I’ve always loved mowing the lawn. I know as a good environmentalist, I shouldn’t say that, but it’s true. I grew up in a comfortable middle or upper-middle class family where my parents for better or worse didn’t assign me many chores. In fact, mowing the lawn is the only chore I can recall. I don’t think I ever shirked this duty, but rather, embraced it passionately, as if training to one day join the grounds crew at some hallowed stadium or golf course. Perhaps it was because I was in love with watching the Robin Yount-era Milwaukee Brewers or afternoon Chicago Cubs games on WGN and marveling at the Wrigley Field fescue, that I took greater deliberation with my mowing. But from an early age, I’ve always appreciated a neat cross-hatching on a flat field of verdant grass.
Back in 2013 we bought a bright orange Husqvarna riding lawnmower with a 54-inch deck. Soon thereafter, I dubbed the mower “Monie,” which is short for “Monarch,” a gesture toward the lumbering piece of machinery’s coloring. Somehow, I’ve conflated a loud, slow, assemblage of metal and plastic with a beautiful, delicate and ephemeral butterfly. Apparently, I see no irony in the notion of me riding this iron butterfly over my property. This is how my mind works. If I’m being honest, the acquisition of a riding lawnmower fulfilled a life goal of mine. I was tickled.
It takes about 3½ to four hours to mow our lawn. Much less I suppose, if you’re just “cutting grass” rather than my tact, which is more “grooming the estate.” My wife tends to frown on my groundskeeping, because those four hours leave her essentially in charge of our two children and their needs. Earbuds in, engine roaring, blades of grass spewing out, I am unreachable. At times I have been accused of using Monie as an escape. Especially since the longer we have lived on our property, the longer it takes me to mow. This is due to the fact that I’ve begun mowing a circuit of trails around our 16 acres, all of the trails roughly 120 inches wide, which really requires three passes with Monie. The lawn may take four hours of maintenance, but the trails add another hour or so. I have also been accused of wanting to mow our entire property, of wanting to cut down every tree, shrub and wildflower, to make way for Monie. Ridiculous.
A few weeks ago, I found myself under the screws of a looming deadline. A big project was due and I couldn’t quite see an original solution for a problem I kept butting into. Other people might call what I’m describing “writer’s block.” Occasionally an aspiring writer will ask me, “How do you overcome writer’s block? What is your secret,” they’ll ask.
One of my secrets is mowing.
I think of writer’s block this way: Imagine you’re hiking along a soft, flat path through a wide open grasslands. Your way is smooth and easy. Then, you begin to climb a rise and suddenly, as if out of nowhere, an imposing wall all crowned in concertina wire looms up, stretching the span of the horizon. It’s as if the world ends at this wall. And for a writer, this is true. The story, the narrative just stops and instead of swirling familiar voices and characters dancing around, there is nothing but an ugly wall of cement as far as the eye can see. There appears to be no way to summit the wall or dig beneath it. Just the foreboding sense of being utterly stymied. But no wall is infinite.
When I mow the lawn, I’m not just cutting grass. Disconnected from the computer, my mind drifts and begins to loosen. Ideas bounce around and out. That metaphor of writer’s block I presented? That wall? On Monie, it’s like I’m driving to the furthest extents of the wall biding my time before I circumnavigate the obstruction. Maybe the folks at Husqvarna could use this catchy slogan: Mowing is meditation.
September and October are prime time for mowing the lawn. The weather is cooling, and a sweatshirt will soon be a welcome layer. To all of you walking behind Toros or Snappers, to all of you riding John Deeres or Cub Cadets, I toast your hard work. Keep those lines straight, your blades sharp, and always remember: High-octane gasoline and a frosty cold adult beverage. My best friend once pointed out that a person burns about a hundred calories per hour mowing the lawn on a riding mower. A hundred calories is a convenient number; essentially the same number of calories in a light beer. Sometimes the universe presents us with coincidences, and sometimes it is illuminating good practice.