Chop wood, carry water

A long time ago now, a woman who became very dear to me gave me some important advice that has helped me throughout my life. Her name is Victoria, she is a massage therapist and she doesn’t know this, but she is the person who started me on this path of what I’ll call ”hopeful enlightenment”.

I was a stressed-out, anxious mother of two at the time and I had a blocked lower back from pain. She came recommended to me by another wonderful woman who is a good friend of hers. I knew she was special because you had to be referred to her as well.  She wouldn’t massage just anyone, and I felt special that I was granted access to her.  She is a beautiful, independent, strong woman. I had no idea of her age at the time, but learned later that she was in her sixties and I was amazed at her strength and stamina.

I will never forget how happy I was to meet her.

She made her way to my house in Montreal in her little car and, every time, unloaded her massage table, candle, great music, bringing all her good energy into my space.  Every time Victoria came over, she helped me in some way, whether she had me on the floor doing various yoga postures and deep breathing exercises, or whether she had me be still and allow for some quiet to settle my brain, she seemed to know just what to do.

The piece of advice I want to talk about here was shared during one of these appointments, at a time when I was really having a tough time with the world. All of the news seemed so terrible on the radio, in the newspaper, and even the political climate in Quebec was taking its toll on our otherwise awesome piece of Canada.

Victoria showed up, saw the state I was in and when I told her how I was feeling she told me she didn’t listen to the news anymore because it never brought her peace and it just upset her. I have to admit, I judged her, thinking to myself: ”How in the world can you deliberately be uninformed?” She could see that I was weirded out, she said she knows what it sounds like but she does it for self-preservation. “Ok, I can see that”, I said, “but even if you don’t read or hear the news, you still get wind of the big stuff, the terrible stuff, the sad stuff, the unbelievably unfair stuff” and so on.

So I asked her how she stays so positive and kind and strong? She said: “You know what Sarah? When I feel like I’m getting crippled by thoughts of all of the pain and suffering in the world, I just chop wood and carry water.” She explained to me that she just gets through these tough times by doing what needs to get done, by going back to the basics and eventually time passes.

Victoria became a good friend, a bit of a spiritual mentor, and a modern day “elder” to me. She taught me important things that humans need to share with each other, in person.

Over the last number of years, I have told myself that old Zen proverb again and again. It’s so simple, it goes like this: “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.” It has deep spiritual meaning but practically speaking, it’s a tool that I use to help me navigate the world and my thoughts when times are tricky. Just do what you need to do, one foot in front of the other, step by step…and in the end, have a little faith that you’ll be able to handle what comes. There will always be tough times, how we navigate them is what’s important; chop wood and carry water. 

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