Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
August 2011 - Volume 11, No. 8
Watching the Grass Grow
I must have been twelve—my after-sixth-grade Summer—the Summer it became my job to mow the family lawn. We had a push mower—not a power push mower, just a push mower. The only power was supplied by the one who pushed it: me. And it wasn’t one of those expensive Sears & Roebuck smooth push mowers, whose well-oiled blades would sing sweetly to you. It was just an old ordinary hard-to-work push mower. I was not pleased.
The year before, we had moved to Independence, the Iowa town that would be home for the rest of my public school years. My father was busy building a new business as the local photography studio. I was the oldest child, and generally healthy. Our house had an extra lot on the side, which was of course all lawn.
I have always been endowed with a generally pleasant nature. But I was a kid. And when I didn’t want to do something, I didn’t want to do it. Which, of course, is why I remember all of this in the first place.
What I vividly recall, even now so many years later, is at some point that Summer watching the grass grow. I’m sure there was the point where it needed to be mowed. But what I remember is the increasing height of the grass a few days well after that point - and a few days later, and a few days later.
It was the classic child-parent standoff. You all know about that. But even more-so it was also a standoff between me and the grass.
I watched that grass grow day by day. My parents, of course, were quick to remind me that it “needed to be mowed.” And I was equally quick to ignore them. Of course, they had the advantage because the longer I waited, the more difficult my job would be. But I had the advantage of an unrealistic fantasy that if I would wait long enough somehow I’d win, I’d be spared. I didn’t know how I’d be spared, but at twelve, one doesn’t think that clearly. And my parents remained unrelenting that it was my job to accomplish. Standing firm was their job, and in retrospect I’m sure it wasn’t easy for them.
And the grass continued to grow.
In my memory, it got to about seven inches, where in reality it probably was only about six. Then came the collapse of my resistance. I had to give in. It was awful! I could only mow it by pulling back a few feet then lunging forward, gaining about a foot. That was it - two or three feet back and one foot forward progress. It took me two days! And I’m sure I was a miserable beast for my family to live with during that time. But I did get it done. Dammit!
Did I ‘learn my lesson’ and for the rest of the Summer mow it in time - probably. I have no memory of that. All I remember is the increasing horror of watching that grass grow while I maintained my stubborn refusal to do what obviously needed to be done.
I know people for whom this struggle is a daily constant, throughout adolescence - and too often far into adulthood. “If you tell me to do it, I won’t - and you can’t make me!” And I’m sure I’ve done the same at other times, because it does “feel” familiar. But this is my only real memory. That’s why I treasure it.
What’s strange is that I don’t remember wanting my parents to give in. I really didn’t want to win, I just wanted to resist! Every day that I looked at that grass growing, I knew I’d have to give in eventually and mow it. I don’t think I even considered any other option - and in reality there was no other option (my parents couldn’t/wouldn’t do it, and no neighbors had power mowers back then which I could have borrowed). Nor did I really consider that the job would become impossible - only that it would become almost impossible (an important calculation for adult life as well).
What is it within our psyches that drives us from time to time to want to lose - albeit within a larger safety net? Maybe I wanted to test the world just to make sure I could trust it - trust that it’s stronger than my ability to resist it when it comes to getting done what needs to be done. A simple want, and all too frequently betrayed. Maybe that’s why this memory is important.
A few months ago, in church, the two pre-adolescent children of the pastor sat together in their usual pew, while their mother was out of town. They were very well-behaved - of course, there in a front pew under their watchful father’s eye. I felt sorry for them. They had to behave. Normally they’re with their mother, who kept them in line, but at least when she was there they were free to lightly mis-behave.
In the course of our human development, we somehow need an early phase where we are free to mis-behave, albeit within the safety of a larger trust. Then as we grow, we incorporate that larger trust and contain any beloved resistance deep within ourselves. It’s called “being an adult.”
A few years ago I visited the psychiatric unit of an area hospital. In the course of the tour, I was shown the “padded room” - where patients could have some necessary “time out.” To my peculiar disappointment, it was simply a windowed room with a couch, some chairs and a table. How sad, especially for the child inside me, for it seems there’s no place in this world anymore where as an adult I could have a safe full-out and delicious tantrum. (I know also my body couldn’t even handle it.) In our time, that need is replaced by numbing drugs. And that awareness saddens me more.
Yes, we still need to “push against” things. As a child that meant to test the rules, to see just how strong they were, how far I could go, how long I could let the grass grow. Now as an adult, that same energy emerges as an ability and willingness to “contend” for justice and the needs of those who need help, who need a champion, who need the safety of a more trustworthy order. The same impulse, but a greater purpose.
Yes, that Summer I did watch the grass grow and grow, day by day, and in the end it won. Iowa grass is hardy. But then I won too. That next Spring, in an entrepreneurial burst that has always served me well, I paid out $25 from my paper route money and purchased a simple push power mower. I still remember the platform was a dark green, and with a Briggs & Stratton engine. And during those next Summers, with that mower and my gas can, I made good money from my “lawn” customers all up and down 3rd Ave NE. Billy was growing up.
There are some secrets here.
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