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The Zen of Raking Leaves (or, How to Burn a Robin)


"The Zen of" is a familiar phrase for most of us. We've had it applied to running, walking, spiritual practice, and even motorcycle repair. In a nutshell, it means learning to be meditative in whatever task come before us. To center ourselves in the work, to immerse ourselves in the labor. We have two little trees in our yard, but our neighbors have leaf factories, I swear. Me, I love raking leaves. Most people, I know, see it as a chore, an obligation. Something done so the neighbors won't talk or so the grass won't die over winter. But I can't wait for Saturday after the leaves have fallen, when I can get into the Zen.

My reason is simple. I miss my dad. He passed away when I was in high school ... too soon. He never met the gorgeous girl who would become my wife and life long companion. Never played with my kids. Or their kids. And they never knew the kind, gentle soul that he was. My fondest memories of my dad revolve around work. He was a cabinet maker and an early DIY'er, before there was Lowe's or Home Depot. My brother and I helped and learned. Taking down or putting up storm windows (real ones, heavy ones, made of wood), painting the house, tiling the bathroom walls. And raking and burning leaves. You could still burn them in those days, and our yard was full of leaf factories. We'd pile them high in the alley and then add our smoke to the great cloud hanging over our end of town, glowing in the sunset. Dad handled the matches, and made sure we didn't set our bamboo rakes on fire.

And yes, we burned a robin once. It was already dead, so relax. My brother found the little body in the backyard and suggested we see what happened if we threw it into the big pile of burning leaves that filled the alley behind our house. Father rolled his eyes but said, "Sure, why not?" Amidst all the flames and smoke and leaves we soon lost track of our cremation victim. Much later we raked our blackened sacrifice out of the ashes. Not much was left except a charcoal-covered little lump, but we were fascinated. Father laughed and shook his head at us. We got the Zen. He didn't. I helped my dad with the leaves every year until the Autumn before he died, when he was too ill to participate. After that, it was my job to rake the leaves. Alone. Now, nearly fifty years later, I rake to remember him. That's the Zen for me.