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Food service, waste management – one father’s mantra

March 28, 2019

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette March 26, 2019

Spring has arrived, again. Sitting at the kitchen table, sipping a cup of jasmine tea as pink hues reached upward from the horizon and the sun peeked through our window, I witnessed this annual truth.

Here in New England, as I imagine is so in other northern climes, our response is muted, knowing, from experience, that spring’s early days are tentative, the prospect of additional snow and ice more likely than not.

Still, for me, the arrival and end of each season offer an opportunity — a moment to look inward, asking myself — what do I endeavor?

As a father to Zoe and Adam, fast approaching 13 and 10, and a husband to their mother, Lori, for almost 14 years, life has revealed that answers to this question is both elusive and evolving.

Early on, I fathered with the zeal of a mountain climber and distance runner, yearning and enduring as I raced toward the summit and finish line of my own making. While the pace was both exhilarating and exhausting, I never quite reached my destinations. I was on a mission, seeking to prove to myself, no doubt others as well, that I could father in just the right way — any day, anytime and anywhere.

This approach helped me maintain my focused devotion to family. It has also proved limiting, a lesson I have slowly come to accept. The day-to-day experience of fatherhood, marriage and work — of life — have ground me down, softening my edges as running water patiently and skillfully turns jagged rock into smooth stone.

But now, fatherhood — especially as Zoe and Adam seemingly defy the laws of physics by aging more rapidly than Lori and I do — has become more about mantra than mission. Aspirations of notable status in my one wild and precious life have been subsumed by a more humbling calling –  food service and waste management.

The well-known Zen Buddhist proverb, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water,” for centuries has intoned that to become successful at anything one must tend to the basics, and after achieving success one must still tend to the basics. The message is that how we do one thing (the simple things) is how we do everything (all the rest).

Enlightenment aside, I do hold high expectations of myself — as a father, and in general. It has been particularly useful, therefore, to realize and consistently remind myself, that success comes from, and is sustained by, tending to the basic elements that nurture our family — food service, waste management.

Of course, some days things fall apart for our family. One kid has the stomach flu, the other has a friend conflict. The toilet is clogged, the pantry is bare, the trash can is overflowing, the laundry is piling up, the car needs new breaks and work deadlines abound. In these moments, it’s grounding to remember that my role as a father includes tending to the essentials – food service, waste management.

And while Lori and I work effectively as a team, together tending to our family’s basic needs, food service, waste management — like chop wood, carry water — is simple in concept but difficult in practice.

Still, this mantra has come to repetitiously guide the daily meditation of my fatherhood experience. And so, as the earth softens, green life reemerges and birdsongs abound once more, I continue to endeavor, ever so gratefully, for success in my highest calling — fatherhood — through food service and waste management.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

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