I cannot remember when I first knew that I was not alone. Growing up as a middle child of five with my Mom, Dad, Nana and Grandfather there was little time to ever really be alone, but I tried. I would ride my bike, climb trees, or just run around the block as fast as I could, so fast and determined to get to a place where I would be alone.
Don’t misinterpret, I love my family and they love me. It was because of our love for each other that I felt safe and compelled to explore the vast neighborhood before me. The ache within pushed me to be alone, to be silent and to do so with any opportunity that presented itself. More so, I knew as a young person that I was not running from something, but to something.
It was this persistent knowingness from within that called me to be alone. However, in my youth I soon came to discover that to be alone may sometimes come in relations to being with others. As always when you are a child there are responsibilities and my favorite one was taking out the garbage. In a funny way it was the chore that I really looked forward to.
Speaking of funny our dad was my rock, my mentor and my comedian. His ability to take a mundane task and turn it into an afternoon production was his gift. He never did anything halfway. It was all or nothing. You could see this expressed in the way he loved my mom. The way he talked to her, the way he called her Em, and the way he looked at her. When he looked at her it was always as if he was seeing her for the first time.
So you might be asking, how is this all going to come together? My dad had this funny way of doing the garbage and I do mean “doing.” For him it was a ritual, a project, and more so a family production. Now mind you this was before recycling. For him assembling the trash began with tearing the cereal boxes into tiny little pieces, then moved to sorting glass jars from aluminium cans, and ended with folding newspapers with the skill of a paper carrier. And doing it all so he could gently place it all back into one bag. It was an art and my dad was the artist.
So picture this, it’s Sunday afternoon and my dad is heading toward the kitchen. You begin to hear the kitchen closet squeak as he gently opens the door. The sound ripples throughout our home to cue my family to take their places. My three brothers bee line to the front door, my sister heads for her bedroom, and my mom picks up the phone to call one of her many friends. While I stand in the front hallway as if I am a crossing guard making sure everyone safely makes it to their destinations.
The constant background noises of a family of 8 is nearly quiet except for the last slamming of the doors and my mom’s melodramatic whispers, “oh, really, oh no, she did, no way.” It was as if the home itself took a sigh of relief then my dad turns to me and gives a big smile. I smile back intrigued and fixated, as if we are sharing in on a secret and the secret is that we are alone, just me and my dad, connected and in the moment.
Thomas Merton says it brilliantly, “His presence is present in my own presence. If I Am , then He is. And in knowing that I Am, if I penetrate to the depths of my own existence and my own present reality, the indefinable “am” that is center I pass into the infinite “I AM” which is the very name of the Almighty.” It is in this I AM Presence that my dad and I connect to the infinite, the universe.
For me, my dad was at home in the universe. He was connected to the universe and experienced total universality of all things. He had a personal relationship with his tasks and his experiences. For him taking out the garbage was an opportunity to be fully present, to be a witness. It was as if he was so present to the process that it was here that he was fully connected to his spiritual practice. My dad was mindful to his connection to nature, all creatures, humanity, and the spirit of God. His Sacred Exchange was the reality that our spirit extends beyond our immediate boundaries. Our influence is vast and universal. In some way my dad knew that the act of being present is purposeful. His commitment was a pious act.
Devoted to his task, I watched as my dad began the tearing, shredding, tinkering, sorting, crumbling and smashing as he would then carefully place each piece in its appropriate place. Upon completion he would smile once again and hand me the bag as he would turn and walk away. I would be standing alone holding the bag honored to once again take it out to the curb.
Piety is the bridge between the natural and spiritual world. It is through devotion to nature, family, and community that one seeks and finds solitude. It is in the nurturing and tending to the relationship with our connection to All that we find happiness and contentment.
Philip Boeman Eastburn 1915-1993