12 Pieces of Wood

Joan working at her house I called my friend Joan last night. She was still coughing, but she brushes it aside like a tedious fly buzzing around a picnic table. I ask her what she’s doing and she tells me again about the 12 pieces of wood.

The 12 pieces of wood are those she is moving each day, diligently digging and detaching them from the frozen earth and bringing them inside or closer to the house for the fire. The men who delivered the wood dropped it in the wrong place, a large heaping pile soon covered by the endless snow that blankets her driveway. In all the years I’ve known her it never seems like the men place the wood in the right place and part of my mind always picks away at this fact like a tiny scab in my thoughts. I’ve even mentioned it on occasion, but my words disappear into the ether as Joan babbles on in another direction. I suggest she hire some students to help her – a young man happy to lift some logs for some pocket change. It seems like these helpful lads were always in the past and she doesn’t bother to look. Instead, each day she goes out and unburies the 12 logs. Anymore than 12 and it causes her back to ache, her side to hurt. It is slow, deliberate work. She has set a goal of 12

I puzzle over the 12 Pieces of Wood, meditate on them like a Zen koan. – what is the sound of one hand clapping, what is the meaning of 12 pieces of wood? In the question lies both insanity and enlightenment. I turn it over and over like a multi-faceted diamond. Each time I think of the wood, I come across something new.

It is easy to judge Joan for the chaos twirling around her. It is easy to admire her for her strength. It is easy for those 12 pieces of wood to become my own.

That’s it isn’t it? We all have our 12 pieces of wood, problems and conundrums that others don’t understand. From the outside it is easy to assess and judge to offer help, answers, advice. To find inspiration or comfort or disappointment or bemusement in the wood/cross another bears.

Today, I read an article about Michael J. Fox and his morning routine living with Parkinson’s. It was in Reader’s Digest in a section devoted to Optimism and the article was optimistic. Fox spoke about the trials of getting dressed, but noted that once the morning routine was all done, he left the room with a self-satisfied smile because “It Just Gets Better From Here.”

And, it is optimistic that Fox can look at life that way. It is inspiring. But, I’m sure he doesn’t look at it that way everyday. On some days I’m sure he’d like to give up the ghost and on other days he digs out the 12 pieces of wood, the consummate survivor.

I have lived with chronic illness most of my life, nothing serious like  Parkinson’s. Just illness that returns and returns and leaves me sick for weeks on end. And, I have friends who would say its wrong to say that, that I lack faith. And, others who just don’t understand, mountains out of molehills they think. And, others who assume I must be better by now and others who’ve been through it all with me and admire my carrying on.

And, that’s not even my 12 pieces of wood on most days. I have other things I dig and lift and carry more. And that’s just it isn’t it? We all do. Only sometimes we can’t see our own 12 pieces not from the inside. Sometimes, it’s too hard to understand what seems so clear to others and sometimes they just can’t understand from out there. Each of us has our own digging, our own carrying to do. And, so we puzzle over these problems or we don’t. We go through our routines and plant a smile on our face and hope it just gets better from here.

We learn from each other, we frustrate each other, we inspire each other, but in the end only we can determine how we will address those 12 pieces of wood. They are our anchor and our liberation – a Zen koan to which I will return.