the serious business of simple

August 21st, 2019

Back in May it was time to clean the rain gutters. I knew it was time because I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done it. When your house sits under giant bamboo on one side and redwoods on the other, the gutters clog up like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve made it my job to muck them out every year, which might easily turn into every other year or longer if I lose track, and I’ve been losing track. I told myself that at my age I could fall off a ladder and break a leg, so I tried to hire someone else to do it.

In what I now think of as “the old days” there seemed to be more people you could hire for handiwork. A neighbor might give you the name of a reliable fellow who made a decent life that way. These aren’t the old days so I went on Yelp. I found a guy who advertised himself for cleaning windows and gutters and I phoned him.

He asked me to text him since he only communicated by text. When he showed up the next day to give me a bid he walked around looking up at the roof and said one hundred and twenty-five dollars. It sounded like a fair price to keep from breaking a leg, so I agreed. He said it would only take an hour or two, which struck me as peculiar. As I knew it, the job took two days if I was ambitious and two or more years if I wasn’t.

A week later he texted that he was on the way over to do the job. He got on the roof with a leaf blower, which surprised me, since my approach was more basic. Pretty quickly he came down and knocked on my door. The gutters were full of mud, he said, and he didn’t want to blow it all over the sides of my house. The job would have to wait a week or two until things dried out. He wouldn’t charge me for what he’d done so far. I appreciated that. After he left, I walked around the house and saw the mud that had splattered all over the sides and would end up sticking there.

I never heard from that individual again, which was pretty good news.

The other day I hauled out the ladder, climbed up and started in using just my hands. It was good work, and it felt good. I quit after half a day and picked it up again the next. By then I’d had a major breakthrough. My legs are not broken. My hands are not helpless. My thinking was crooked, but two days at the top of a ladder can straighten that out. Nothing is as complicated as we make it out to be.

Here’s a new talk on the practice of Zen, or the serious business of keeping life simple. If you’re facing something you think you can’t do, it might be time to listen.

Photo by Xin on Unsplash


  1. Had to smile. Cleaned my gutters last weekend. Have to do it 4 times a year here in the midwest. Had no second thoughts about it though I’m 64 – patt being money tight and part the pure pleasure of grubby tactile work. Was rewarded 2 hours later when we had torrential rains and the water flowed unimpeded down the downspouts. Reminded me of the clearing out of my own head I need daily as i sit on my mat – makes it more likely new or more interesting thoughts will flow.

    Comment by Joan diamond — August 21, 2019 @ 11:14 am

  2. Oh, those pesky contractions. I think the trouble lies there. Would you agree ? “Do” is simpler. Harder, braver and simpler. Thank you for the mucky reminder. I need it often. 

    Comment by Bonnie Rae — August 21, 2019 @ 12:27 pm

  3. Your essay is so timely for me. I am sitting on the porch thinking about the gutters that need cleaning. Wondering when, if, how, could I hire someone, etc. I’ve cleaned the gutters every year for years, but always the thinking is the same. Had the same experience last week with a sizeable stack of bricks we’ve had in our drive over the past three years. Thinking about them, looking at them, imagining how hard it was going to be to move them, looking for someone to hire to move them, blah, blah, blah. Three hours and two buckets of sweat later, all done. The doing is most often so much simpler. I’m nearly 60 now. Maybe by the time I’m 70, I’ll get it.

    Comment by Vince — August 21, 2019 @ 12:42 pm

  4. Your thoughts rang so true for me, as I continue to explore my propensity for procrastination.
    (reported live from my procrastination station 😉

    Comment by nurah — August 21, 2019 @ 6:27 pm

  5. You did well but there is nothing wrong with accepting that there is a time to hire someone to do some of these things. We are in our 70’s and a fall from a ladder could be utterly disastrous for us.
    We are getting very conscious of avoiding opportunities to fall.

    Comment by JanF — August 23, 2019 @ 9:10 am

  6. Cleaning the gutters is among the many mundane chores we must commit to lest our abodes fall down around us, taking us with them perhaps. We will leave all of it behind. Those we love. Communities we live in. All material things and various endeavors once important to us and maybe, hopefully to others. And then what? What do you believe? I have lately been questioning eternity, as well as the Buddhist “nirvana.” Being awakened to all that is around us maybe should be enough. Loss and mourning should be enough to affirm how much we mean to each other, as well as a motivation to “make things better.” I listened to you “pray” in your back yard for your special intentions. I guess that kind of thing is just comforting and compassionate, nothing more. They say the universe is expanding more slowly!

    Comment by Larry Misiak — August 25, 2019 @ 11:18 am

  7. I am in the process of reorganizing housework in a way where we don’t have to hire people and I don’t have to do everything alone. Also I hope it will help my children be self reliant in these matters after leaving the house.
    When my cousins were 14-16 years old, their mother/ my aunt -who had been a housewife up till then- went back to school. It turned out that she was very successful at maths. Her mother was a cleaner when my father went to college in order to be able to financially support him.
    I think it is important that people care for their own lives -in the broadest sense- rather than outsource everything. Care is often the first thing that is outsourced. It feels odd to me that people who care, for our food, our houses, our children, our parents and our gardens, our garbage collectors etc. are often treated as not on an equal footing to the people they are hired by to care for these things.
    My sister had (full time) nannies for her children, I looked at it and wondered about all those memories and anecdotes of my nieces and nephew that would not be remembered by their parents. Once my sister fired one of them (because she felt she was too cold as a person), a few days after that she passed a playground with her son, my nephew said “ I want to go there with Anne.” My sister answered, that they could go there together (Anne had been fired) he answered emphatically “No I want to go there with ANNE.”
    PS in defense of the guy you hired, jobs like this (and small building jobs) oddly enough are the most difficult to properly estimate what it will cost in time and money while they are often the first jobs starting laborers pick up.
    (I’m sorry this turned out so long.)

    Comment by Simone — August 27, 2019 @ 6:04 am

  8. Grandpa at 90, recovering from a broken hip, made us all crazy with worry as he propped the old wooden extension ladder against the 2 story house to clean the gutters. Yes, he did it: It was his life.

    Comment by MJ — August 28, 2019 @ 6:56 am

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