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Chop Wood, Carry Water

Updated: Oct 9, 2021

This phrase has been resonating with me this year as we face uncertainty. The phrase comes from a saying in the Zen tradition: What did the monk do before he reached enlightenment? He chopped wood and carried water. What did the monk do after he reached enlightenment? He chopped wood and carried water.

The answer shows that act of living goes on despite whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. We live our lives. We deal with laundry, cook dinner, do the dishes, go to work, and all the small tasks that it takes to move through the day just to survive.

Instead of dealing with enlightenment (or maybe we are) we are dealing with the daily uncertainty that comes with the pandemic and now the fires that are ravaging the western United States. As I type this, a massive smoke plume as entered our valley and the air quality index is sitting at 258 and climbing. Healthy levels are below 50. Perhaps you are dealing with kids starting their school year at home (I’ve been interrupted 3 times in two paragraphs, and that was just from hubby who is also working from home.) We struggle with circumstances, but, despite it all, we chop wood and carry water because it needs to get done. But we fret and we forget that we’ve seen this before and even then, we chopped wood and carried water, taking each small step it takes to keep on living.

Today is September 11th, 2020 – 19 years since the World Trade Center towers came crumbling down. Then we cried and we called loved ones to check in with them. We carried a terror in our hearts, and we wondered how this would change our live. But we chopped wood and carried water. I was in my senior year in college. I heard about the planes on NPR as my morning alarm went off to go to class. It wasn’t until after my first class that I was at the student union getting lunch that I saw the videos of the towers crumbling. It's one of those moments that you carry for a lifetime.

Slowly we moved on, finding our footing again. Sometimes in small ways, sometimes big. Life went on. But it changed us. It changed the way we seek community. Did you know the creator of, began to develop the concept as a way of helping people find community in the wake of 9/11. In 2009, when I moved from my home state of Arizona, to Washington. I used Meetup to help me find groups with shared interests, meeting some wonderful friends along the way. I’m sure there are many other stories and connections that came as a result of the resilience of humanity after the terror attacks – light born from times of darkness. So, I wonder what light is being born from these terrible times? We may not know or understand their impact on our personal lives for many years.

But in the meantime, take that small step to keep living – chop the wood and carry the water to get you through today. We’ve survived before and we will survive again.

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