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Swept up with grace

I parked my car in front of Wal-Mart and mentally started to calculate how long it would take me to accomplish this shopping errand. I'd always found such tasks disagreeable and tried to get them over with as quickly as possible. As I headed for the door, however, I recalled something I had seen on my recent trip to northern Italy - something I vowed I'd never forget. I slowed my step. Then, consciously sauntering, I remembered....

Each day some leaves fell quietly from the 50-year-old grapevine that shaded the front of the house. It had been planted at the base of a central pillar that supported the roof of the house, and trained to spread over lines strung like giant guitar strings across the courtyard - from wall, to pillar, to wall. The branches, some as thick as a man's arm, wove undulating patterns from line to line and supported a dense mass of broad, three-pointed leaves. The vine climbed the pillar from a shoe-box-size hole in the concrete, the roots working their way under the pavement to water.

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I sat outside each morning in the cool air at a long oilcloth-covered table, writing in a journal. The roof of the house extended far beyond the second-floor balcony and its attached clothesline. The shade of the roof and that of the vine created a lovely outdoor room. From here I watched as Beppe from next door swept the leaves to keep our shared space clean.

He used a variety of brooms, from fine bristled to coarse straw, and a dustpan with a long handle attached at a right angle so that he never needed to bend over. Today he used the softer broom, and gently scooped up the leaves and emptied them into a large plastic bag that he had draped open over the back of a chair.

The courtyard was entirely surrounded: six-foot walls on left and right - one of stone, the other plastered tile. Opposite the house, a garage formed the front enclosure to this completely private space. Few sounds carried to my table as I wrote. On the roof of the house beyond the wall, two doves addressed each other quietly - crrr-croorr-crr.

Energy and efficiency had always been important to me. When I swept a floor, it was done with dispatch. The next task was waiting.

I watched Beppe sweep the leaves from the courtyard. Something was different here. There was a grace to his sweeping. His slowness of movement was not the result of careful attention. It was a stillness he carried with him to the task. His purpose didn't lie around the corner, in a clean courtyard, but in something more present. His eyes were on the leaves, but carried no frown. It was as if he could see the leaves, but they did not offend him. Not one muscle was tense; he seemed to sweep as if the act of sweeping itself were good.

I wondered if I could ever sweep like that. I wondered if I could do my work with grace, appreciating it for its own reward, and not think of it as a means to an end. How much more fulfilling would each task be if I could meet it as friend, not foe. I would not mind that I would sweep again tomorrow. The birds will be there again. It will feel good to move.

In the Wal-Mart parking lot, a paper cup rolls in front of my feet, leaving a trail of sticky liquid. A car door slams, then another. Two women rush past me. I continue to saunter. I feel the muscles of my face relax into a smile.

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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