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Balance

04/14/04 12:00AM By Peter Gilbert
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(Host) What do mud season and finding balance in one's life have in common? Commentator Peter Gilbert explains.


(Gilbert) Balance in our lives: it seems almost impossible to achieve. Amidst work, family, and an ever-growing list of chores - it's hard to strike a balance. We're pulled in a dozen directions. How do you balance ambition and contentment, or the needs of others and your own needs?

Even if we get it right for a moment, it's hard to sustain. You have to watch it lest, like milk that's heating on the stove, it suddenly boils over.

The best poem ever written about mud season is also one of the best poems written about, among other things, balance in one's life. Robert Frost's poem "Two Tramps in Mud Time" tells about a man splitting wood in his yard one mid-April day. He loves his chore, and he's confronted with a dilemma when two unemployed loggers walking by clearly want - indeed need - him to hire them to split the wood.

I read the poem many times before I noticed that everything on that day is in perfect - if fragile - balance. For example, the weather is poised delicately between winter and spring. Frost writes:

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You're one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you're two months back in the middle of March.

A bird's song is pitched just so - not optimistic, but not blue. Puddles abound, but come sunset, they'll turn to ice again.

The cordwood splits perfectly - neat, clean, splinter-less. The narrator's feet are spread in a wide, balanced stance, and the ax poised above his head is perfectly balanced - that is, until one of the laborers calls out to him mid-swing, and puts him off his aim.

The narrator recognizes that he loves his chore, but he does it just for fun. The two tramps aren't enamoured of the job, but they need the work. He realizes that the ideal would be to love the work you have to do.

He concludes:

My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.

Those lines echo Henry David Thoreau's advice, "Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it...You must get your living by loving." Frost acknowledged in a public talk that we don't necessarily succeed: But "[w]e almost do it," he said. "That's the object of everything. To get your love and need together."

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

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