I am not an astrophysicist, nor do I play one on TV. But I know quite a bit about the Big Bang. At least the Big Bang that happens when you run over a newspaper with the lawn mower.
Ever since I was a kid, I have loved mowing the lawn. We had a pretty big yard, and at some point I remember my dad coming home from Sears with a self-propelled mower.
I was so excited to get to use this new contraption. Unfortunately, I had to wait a while (a year, two years, I have no idea), until my dad thought I could handle the responsibility of chasing after a mower whose wheels moved on their own power. This was before self-propelled mowers had an easy shut-off mechanism. To get the mower wheels to stop turning, you had to shut the whole thing off.
When I met the minimum requirements for becoming a self-propelled mower operator, whatever they were, my dad took me out in the yard and showed me how to use the mower. For me, this was a thrilling coming of age moment.
Sometimes I mowed in squares, starting at the perimeter of the yard and mowing in increasingly smaller concentric squares. Sometimes I mowed in lines, back and forth. Once I tried doing that checkerboard pattern that I had seen in many trips to Kansas City Royals’ baseball games. The problem on that day was that the grass was too long and it ended up looking like a really bad haircut.
My confession today is that I especially loved to mow over trash. We lived on a busy street, so there was always trash in the drainage ditch in the part of our front yard that bordered the road. Styrofoam cups, paper cups, napkins, plastic wrappers, cigarette boxes, you name it. Just yesterday, I mowed our lawn and I saw a little plastic wrapper. As I gleefully mowed over it, I had one of those powerful sense-memory moments, where I felt like I was 12 years old again, mowing the front yard.
My crowning trash-mowing achievement was when I mowed over the newspaper. You may be thinking, hey, the newspaper isn’t trash! However, in my own defense, this was the early 1970s, and my dad had sent dozens of anti-war, anti-Nixon letters to the local papers, which never got printed. I remember hearing him refer to the local papers as garbage, rags, and/or trash.
Unmitigated delight is probably an understatement to describe how I felt as I was walking along behind our mind-of-its-own lawnmower one day and I saw a fairly chubby newspaper right in my mowing lane. I briefly considered picking it up and throwing it onto the driveway, or to a part of the yard that I’d already mowed. You know, the sensible, rational response to such a sight. But the temptation was too strong.
My giddiness turned to befuddlement as I hit the paper and nothing happened. The mower groaned, and sounded as if the engine might die right there on the spot. I started to back up when the engine suddenly revved up. There was a loud BOOM! as the newspaper exited the lawnmower chute in billions of tiny pieces. It was as if I had made it snow in July, or had caused the Big Bang.
I don’t remember what I said to my parents when they wondered where the paper was that day, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t tell them I had intentionally mowed over it. In fact, I can’t remember if I’ve ever ‘fessed up to this at all!
I’m not confessing now through some need of unburdening myself. I’m confessing because the image of the newspaper spangling over the front yard in little tiny bits has been in my head all week, even before I mowed the lawn yesterday.
Last night I was at a friend’s 70th birthday party, and another friend and I were talking about our creative processes. My friend said that his creative process involves periods of steeping followed by creative outbursts where he feels like he can barely keep up with his brain.
That’s when I realized why — all week long — I’d been seeing the slow-motion video-memory of the Big Bang of mowing over the newspaper. For most the past six months, I’ve been working on — mostly wrestling with — a book proposal. Sometimes it has felt like I’ve been in the La Brea Tar Pits. Then this week I finally figured out how to tie it all together, and it came busting out of my brain in a way that felt like the whole sky was filled with my book.
As for what comes next, I take comfort in the theory that 95% of the universe is composed of dark matter and dark energy — stuff that can’t be directly observed, but whose presence has been determined by the way it acts on the 5% of “normal” matter that we can observe. For a writer, or at least for this writer, that means listening, watching, observing whatever I can, letting it steep awhile, and then venturing into the vast unknown by putting one word after another, even and especially when those words come fast and furious, like a newspaper exiting a lawnmower chute.
In short, I’ll likely mow over a few more newspapers before my yardwork days are done. If you come out one day to get your paper, and find a constellation of confetti instead, you’ll know I was there.