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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Sunday, February 25, 2007


I wax lyrical when I think about physical work. Compared to intellectual effort it is straightforward and simple. It has clear and palpable results, and your body feels its consequences: muscles are sore, the back achy, the stomach gets ferociously hungry. Sleep and food become sweet rewards, complete in themselves.

My father always insisted that my sister and I know what physical work entailed, so that we can appreciate what other people do for us to have food on the table and a roof over our heads. When we were teenagers he bought a vineyard up on a hill outside the city where we lived; there was a garden at the bottom of the hill where he and my mother and my grandparents planted tomatoes and peppers, carrots and parsnips and kohlrabi, herbs and potatoes. We worked on the vineyard, weeded the garden, and dug up potatoes cheek by jowl with the adults. I spent part of my summer vacation out in the fields, helping my father harvest hay and pick plums in our family orchard. It was hard, dusty work in the sun, with breaks for lunch that I remember as the worst part of the day because I was so ravenous that I got sick from eating too fast, and because it was so excruciating to go back to work with my stomach full and my body soaked in the languor of early afternoon.

I'm not nostalgic about these experiences except when I get stumped in my current work, when my thoughts remain shrouded in ambiguity despite my efforts to clarify them, when I puzzle over an idea or concept and cannot untangle it. That is when I long for physical effort, for going outside and starting a garden, for scouring our house clean, for kneeding a large basin of bread dough. So I do it. I roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty.

A few weeks ago I agreed to help my father pave our back yard. We used to have a creaky wooden deck there and scraggly grass that I sowed all by myself (another project to deal with mental frustration) about a year and a half ago. All of that had to be taken out. After that, we mixed concrete -- almost one hundred 90-lb. bags of it, two bags at a time -- and poured and pounded and leveled it. I told my dad I'd made a mistake; I'd had no idea it would be such back-breaking work, and this much of it. He laughed. (His laugh angered me as much as the sheer brutality of the work.) He said, "It is better not to know. Then you are able to start. And then you go on one concrete sack at a time."

This particular piece of wisdom annoyed me. I'd heard it before. Sure, I thought, easy for you to say. Except that it wasn't. He knew what he was talking about. Heavy work has been a constant in his life since he was a boy. He defines himself by it, takes pride in it in a way that astonishes and sometimes saddens me. He hasn't been brutalized by it either; he is a thinking man, a reading man, a contemplative man. He manages to attain a balance that I envy between contemplation and action.

And this is the secret I'm getting at, I suppose: balance. Moving between book and shovel, words and concrete, thought and sweat. I sort of throw myself head-first from one to the other and exhaust myself with both.

Yesterday we finished pouring the last of the concrete. I don't feel relief as much as awe: is it possible that I have actually done this? My father did the lion's share of the work, that is true. But I helped, and the help I gave was more than I thought I'd be capable of. I surprised myself; and this, strangely enough, unsettles me. But I have this to ponder: that I did it all one concrete sack at a time.

(The painting above is by Ellen Rolli.)


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