If I had to condense my six-word memoir down to two words, it would be these: Chip Away. It is the motto by which I have lived my life. Every project I’ve ever tackled, every proverbial mountain I’ve ever moved, I’ve accomplished through dogged persistence and the repetition of doing just a bit of it each day.
To be sure, this is not the only way to move a mountain – some people can snow plow their way through. I am not one of them. If I ever did anything wrong enough to offend society, I would be the sort of prisoner to carve a hidden tunnel using only a spoon and a toothbrush. And mostly not for the purpose of escape, but just to have something satisfying to do.
But for as much as I love a good project on my plate, too much of a good thing makes me anxious. I’m content to make lists of lists to keep track of it all, but once I get past five pages or so, I start to hyperventilate and have those weird anxiety dreams that involve being back in high school.
It’s a funny thing, before my job as a teacher, my stress dreams involved being in high school, as in, being a student. I’d be staring down some unfamiliar hallway, my schedule lost, my locker combination hopelessly forgotten. But once I taught, and even long after I left the profession, my dreams shifted permanently. I was now a teacher on the first day of class, staring down sixty students where twenty-five should sit, my classes changed at the last minute, and my locker combination – still – hopelessly forgotten.
Back in my teaching days, the end of summer signaled a crunch of lesson plan writing and supply shopping. My birthday, in early August, was always a milestone – the last day I would enjoy the summer warmth care-free. The following week, I would buckle down in preparation. I’ve been out of the classroom for a decade now, but my birthday still marks for me the end of summer and the crunch of fall. I just gear up for a different season these days, one that involves putting up food for the winter or firewood to burn or having extra artwork stocked for impending holiday sales. And mostly, finishing up every major project I started throughout the year.
This fall, as the days grew shorter and the nights grew cooler, I watched the people and nature around me make their own preparations. The geese collected in twos, then fours, then a dozen, then thirty or forty at a time, finding their tribe and practicing their flight formation. Farmers rolled their final hay cutting into fat bales, then lined them across their fields. Grapes were harvested before the first frost, and gardens cleared and turned under. The swallows and songbirds dwindled, and Buck’s coat thickened like a shag rug.
Alan and I spent our nights making lists and prioritizing – what can be done in an evening, and what needs a full weekend day. What simply must be done first, and what can wait. Gather firewood. Test the stove chimney. Put up batten. Clear the outbuilding. Pick the last of the tomatoes and broccoli. The list fattened.
This year, I added on to my studio – a project I’d been looking forward to for some time, but one that required a carpenter to set the posts and attach the trusses, and enough savings to pay him for his efforts. It was supposed to be done mid-summer, but the carpenter got backed up and couldn’t come til September. By then, the list of steps I’d need to finish it – plumb the water, frame the sides, make the subfloor, put in the windows, and side it – was far too long to fit into a fall.
And then there was Alan’s greenhouse, a structure we’d been planning for nearly three years, which simply had to be ready by spring. He’d used the basement to raise his seeds the first year, then a spare bedroom, then the outbuilding. He’d gone from too wet to too crowded to too cold, and it was time to remedy things once and for all. We deliberated and prioritized, spending an evening verbally churning through the all projects like a dough mixer, trying to transform the sticky parts into neat little slices.
I had the dream again, that night. Me in a classroom with a thousand things to do, scattered at my feet in the form of tiny schedules. I tried to pick them up and put them into some sort of order, but they kept slipping through my grasp. I watched the giant round school clock tick away loudly behind me. I felt my heart pound faster.
I awoke that Saturday morning to find Alan painting the bathroom. What are you doing? I asked as nicely as I could, still groggy but inside thinking, Are you crazy? and wondering how long I must have slept. Our giant list of projects was expanding like an over-proofed dough, and here he was starting a new one. It was cold out, he said by way of explanation. He woke up early and couldn’t do the outside things. He was talking just faster than I could take in all the words. I drank a pot of coffee, he admitted.
Snow plow, that one. He can muscle through a bigger to do list than I even dare to write. And he will get it all done, come hell or high water. I’m more of a buffer zone kind of person. I put a few things on the list that I might not get to, but keep there just in case. Blame it on my teaching days. One of the skills you master in the classroom is timing flexibility. If your students need a slower than average tempo, you set your pacing to do just a pinch less. If they’re ready to race ahead and finish early, you’ve got an extra something ready in your back pocket to make good use of the time. To me, painting the bathroom was a buffer zone task. If everything else was crossed off, it got tackled. To start before the rest of the list was done was wrong indeed.
I got showered and dressed, and started staining the posts of my studio. If I couldn’t wall it in by winter, I’d at least protect the wood from the elements. It added a step, but gave me a bit of flexibility regarding timing. I glanced toward the field up north and noticed that the goldenrod which had filled it from one end to the other just the week before was now speckled with bits of rust-colored sumac. I felt the fall clock ticking. I worked faster.
