Note from CM: I wrote this essay many, many years ago, I think in the late 1990s. Now that we have a new house, with a fine yard that requires a lot of mowing, I thought it might be time to dig this out. One very definite change: at my age, and with a new yard that is twice as big as I’ve ever owned, I will be looking to purchase a riding mower. But I’ll still mow some of it walking.
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Something there is that makes me sigh with pleasure over a newly mown lawn.
As long as they live with me, my children will probably be spared one of suburbia’s common chores. I will never let them mow lawn. It happens to be one of the favorite activities in my life, and I’m not giving it up.
I once heard a preacher talk about his father, also a minister. He said his dad loved to mow lawn and do yard work because, when he was finished he could stand back, look it over, and say like God after a day of creation, “It is good!” Something accomplished. A task completed. In a life filled with jobs that never got done, what with Sunday coming every week without fail and, of course, people work being what it is, it was good for the old man to have an assignment he could finish and be satisfied with.
That’s part of it, I guess. I reckon I do walk around after the mowing’s done to admire the neatness and order that’s been restored. Preacher or not, Lord knows that few things in anyone’s life these days are tidily arranged or brought to closure. Something there is that makes me sigh with pleasure over a newly mown lawn. Chaos subdued, that’s what it is.
Here is another reason: walking behind that mower just happens to be one of my prime thinking times. I’ve probably composed more songs, developed more new ideas, solved more problems, and gained more insight while mowing lawn than during any other activity. My boss should pay me to go home and mow. When following that machine, the drone of that Briggs and Stratton blocking out distractions, I am a monk, a Desert Father, a contemplative. Visions come to me. Answers to questions in my life somehow become clear when I’m trekking back and forth across my backyard, pulled by that machine.
I’ve always been able to think best when walking. In college, when pulling all-night marathon cram sessions, I would secure permission from a security guard, go to one of the empty classrooms and pace all night. From blackboard to last row, from one side of the room to the other, around and around, I would read through my notes, memorize, talk through concepts, make up acrostic devices to help me remember, set the material to song or rhyme — whatever it took to etch it into my mind.
The same pattern stood me in good stead when I took biblical Hebrew in summer school at seminary — a year of language learning (a challenge for me at any pace) in six weeks. I wrote so many songs out of my rhythmic walking meditations that I put them on tape.
Learning has always come by a walking beat for me. I will never, I repeat never, get a riding mower. Only by strict doctor’s orders.
My kids sometimes beg me to let them mow. Not very often, mind you, but once in a while. They’re still small enough that the big self-propelled mower I have is too powerful for them to control for very long. That’s good — I have a ready excuse for saying no. And when that doesn’t work, I usually mumble something about not having enough time to let them do it, and, you know, I can get it done more quickly if I just do it myself. Occasionally, I’ll mow off a square, reluctantly hand the mower over to one of them and let them do a spot. But that’s all. Then it’s my turn again. It’s time to return to my cloister walk, time to pull up the hood on my cloak and start chanting.
Come to think of it, I never actually could have been a Desert Father. Not enough grass. I would only work if some nearby oasis would let me come on Saturdays to mow.