In 2001, as a newspaper copy editor, I was stopped dead in my tracks by a few lines that referred to a man who owned 500 lawnmowers.
"Five hundred lawnmowers?!" my mind sputtered. "Either this guy is a full-time resident at the Funny Farm or he has a view of the world that would be worth a snoop."
Soon enough, I met James Ricci, a man who did in fact own 500 lawnmowers and was likewise imbued with a world view of "industrial archaeology" that made thoughtful and coherent sense. I wrote an article for The Washington Post about him and in the process learned quite a lot about the history not only of lawnmowers themselves but also of lawns and gardens, the attitudes and sometimes arrogance that surrounded them, the slaves and elephants that had powered lawnmowers in the past and ... well a lot of other stuff I hadn't known and enjoyed learning. [I would have linked the entire article, but the opening paragraphs are all that remain available on the Internet without signing up for a seven-day 'free trial' of the newspaper ... one that asks for more information than I am willing to give.]
Five hundred lawnmowers. Years of generalized and specific learning. Deeper and deeper into this single and singular world whose tendrils reach out and inform hundreds of other ways of life ... is there anything that can't be learned from studying lawnmowers. I doubt it.
In spiritual life, it seems to be a pattern -- approaching the whole matter from the overarching- principles point of view, looking for the one generalization or pattern that will bring comfort and reason to a sometimes confusing cosmos. "God" or "love" or "compassion" or "emptiness" or "heaven" or "enlightenment" or ... well, pick an umbrella that will shield you from the rain... the joker in the deck that will bring order and clarity and power to all the other cards. Cards like lawnmowers, perhaps.
Sometimes I think philosophy and religion are little more than self-important and insane efforts to cheat death -- teachers and teachings dispensing wisdom and coherence with the assured and reassuring, picture-perfect certainty of a machine delivering candy bars. The big picture ... the really, really big picture ... the really, really, really big picture ... the really, really, really, super-big big picture. The picture that will contain all other pictures. Assuming I can get my hands on this picture, not only can I cheat my own death, but I can also tell you how to cheat yours. Religion and philosophy. The big picture approach. One-size-fits-all ... how about them apples?
The fact that the big-picture approach doesn't work never deterred the philosophically-prone or spiritually-zealous from tinkering and improving -- from imagining (sometimes quite imaginatively) that The Answer is right around the next corner or, worse still, that they have actually turned that corner.
This morning I remember James Ricci, a man with 500 lawnmowers, a man whose field of love and expertise never stopped growing, a man who had chosen to be serious about something and then brought his own honesty and determination and fearlessness to bear ... irrespective of the snickers or applause of others. James Ricci no longer seemed intent on cheating death. He seemed to be involved with living life... a life without corners to turn.
And doesn't that make better sense -- finding something (anything at all) that an individual might love or be concerned with and then, for once, serious-ing up. No more second-hand shenanigans. No more conferencing or networking or memorizing and regurgitating or mimicking. Just -- for once -- pick a card, any card, and follow it down the rabbit hole with honesty, determination and courage. Lawnmowers, chocolate chip cookies, sweet-smelling lumber, sneakers, book learning, travel, parenthood ... just don't let up: Anyone who imagines that s/he has turned or could turn the corner ... well, that's where the honesty, determination and courage become necessary.
The lawnmower god, by whatever name, is a god of peace. Not relief. Just peace.
No one could honor this god.
Only god could do that ... assuming he/she/it were into wasting time and energy and making another mistake.