Sunday, May 9, 2010

Lawnmower Man

It was a blustery Saturday morning when we heard the whir of our neighbor’s lawnmower. It served as our own reminder that it was time for us to bring out that cherry red 5.5 HP machine and walk it all over our little green patch of earth.

It would seem a Sisyphean task. Mow. It grows back. Repeat endlessly until we are dead or can no longer push a mower.

It was Simon de Beauvoir who once wrote, “Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean become soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.” Mowing the lawn seems to fit…

And yet…

We have learned to enjoy this chore. Not because we think it important to keep our grass looking respectable. And not because we want to stay in the good graces of our neighbors.

Instead, we have found some joy and enlightenment in the simple act of mowing the lawn. It is like that old Chinese saying, "Before enlightenment chop wood carry water, after enlightenment, chop wood carry water."

In even mundane tasks there are things to enjoy. In mowing the lawn, there is the simple pleasure of being outside, of walking. There is the time you have to think. There is the vibration of the mower in your hands. The pretty rows you make as you cross the lawn. The smell of fresh-cut grass.

Part of living in the moment means appreciation of every moment, even when you are doing something as mundane as a chore. We were thinking of this as we mowed over the weekend. And it occurred to us we have read something along these lines before.

It was D.H. Lawrence, we recall, who once laid out the pleasures of washing dishes. We looked it up. Here is what he wrote:

“The actual doing of things is in itself a joy. If I wash the dishes, I learn the quick, light touch of china and earthenware, the feel of it, the weight and roll and poise of it, the peculiar hotness, the quickness or slowness of its surface. I am at the middle of an infinite complexity of motions and adjustments and quick, apprehensive contacts. Nimble faculties hover and play along my nerves, the primal consciousness is alert in me…”

He was quick not to make too much of washing the dishes, not to become too self-conscious or imbue the act with a purpose beyond the obvious. As he adds later, “If I wash the dishes, I wash them to get them clean. Nothing else.”

We think it is interesting, too, how language corrupts thought. We think of mowing the lawn or washing the dishes as work. But why should we? If life is absurd, as we think it is – and there is no meaning or point to our existence – then we come to realize that the difference between work and play is in our heads.

Simply put, our point here is to say that we have found it freeing when we dim all things to their proper place of insignificance. We have found many of life’s burdens lift when we aim to appreciate every moment. We don’t say it is easy, but we say there is wisdom in the thought.

So, contra Beauvoir’s sentiment on Sisyphus, we are with Camus. It was the genius of Camus who turned Beauvoir’s common sentiment around. (And which serves as the inspiration behind this blog.) To Camus, recognizing the absurdity of life was its own joy. Of Sisyphus, Camus wrote:

“Sisyphus…concludes all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.


  1. I'm still not that crazy about the whole Sisyphus analogy, as mortality, not an issue for him, is a huge part of the equation.


  2. Aha! So that explains my neighbors. They're closeted absurdists! I have two different neighbors, retired men, who mow their lawns at least twice a week, maybe more, and I've always wondered why they mow it so often. For example, the grass in the picture accompanying this post would NEVER get that high in their yards. They would have mowed three times! But now I see that they are getting A LOT of joy and enlightenment and REALLY appreciating each moment. Maybe they read this blog?