I have found inspiration in lots of places. I’ve been lucky enough to travel abroad as well as across the United States, to natural wonders that have kindled awe, and to cities and towns filled with people and cultures that made me think differently about the world around me. For the last half-dozen years I’ve tried to embrace Virginia Woolf’s conviction that walking is the best way to process the work in progress, and this belief, in turn, has led me down lots of literal paths I never thought I would take. Seeing, hearing, and tasting new things, and letting myself ruminate about them while walking have made me a better writer and reader, but my favorite meditative activity doesn’t require leaving the confines of my own yard.
When I was younger and still lived with my parents, my dad divvied up the mowing responsibilities among my two sisters, me and himself. He took the largest quarter-acre, a vast expanse of grass that no longer really exists since my parents transformed their yard into a pollinators’ paradise full of native plants. My sisters split the front yard and the side yard, which had their own challenges, like the driveway and low hanging branches. My job was the backyard, the part of our property that was more like an obstacle course than a yard, with trees, a swing set, and the remains of an above-ground swimming pool and a sand box, not to mention the uneven edges of a flagstone patio.
As an introverted pre-teen, I loved mowing. I loved putting in my headphones, cranking up my Walkman, and being alone in the backyard, the rest of the world blocked out by the drone of the mower and the attention I was paying to putting one foot in front of another. I didn’t really have to think about the work at hand, because it was the same course every time. Instead, I could walk and mow and really think about whatever story I was writing, or else daydream about whatever fabulous writing life I would have when I was older, published, and wildly famous.
These days I am much older. I have published a few pieces, but I will never be famous. And I’m okay with that, because these days my whole world revolves around keeping a tiny person happy and alive, and there’s a huge reward in reading to him, journaling about his childhood, and having small goals for other writing projects that make me happy. But because of him – and because of being an adult in a pandemic world – I don’t have a lot of time alone to think and process ideas. While I am grateful for the parks and other green spaces in my life, I have missed mowing.
I hadn’t mowed anything in close to a decade, until a few weeks ago when both my mother-in-law and the woman who owns our house bought electric mowers and fired their lawn crews. I’d mentioned a few times that I enjoy mowing but I wasn’t expecting the opportunity to mow two lawns myself. It tickles me that I stepped behind a push mower for the first time in ten years right at the height of No Mow May – a month when native-plant enthusiasts encourage their neighbors to refrain from mowing to give bugs and other critters an opportunity to forage and build habitats.
It seems to me that I had, in the last ten years, given myself a similar kind of respite, a break from mowing to forage the rest of the world for sustenance and new kinds of homes. I needed the change to learn to recognize what really works for me when it comes to reflecting on the books I read, the words I write, and the life I want to lead.
When I mowed my mother-in-law’s lawn last week I was instantly transported back into the shoes of the thirteen-year-old writer who was hoping for something bigger, more verdant in life. And I like to think that she would be very pleased with the path we’ve followed.