Alan picked the last of the broccoli, then went off to haul firewood. We unloaded about 3/4 of a cord that day, plus another the day before. We put up a section of batten, and gave the wood stove a test run. We made a quick dinner, then Alan started clearing the outbuilding while I starting measuring and cutting the angled siding for the gable. By the end of the day, my arms turned to rubber and I fell into bed like a fallen tree limb.
The dream came back that night: this time I walked into a classroom of hundreds, with dozens more students walking in and out of a rotating door. I was filling in for another teacher and had to take attendance. I had no paper or pen (it was in the locker, naturally – the one I didn’t have the combination to) and needed to make a giant list, with students constantly being added and removed. My heart pounded.
It’s a dumb anxiety dream, for sure. Aren’t they all? What are the chances of anyone ever ending up on a stage in their underwear or being chased by a tiger or falling off a cliff? But it was mine all the same, just like my to do list.
Alan and I keep separate lists, despite sharing most things in life. We have separate checking accounts too, probably for the same reason – it lets us keep a level of control over the things that make us feel secure. We share the stuff on the list, as well as financial obligations – just not the list itself. If asked, Alan would rightly say this was all my idea, not his, and it’s true – I blame it on my buffer zone. I spend money the same way I spend time, in small, measured doses. While I chip away, he snow plows. In my world, the bathroom would have been finished sometime next spring. In his, it’s done in a caffeine-filled Saturday morning.
Alan would rightly argue that I’ve snow plowed too, on occasion. He’s seen me do it. My career as an artist, which I’d built on the on the backs of large corporate commissions, required a snow plow to make it possible at times. Huge projects need huge dumps of time and money and energy to bring them to fruition – especially when one does not have huge crews of people to help. But it isn’t my comfort zone. I remember the first time I had to quote a price in the tens of thousands. I felt so sick afterward I thought I might throw up. I wanted to spend the afternoon curled up in a ball with my eyes shut tight trying not to feel the weight of it all. And then there was the first time someone asked the inevitable question: When will you have it done?
Done? I didn’t even know how to do it yet.
But comfort zones expand, and difficult things become easier through experience, and I got through those projects and all the ones since by doing what I do best: chipping away. I learned to estimate timing by making giant lists – I’d literally write down every task I could imagine myself doing to bring the beast into being, then add them all up and ask myself how many I could do in a day. I’d count the number of days, and there it was. It wasn’t a perfect system; some tasks took longer than others. But it let me trade in the snow plow for a shovel, one that fit neatly into my small hands, and into my comfort zone.
As the weather warmed after the first cold snap, Alan and I were given a reprieve – one glorious week to pretend it was summer again and work in short sleeves. I felt the clock slow down and breathed the warm air deeply into my lungs. I ran through the mental copy of my to do list and it all seemed possible again. I looked at the studio, its posts now stained dark and its gable ready for siding and grabbed a ladder. On my way back, I glanced toward the row of trees at the far edge of our property and saw a single tree edged in red. My breath shortened and I felt the clock speed up again.
That weekend, Alan put a second coat of paint in the bathroom and we muscled through the rest of the tasks we’d allotted for the days. The gable siding got attached and stained, and we chipped away at the greenhouse. We picked a giant bucketful of pear tomatoes, and sliced and bagged them for freezing. Then weary and scarred with nicks from nails and screws and dabs of paint and stain, we called it a day and headed out for the evening.
We drove through the hills of farm country, the soybean fields now yellow and dry where just the week before they’d been green and lush. The grapes that hadn’t already been picked hung low on the vines, and the air smelled of their fermenting sweetness. The trees wore random splashes of brilliant red, as if they’d been haphazardly struck by a paintbrush missing its target.
Alan and I settled into a set of thick chairs in the back yard of a winery, and he slowly sipped a full-bodied red. My mind was still calculating the wood supports we’d need for the greenhouse. He’s better at this than I am, this relaxing thing. He may snow plow when he works, but when he climbs out of the truck, he closes the door behind him. I tick away in the background, even while idle – problem-solving while I sleep, if my subconscious deems it necessary.
I suppose embedded in our work styles is a deeper story: Alan lost both of his parents early on in life, and much of his extended family along the way. Only his siblings and nieces and nephews now remain. He approaches life with open arms, a full-bodied embrace. He knows the value of time and companionship, and gives every worthy person and project his full attention. It looks like a snow plow to me because I haven’t yet experienced the loss that creates such a deep appreciation of time and presence. My upbringing involved my dad chipping away at a job he disliked for 35 years, until the day he could be free to embrace life fully in retirement. His life taught me that the journey was a learning experience, a way to pay your dues. And that the road was long, but the reward at the end was great.
There is no right approach to life, I suppose. We all do what we can, and what we need to. And comfort zones expand, and work zones contract. I’ve tried to learn to be present in the moment, to sip the wine and breathe more and think less. But the taste of the vintage is acquired, and breathing doesn’t always come naturally, and not thinking is sometimes difficult to do. It is a practice, to be sure. And until it’s one I’ve mastered, I will work toward it in the only way I know how: chip away.