We visited our parents last weekend. This is the first visit with either of them since the inauguration, which put a certain apocalyptic pall on the festivities. But today I’m writing about thought and action.
This Saturday, I proudly woke up to my weekend alarm at 7:17. After dressing and washing, I greeted mom in the kitchen. She mentioned that they could use some help moving some heavy bags in the backyard. Oh Boy, I’m helping. 30 years ago, this would have been a chore. Now, it was no big thing.
The task grew from carrying bags of clippings to stuffing more bags of clippings. Such clippings. My dad loves fast-growing, showy plants, including the invasive and militarized genus Mahonia, AKA Oregon Grape. Some other poor bastard-for-hire had already trimmed the hedge, my task was to remove the clippings from the yard into the bags and to the curb. To avoid being sliced open by the leaves, I cut the branches of Mahonia up into foot-long sections. Methodically, I picked each section with my fingertips and stuffed it leaves-downward into the bag. I crammed more foliage into the bags with some of the bare branches. This kept the pointy leaves away from me.
When I was almost done with this it occurred to me that I had no thoughts. My focus was on the branches, the leaves, the bags, and avoiding pain.
After this, I entered my dad’s meticulously-built and maintained basement workshop to return his coat from the cold morning. And we talked. How funny was it that I had quit thinking while doing. How funny to compare my attitude now to my attitude 30 years ago to exactly the same kind of work.
Now that the surly teen is only a third of me, we have the distance to talk without emotion about all the disappointments of that time. My dad has always been very good with his hands. Very clever. When he was 15, he retreated to the basement in Macon and learned to make and do amazing things. When I was 15, I retreated from a father who knew how to do everything.
Now he tells me that he did things to avoid thinking about things. I am no longer obligated to understand his math problems or share in his enthusiasm about its arcana. He did his basement work to avoid the thornier bits of these math puzzles. He did all that yard work and masonry to avoid worrying about me and mom. He did all the carpentry, plumbing, and electrical to avoid worthless woolgathering. And he was great at what he did.
Conversely, I was unable to do things at nearly his capacity, because I was always thinking about implications, consequences and angles. Not useful or clever, just worries.
My wife doubts such a strict dichotomy, and she’s right. Doing allows us the distance to solve problems we can’t by merely thinking. Thinking allows us to do things better. My dad had been doing so long that physical solutions came to him thoughtlessly. I still break into a cold sweat when I think about installing a shelf.