When I find myself “seriously blocked,” I turn to physical activity. I sweep the back porch. Since this is a high-use area for me and my wife and our black lab, Cody, it always needs a good sweeping-out. Sweeping is an easy task. It doesn’t take a great deal of energy, but one does have to move. You must use your arms and shoulders. You will walk about.
There is a meditative quality to it. Sweeping is not a brain teaser. You locate the dirt and grime and sweep it—an easy effort. On occasion there might be some challenge. For instance, when I sweep the back porch—the one in the picture above—I usually have to sweep around Cody. He loves to lie on the smooth concrete floor. He refuses to move as I sweep, so I sweep around him, coming within a straw’s width of his nose and paws and stomach. He doesn’t move. If I do happen to brush a paw by mistake, he jerks it back, then it slides back into place: forgiving.
On I go, a kind of utilitarian harmony. I sweep the floor. My mind relaxes. There is a balance of movement and breath. I’m not rushed. There’s no stress. I simply sweep and allow my thoughts to settle. The Zen folks are right with this one: an empty mind invites clarity.
What is this emptiness? There have been countless books on the subject. For me it’s as if there are two rooms: one is the actual space I’m cleaning. The other is a room in my mind, an inner room where my thoughts hunker and crowd about demanding attention. I sweep the outer room and in time, (time that also disappears) the clutter of the inner room dissolves like an easy rain moving on, like ice melting. Suddenly, I find myself in a swept room, a clean back porch, where I can see to see.
As a junior in high school, I was required to take American History. Our teacher was the head football coach, and things weren’t going so well “football-wise.” Every day as we filed into class, he would be at his desk reading the daily newspaper, The Tennessean. We always waited, more out of fear than anything else, until he was finished.
On one particular morning, he folded the paper and pointed right at me. “Here’s something that might interest you.” And he read aloud a news story of a Londoner, an aging street sweeper, whose surname was Broome. He was devoted to his job, and he was known for his excellent sweeping ability. My classmates turned and stared. I became at that very moment the center of the universe, and for what? For having the same name as some old street cleaner!
Coach looked right at me. “Do what you do, and do it well. Isn’t that right Paul?”
“Yes sir,” I replied. I had no idea what he meant. I didn’t know what else to say. Coach nodded and smiled.
Ironically since it was Coach who pointed this fact out, it was taken as gospel, and since Coach was happy, everyone was happy. The ridicule I expected never happened. What did happen was just the opposite. I became, for fifty minutes, the classroom hero. One football player actually leaned over and whispered. “Way to go, Paul.”
That singular moment is all I remember of that history class. Many years later, my dear niece traced our Broome name to England. I thought of Broome, the sweeper, doing his work, being proud of his effort. It’s a good thought, a good memory.
Oh, and my porch is clean, and I’m writing—happily.