighbor were amidst the rustle of raking leaves or the gentle whoosh of shoveling snow.