On chopping wood and carrying water

There is a Zen Buddhist phrase which has been repeating in my mind over the past week:

Before Enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.

After Enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.

I’m writing this post while on weekend call, meaning I finished up a normal Monday through Friday week and continued on through Saturday and now Sunday. Within the hospital, you need continuous coverage of the floors full of patients. This usually means a rotating call, where you pass the burden of weekend coverage between yourself and colleagues.

In some places, that means you are on call and in the hospital every other night and every other weekend. Here, it means I only come in one weekend a month. A very tolerable schedule.

Still, this is my first weekend call and it is definitely uncomfortable. I do not get the chance to decompress from the week after my customary five days on. I do not enjoy a “do-nothing-day” with my partner, my son, my dog, or my mother. At least I get Monday off, before starting an abbreviated 4-day work week on Tuesday.

A plus here and a minus there.


The work has been good.

On Thursday, I held three family meetings in one day and led a group session for patients. Stretching the limits of my capacity, like a runner going for their first long run. I definitely ended the day sore in metaphorical places I didn’t know existed. I had been sapped and drained, with little reserve left for engagement with my family. However, I felt the juice worth the squeeze as the three family meetings went well and the group session challenged me as a facilitator.

Chop wood.

You must chop the firewood continuously throughout the year. In the cold of winter, you must chop the wood. In the first warmth of spring, you must chop the wood. During the long and endless days of summer, you must chop the wood. As the leaves fall, you must chop the wood.

The fire demands its due and no one else will chop the wood for you.

As I woke up on Monday, leading into this seven-day workweek, I reminded myself to chop the wood.

  • Wake up, bring the baby downstairs. 
  • Change him out of the overnight diaper which has lots of overnight pee.
  • Let him air out.
  • Start the coffee by dumping out the grounds from yesterday, fill up the water tank, and hit start.
  • Play with a naked baby as he airs out.
  • Maybe take him outside.
  • Put a new diaper on him.
  • Usually, Mackenzi grabs him at this point, so I can put the finishing touches on the coffee and feed the dog.
  • Then, feed the dog and take her outside.
  • Finally, enough wood has been chopped so that I may go upstairs and rinse off before dressing myself.
  • Head into the hospital and take care of patients. 

Do the work every day and try to enjoy it. If not, at least get it done so that you don’t need to chop twice as much wood tomorrow.

And there’s the water to carry.

Our house is outfitted with a wonderful reverse osmosis (RO) filter, creating delicious water out of municipal pipes. A distant second compared to the fresh spring water available to us from the tap at Tumblebrook, our previous home. But still, a fine alternative.

The only rub is that the RO system is in the basement, near the water heater. The landlords had thought about bringing the whole system upstairs or rigging a line up to the kitchen faucet, but neither idea seemed feasible. As a result, a water container must make a few trips down to the basement everyday.

Carry water. Literally.

Usually before I leave for the hospital, I take a few minutes to fill up a big glass container with freshly filtered water for the family. It doesn’t take long, but just long enough for your attention to wander while the little stream pours. Not long enough to go upstairs and fiddle with something while it fills. Short enough to justify not bringing my phone with me. I’ve taken to stretching in the two or so minutes of downtime in the basement.

I also fill up the container before heading to bed, so that we have enough water for the coffee in the morning. The RO filter takes time to recharge, so you cannot fill up all the containers at once, you need to space out the trips to the basement over the course of a day.

And just about once a day, I need to empty the dehumidifier running in the basement. So I carry an empty water container down to fill up, and I carry a full container upstairs to dump in the sink. A weird dance that feels rightly balanced.

So while I may spend my day speaking with suicidal and psychotic patients, I still need to take a little time everyday to chop the wood for my family’s comfort and carry the water for our consumption. It does not matter how skillful my interview, or how well I document the encounter. The fire does not care if I was complimented by the attending or if the family members appreciated my efforts.

The wood needs to be chopped.

The water needs to be carried.


Long Form Sundays

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