Monday, August 6, 2012

Am I the Grasshopper or the Ant?

 I received an illustrated copy of Aesop’s Fables when I was seven. I felt very self-important reading the oversized book in one sitting. “The Fox and the Grapes” and “The Tortoise and the Hare” had memorable one-liners. Sour grapes and slow and steady wins the race, but it was “The Grasshopper and the Ant” that stored itself in my memory, like the food the ant gathered for winter.

It wasn’t simply work hard or be prepared that imprinted on me. There was a subtler more insidious message that fun would be punished, that discarding common sense and obligations in order to pursue what one enjoyed, or felt called to, or even passionate about, would lead to disaster.

Work hard. Plan ahead. Squirrel away provisions for every potential eventuality and always have a backup plan. Once you’ve done that, you can rest, for a moment.

That’s how I lived my life from childhood well into adulthood. I’d ration an hour to write (for me not my MFA) or watch an episode of Top Chef or Project Runway as reward for planning worship, paying bills, cleaning house, folding laundry.

Dessert not just after dinner, but, like the Little Red Hen (who wasn’t Aesop’s creation, but a distant cousin) not until I’d planted the grain, harvested the crop, kneaded the dough, baked the bread, and turned the leftovers into bread pudding.

But this last year, I’ve been living a bit like the grasshopper, taking risks: My husband took a severance package from his job. We listed our house and looked for jobs and a home near San Francisco.

I had a vision of building a writer’s retreat there, a place with a water view where people could leave their responsibilities and enjoy the scenery, free to create, inspired to follow their passion: a haven for grasshoppers.

We found a house. Made an offer, twice, were turned down twice. The job we were counting on didn’t materialize.

My husband began looking for jobs further afield. He interviewed near Seattle, one of two final candidates. We looked at houses. We got an offer on our house so we bought a fixer-upper on Bainbridge Island hoping my writer’s retreat would become a reality.

We moved out-of-state leaving behind our family—several who lived in the same town (one in the same house) as us, and depended on our daily availability—with the idea that my husband would soon be working for Microsoft.

That job didn’t materialize, neither has the one at Amazon. In the meantime, we’ve been remodeling: plumbing, sheetrock, paint, appliances, flooring, faucets, converting a carport to a garage with rooftop turf.

Working day in and out, focused like the ant, so that soon we could live like the grasshopper: my husband in high-tech corporate citizenship/philanthropy, and me offering writing retreats and workshops.

Around the end of June, my body had enough. My arms went numb, my nerves compressed by inflamed neck and shoulder muscles, the result of too much leaning forward during six months of painting, hammering, nailing, pulling weeds.

Take a break, the doctor said while writing a prescription for physical therapy.

“What are you going to do now?” asked our youngest daughter home from college. “Are you going to hire someone to help?”

“No.” My husband and I agreed. We couldn’t afford to hire professionals and didn’t want a crew here each day while we went about our business—which was what, if not fixing up the house?

“We’ll just take it slow,” we said and hoped, like the ant, we’d accomplish enough before winter.

We sat watching the sunset over water and wondered if we’d made a mistake moving, pouring money into a sixty-year old house that needs new everything, with my body overworked, with end of his one-year severance pay looming, and no new job for Kevin on the horizon.

An hour later, my husband received a message from our youngest nephew in Virginia. His summer job was over, and he could work for us for two weeks if we still needed him (we’d extended the offer back in February when his brother Ben-David worked for us).

An answer to unuttered prayer. An instant yes.

Five days later Elliott arrived. He tore out a wall his first night here. Three days after that, his eldest brother, married with a three-year old son, called and said he was willing to work, too.

We wondered if it was the prudent thing to do, paying two people, even loved ones, when we weren’t sure about our own financial future. On the other hand, this extra help would allow us to accomplish much more on the house than we could alone, freeing Kevin to look for work.

Christopher will climb out the attic he's been insulating and returns to his family in Wisconsin tomorrow.

Between them, our nephews have poured 250 hours of manual labor into our home in less than one month. My husband has sweated alongside them, staying up into the night placing orders for materials at Home Depot.

The transformation is incredible, although there is still much to be done.

The blessing has been mutual: We helped fund Elliott’s study abroad this fall and assisted Christopher with graduate school tuition. My arms, still numb, find joy in cooking for these hungry and grateful men, and stirring pots is easier than holding tools overhead.

There has also been the gift of relationship. My husband working alongside these two nephews, in the same way he worked alongside their father—who is no longer living, but whom they resemble so closely—remodeling their sister’s house.

This extended family laboring together in love and for mutual benefit is priceless. These weeks are worth every penny; no matter how distant the job remains.

I forgot for all these years, but I remember now that the grasshopper sang for the ants in the cold cavern of winter. He sang and sang, giving thanks, bringing delight to the overworked and weary.

Two Nephews, One Uncle, and One Daughter Refinishing One Deck

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