Chop Wood, Carry Water

Of course we knew it wouldn’t be over on Nov 3rd. But I’ve been neglecting so many other things in my life while I dove head first into getting involved. Doing tech support, writing code. Writing letters, making phone calls – first, to make sure people were registered, then to remind them how and where to vote. Then to help set up rides on election for folks with accessibility issues. Then, in the days after, getting sucked back in to call folks whose ballots were reported as rejected by the registrar to let them know, and to let them know what they could do to fix it. Once you start down that whole rabbit hole, it’s hard to stop.

Devon and I were discussing whether we were both going overboard in our respective involvement here. But I found myself thinking of it in terms of regret, and hindsight. You all know by now that I live pretty far over on the left side of the political spectrum, and for people who share my perspective, the prospect of four more years of Mr. Trump feels like the greatest existential threat the governance of our country has had in my lifetime. The disregard for scientific inquiry and consensus, the proto-fascist insistence on facts marching lockstep with the personal agenda of a deliberately and proudly uninformed charismatic leader. The increasingly terrifying invective and explicit threat of violence against those who who dissent (recall, this week, one of the president’s sons calling for “total war” in the wake of the election, and one of his key advisors demanding that government scientists and civil servants who disagree with his pronouncements be beheaded?!?!).

I found peace with my obsession by rewinding myself 87 years. Imagine going back to the elections in Munich, in 1933. Find an upper-middleclass jewish family and tell them that they’d better get involved. That it would be in their best interests to give weeks of their time and a decent fraction of their personal savings to ensure that that crazy person from the other party doesn’t get elected. Oh, and if he wins, sell everything and get the hell out of the country as quickly as you can. Seems excessive, right? Right. I didn’t want to look back on November of 2020 and think that maybe if I’d done just a little more…

But yesterday morning, after we’d exhausted the list of rejected ballots in Georgia for the third time, I decided I was done. Earlier, the lists of people to call had seemed endless. But now, chasing down the last few opportunities to make sure peoples’ voices were heard, it seemed that there were more than enough volunteers to mop up. I logged out of the VPB, hung up my sweaty headset (note: major props for the Sony WH-1000XM3) and went out to split some more firewood. I was done.

There’s a Zen koan I’ve always loved. The details vary, but the story I most identify with around it involves a novice who’s gone to the monastery to study. The abbot assigns him to chop wood for the monks’ fires, and to carry water for their baths. He does this uncomplainingly for a while but gets impatient. Eventually he goes back to the abbot and says “I don’t want to complain, but when do I get to study?” “Why do you want to study?” “So I can become enlightened.” “How will enlightenment change your life?” The novice realizes that he doesn’t know how to answer. The abbot smiles and tells him: “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.”

Regardless of the story, the phrase “chop wood, carry water” holds for students the wisdom that all we do is embedded in, and framed by the larger necessity of our lives that go on, no matter what else.

And so it is here. When I’m out there with the chainsaw and axe, I’ve been finding myself humming Joan Baez’s version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” – not to evoke any war  between the states, but for the line, “Now I don’t mind chopping wood…” Because, as I’ve written before, I kinda like it. But when I clear my head from that, I often find another line coming to my mind:

Before election, chop wood and carry water. After election, chop wood and carry water.

I’ve done close to everything I can for this election. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s finally starting to get brisk up here in the Pacific Northwest, and my favorite chainsaw is waiting to get back to work…

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