ZW12 Commended – J. O’Loughlin

Sweeping Thoughts

Jan O’Loughlin

My neighbour Lenore has been ill for several weeks. She has had to give her car away. Now her sister’s car has gone from the driveway as well. This can only mean that Lenore has moved into the next stage of her illness and can’t be looked after at home.

I sit on my front porch in the morning sunshine of late May, eating buttered toast on a yellow plate. I’ve cleaned up the front steps, have swept leaves off and rearranged plants. As I sit with my tea and toast, a few autumn leaves come blowing in, but I don’t resent them. Even if I sweep and the wind brings more leaves, those new leaves are the leaves of the moment.

I remember a story from The Book of Tea where a Tea master urged his son to make the tea garden perfect for the coming guests. The son swept all the leaves and litter off the moss and washed the leaves of the trees with water, but the father declared the garden ‘not yet perfect’. The son kept on sweeping and cleaning to make the garden immaculate. When there was not a speck of anything or even one leaf littering the garden, the son called his father again to come and judge his efforts. The father came, looked at the immaculately clean garden, reached up and grabbed a branch, shook it and let a few autumn leaves fall onto the ground. ‘Now it’s perfect,’ declared the Tea master.

I suppose I’ve been cleaning my front steps and porch this Sunday morning as a kind of symbolic action. Sweeping a place clean makes a space, is an invitation, a welcome. In Japan, people have a custom of sweeping entranceways to shops, homes and businesses, following the sweeping with pouring and splashing water to make the entrance clean and fresh and inviting.

I’ve been reading a George Lois book where he takes up the idea of stripping a space clean to invite clarity and creativity in. He equates clutter and a lived-in workspace with distraction and lack of precision. The black and white photo in the book shows a bare room with one window, a clock on the wall and a large, bare table with only a telephone and a chair. Lois talks about feeling free within such an uncluttered space to work ‘loosey-goosey’ with the vital juices flowing.

There was a time in my life when I was both crippled and blinded by clutter and chaos. I felt like I was living down a deep mine shaft into which boulders were being thrown, the barrage causing a cave-in. I fantasised about escape finding me in the form of a great big bird swooping down and picking me up, along with my three children, and carrying us in its huge, accommodating talons into the sky, across oceans, back to my country.

In the end, I found a way to walk rather than be carried away. I took up walking, first in the early mornings, then at night too, then wherever and whenever I could. Frightening things that weren’t supposed to happen in normal, everyday life kept happening at home, but between the episodes of fear, I had my walking times.

Walking many times a day brought me periods of stability and simplicity. I could just be a person walking under the trees, or to the shops, around the campus, under the open sky. I stopped fantasising about how to escape the dark pit and started to think more about what it could be like after I left my broken situation behind. I thought about my living with violence and chaos as being in the past. After it was all over, I would be able to cast my mind back over that eventful period and it would take just a few seconds. It would be finite, a door I could close.

There was a time when walking helped me free up a space in my life, but today I am tidying and sweeping. In the afternoon I prune the front hedge and rake up the clippings, mountains of them. I clip and rake and take the clippings out to the compost bin, repeating this over and over again. At dusk the compost bin is full to the brim and the garden is looking neat and serene.

Lenore’s sister has been to pick up some things for Lenore in hospital but now their side of the driveway is empty again.

My neighbour will very likely not come back.

I sit once more on my front porch, watching the sunset light the underbellies of the clouds on the horizon. The glow is short; then the clouds fade back to grey.

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