Cutting the grass is a kind of prayer.
Last summer we moved to a house on two acres of prairie in rural Indiana, and we bought a riding lawn mower. It was embarrassing, really—we’d moved from Seattle, where all our eco-friendly neighbors used gas-free, hand-push mowers. Now we drove a gas-guzzling tractor mower for two hours each week, all summer long.
When we’d first moved to Indiana, we’d smirked at the sight of women in bikinis riding tractor mowers, muffin tops jiggling as the machines bounced over uneven lawns. Now I claimed the job and decided to follow suit, mowing in a tankini and shorts. Might as well work on my skin cancer while I released toxic fumes into the atmosphere.
But it quickly became my favorite chore. Two hours of quiet. Two hours when I couldn’t check my phone. Two hours when I had to pay attention to what was in front of me, and nothing else. Every week I learned a little more about our property—exactly where the ground dipped, where the rainwater pooled, where the thistles proliferated.
Sometimes I’d mow and think about Wendell Berry. I’d read an essay where he instructed people to walk their property until they knew it like the back of their hands. Sometimes I’d mow and let lines of poetry reverberate through my mind. I’d watch the swallows swoop around the freshly cut lines, and think of Mary Oliver. She lists the things she sees, hears, wonders at in her poem “Gratitude”.
At the end of the poem, she concludes that all these things are how “the gods shake us from our sleep.”
When I was younger, I understood how God spoke, how spiritual growth worked: you attended church regularly, you read your Bible daily, you kept a prayer journal. Following these steps, you would continue to understand God better and become a better Christian.
It’s not that I’ve given up on those; it’s just that I’ve found that God speaks in so many other ways too. Lately the best prayer I’ve found comes when I’m on the riding mower, just paying attention. Noticing the birds taking up nest in the mulberry tree, the violet burst of the thistle, my neighbor’s soybean field, edging gold.
We live in an age of continuous partial attention, says writer Linda Stone, and I know it’s true; I can hardly make it through a TV show, even one I like, without checking Facebook on my phone. I’ve stopped writing this post twice to check Twitter. My mind is not still.
But when I cut the grass, or when I sit undistracted and watch my daughter dance, or when we walk down the street, unhurried, looking at every common rock and flower that catches my son’s eye, I find my soul being shaped for prayer. When I pay attention, I see that the trees are clapping their hands. The stones are crying out. The heavens are declaring the glory of God.
When I pay attention, I know that Mary Oliver is right: paying attention is a spiritual discipline, and in all of this, God is shaking me from my sleep.