How yardwork became a religious experience

Older folks out there might recall a childhood game we played called “Pickup Stix.” The point of the game was to drop a collection of colorful sticks, each about the circumference of a toothpick and the length of a pencil, then pick up as many as we could without disturbing nearby sticks.

You younger people brought up on your fancy, hi-tech video games won’t be able to appreciate a contest played in the physical world, of course. Actually, I’m having a little trouble myself reading a description of the rules and trying to fathom how we viewed this as a “game” rather than simply cleaning up a spill. Regardless, we found it fun at the time, especially compared to mourning the assassination of one political leader after another.

Saturday, I spent the afternoon engaged in an adult version of the game. Not “adult” in the sense that you got to be naked; adult in the sense that you do it not because it’s fun, but because it’s your responsibility.

It was the first warm, dry day of the spring that I haven’t had to work. A winter’s worth of twigs and small branches covered my yard, made all the worse by several spring storms in the last few weeks. It’s traditionally the first bit of yardwork of the season to clear away this debris so that mowing and raking and seeding and mulching and all those other chores can take place. Besides, my neighbors were starting to give me dirty looks over a lawn that was beginning to look more like a lumber yard for robins.

I know of no automated way to accomplish this task. We’d never consider cutting the grass one blade at a time, or picking up each individual fallen leaf instead of super-sonically blowing them onto the property next door with a leaf-blower. If the technology didn’t exist, we’d simply accept nature’s ways and allow our lands to grow wild. But picking up twigs — even though it has to be done by bending over and selecting each one individually — we grudgingly do by hand, over the course of any otherwise gorgeous spring afternoon.

I had forgotten, during the long indoor months of winter, just how exhausting it can be to bend over. You watch athletes doing it effortlessly on television all the time, but forget that they’re professionals who have invested a tremendous amount of training into the process of bowing at the waste and going into a half-squat. I bent over perhaps a half-dozen times during the cold-weather months, and most of those occasions were due to deep abdominal pain. I was hopelessly out of shape.

Still, I gave it my best effort as the heat built and the sweat saturated my clothing. I soon learned to conserve energy by picking up more than one stick with each stoop, and what had looked initially like a week-long task now might be mostly finished in a day. Occasionally, I broke the tedium by plucking branches that hadn’t fallen all the way to the ground out of the trees themselves. I was particularly proud of the effort I made to free a 20-foot branch that had dangled and swayed outside our living-room window for months from a crook high up in an oak. I nearly gouged my face out when it finally broke free, yet I was willing to take the risk rather than allow a hardwood with half my education to get the better of me.

About three hours into the effort, I started to see how my work was making a difference. The yard still looked pretty junky, but an impressive pile of sticks was growing ever-larger next to my driveway. I walked around the back of the house to survey an area I thought wouldn’t need much work. Unfortunately, it was every bit as bad as the front yard had been. More hours of physical toil lay ahead.

“Jesus,” I muttered to myself in disgust. Then, as if on cue, I looked up to see a pair of smartly dressed women walking down the driveway from my house. They had just been speaking with my wife to inform her of a man who lived 2,000 years ago … a man who, though now presumably dead, was ready and eager to turn her life around. Rudely awakened after having just finished up a Friday night shift of work at the office, Beth was less than rapturous to hear of such Good News. I, however, looked at it as an opportunity … an opportunity to stop working and start reading the brochure they had left behind.

The green pamphlet was a simple affair, notifying us of two upcoming events sponsored by the Jehovah’s Witnesses that would explain how Jesus “takes away the sins of the world” and would explain “how does he do so?”, “why is this necessary?” and “how can you benefit?”. They would’ve had me if they said He could make the sticks and the twigs rise up and ascend into Heaven.

I was ready to discard the handout and head back outside when a strange feeling came over me. I looked again at the artwork, and had a feeling I had seen this man somewhere before. The figure in the robe and flip-flops, reaching his hand out and beseeching that I join him, bore a striking resemblance to George Clooney. With maybe a little Zach Galifianakis thrown in. And just a touch of American Idol contestant Casey Abrams.

I looked deep into the eyes of Jesus/George/Zach/Casey, hoping to find answers to problems that have left me world-weary in recent months. My eyes wandered slightly higher to the Holy Perm, teased just so. His mouth was formed into a word that I couldn’t quite lip-read. It could’ve been “peace” or it could’ve been “love,” or it could’ve been a lyric in Casey’s rendition last week of the Credence Clearwater classic “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?”

I immediately dropped to my knees, even though I knew it would mean yet one more time I had to struggle later to get myself standing again.

“Oh Lord Jesus, or George Clooney, or Zach, or Casey, or whoever you are,” I cried out. “Deliver me from this world of pain and sorrow! I am going to be so sore tomorrow, and I know my doctor won’t give me any more Vicodin. Please, make me whole again.”

I stopped my work for the day, took a refreshing shower, and waited for the Almighty Intervention I’ve sorely missed for so long.

It never came, though we did get hit by a tremendous hailstorm later that evening, freeing a whole new batch of debris and rendering all the work I had done earlier completely useless.

Mysterious ways, I guess.

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