October 21, 2020

Moving Dirt And Stone

By Gary Howe | Sept. 26, 2020

This year is taking a toll on me. I'm more sluggish. It's harder to get out of bed each morning. I have muscle pain that I didn't have in 2019. My fingers have lost some of their sense of touch. I haven't yet been tested, but I'm sure my ailments aren't COVID-19. Still, I ​feel confident the pandemic is ​at least partly to blame.

I'm not complaining, though. These bodily ailments come with the territory of coping with what is increasingly being vilified just by the simple act of uttering its name: the year 2020. I suspect that for decades to come, ​just saying Twenty-Twenty will be enough to conjure up the chaos, ​uncertainty, strife, stress, and sadness of this damnable year.

We mark certain tragic days, like 9/11, by their numerical date. Why not an entire year? There are ​ three months left. Instead of asking what else can go wrong, we ask—what else will go wrong? 2020.

With extended time at home and pent up anxiety ticking away, my body also aches in part because I've turned to an old standby I've used throughout my life to transport me through the uncertain times. I've​ been digging. I've been moving dirt and stones to and fro, sometimes without any real plan in mind. All to find a balance. There's always a hole that needs to be dug. ​Undug holes keep me busy. Digging defrags my brain, ​one that is increasingly clogged up with news of​ trials and travails.

I ​was 13 when I first remember deploying this laborious coping mechanism. ​Thirteen was a challenging year​ for me, as it is for many people, I ​understand. Recently, a friend reflected on their 13th year and declared​ in absolute terms that it was "the worst ever." ​For my part, I made it through year 13 in large part due to a heap of railroad ties we had in our backyard. These railroad ties might not have ever been put to ​their intended use – some forgotten landscaping dream – but they pulled me through that tumultuous year.

As a teen, influenced by the training montage in ROCKY IV, I spent hours in the rain, moving​ the beams of ​wood from one spot​ to another in the yard. A railroad tie weighs 200-300 pounds, so I wasn't lifting them outright. Instead, I ​was heaving them any-which-way possible, end over end. Whatever teenage angst was building​ inside of me, I'd exorcise it by relocating ​a​ stack of forgotten creosote-soaked wood. I've carried this practice, a therapeutic hobby of sorts, into adulthood. When times are tough, I move heavy things.

I live in Traverse City ​on a tenth of an acre. This summer, I've moved a couple of tons of dirt and a few tons of stone and brick. On ​my tiny plot of land, I've planted five new trees. ​It turns out that's one tree for each milestone death from COVID-19. A thousand. Ten thousand. Fifty thousand. One hundred thousand. Two hundred thousand. I'm anticipating planting one or two more before the end of the year.

I'm doing heavy lifting elsewhere as well. I'm wearing a mask when I leave home. I'm staying informed and learning more than I ever wanted to know about pandemics and the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. I'm following politics and ​am ready to vote when my ballot arrives. And, I'm examining the privilege afforded me ​just because ​I am a middle-class white male. There is ​a lot of lifting ​required this year. Say his name: George Floyd.

Moving mud and stone is therapeutic for me. It puts me in a flow where all that, out there, can be processed in the background. Many readers are doing other things to find their flow, like running, walking, and biking. Or gardening ​or​ learning to meditate or doing more yoga. The stress of 2020 is ​real​.

All this is to say, I ​wish everyone the ​time and space and energy to dive into the activity that provides balance and a mental health break. ​It's not always possible. Many people are hurting and dealing with immediate needs. There are countless circumstances where moving dirt isn't going to help much.

But the course of human history shows us again and again that​ in time, with work, it will get better. As our local friend singer-songwriter May Erlewine sings so beautifully, "Shine on, shine on, There is work to be done in the dark before dawn."

If nothing else, we know 2020 will come to an end.

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