“Who empties the trash, Daddy?”
We were standing in front of an overflowing trash can in the neighborhood “fast-food chicken” franchise. It took me a moment to register my son asking me the question. I’d been daydreaming and lost in thought. Again.
Returning to the present moment, I quickly became elbow deep in a trash can filled with discarded cups, wrappers, half-eaten food, and other kinds of refuse left only to the imagination, trying to compact the garbage to make room for the mountain I needed to cram in on top. It was a sobering return to reality, a flashing symbol of where my whole life stood at that moment, much as I tried to summarily reject and forget the symbolic connections flooding my mind.
The distracted daydreaming didn’t begin at the trash can. I’d spent much of that meal distracted, lost in thought and self-pity. If I’m to be rigorously honest, it wasn’t just that meal, either, but all the ones that preceded it for weeks now, maybe even months. I was losing track of how long it had been since I was fully present around a table of food.
Mealtime brought into sharp relief the loneliness, pain, and loss of divorce. My son’s mother and my former spouse is an excellent chef, a real self-taught gourmet. Throughout our relationship, we regularly prepared and consumed lavish meals together, enjoying the communion of one another’s company alongside the culinary products of our labor. Her absence felt heaviest around meal times now. In an attempt to avoid the unpleasant feelings that come with separation, I stopped cooking almost entirely in the weeks and months following her moving out.
Fast food offered a change of scenery from our kitchen full of memories. It is also cheap, efficient, and concentrated time with my son, I told myself by way of justification. If I stayed focused on him, and avoided all places and rituals that reminded me of her or the family unit now lost in litigation and estrangement, my heartbreak and loneliness would stop. That was the plan, anyway.
Here I was again, lost in a daydream. Now elbow deep in trash trying to force more space in the world, in which to pile more trash. It sounded an awful lot like the last days of my marriage.
Distraction, avoidance, and willfulness—those words came up a lot in emergency couples counseling. They came up a lot in court-ordered mediation to settle the details of a temporary custody agreement and other exigencies of the one becoming two again.
Surprise! Here they were again.
“Who empties the trash, Daddy?”
“I don’t know” I said, “Who do you think it is?”
“God knows” he said.
“Oh yeah?” I said
“Yep! It’s probably somebody big and strong like you, Daddy” he said. “I am still too little, taking out the trash means you have to be big and brave!”
In silence I thought to myself about strength, bravery, and my capacity to “take out the trash” of pain, heartbreak and loneliness in my own life. To heal, I would need these skills and attributes. Was I up to it? Was I big and brave enough? He didn’t have a clue that his words were ringing in my heart or that his imaginative job description for the work of clearing trash was actually a challenge to my present situation.
Today is the Feast of Saint Bartholomew. Despite brief honorable mentions in each of the synoptic Gospels, and a scholastically sketchy conflation with Nathanael in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, we know very little about this apostle and saint. Tradition holds that he met a grisly martyr’s death after helping found the Church in Armenia, but little else is recorded of his life or ministry.
Yet, even in the absence of a robust account of his life or ministry, Bartholomew’s feast day is celebrated as one of the Major Feasts of the church in equal standing and prominence as fellow apostles who’s lives and ministries are better understood and recorded (ie: Peter, John, or Paul).
In celebrating this feast, we hold his significance as an unseen matter of faith. While largely unknown in modernity, Bartholomew life was certainly consequential and significant among those he met, taught, and influenced as apostle and witness to the resurrected Christ in the first century. That’s all we know about him.
Who empties the trash, Daddy? Who is Saint Bartholomew? These questions resemble one another and their answers require filling in gaps from circumstantial evidence and context clues.
My son nor I know the name of the worker who empties the trash, but he knows you have to be big and strong to do it. He knows that you have to use your strength to be brave. We imagined together what it might be like to have that job, and having determined the qualifications, he was pretty sure I was up to the task, too.
As a community of believers celebrating his feast day, we do not know many details of Bartholomew’s life and ministry, but as an apostle called by Christ, and as a witness to his resurrected life, we know his life to be one of profound significance and sacrificial service. After all, it led to his death among the martyrs of our faith.
In both cases, we seek to determine what we do not know, and in both cases, gratitude rises in our hearts from what we can surmise or imagine.
A year after the trash can incident, my son and I have developed a regular pattern of imaginative inquiry conversations about all manner of topics.
We talk about the sprinkles on his Saturday morning doughnut, who is the sugarcane farmer, the wheat grower, the pastry chef who prepared his treat?
We talk about the landscaping in the park around the corner from our house, who planted the seeds, cleared the flowerbed, mulched and cultivated the ground and made it beautiful?
We talk about the firefighters who are always washing their bright red truck when we pass their station on the commute to daycare, who might need them today? People who are sick? People who are building new houses and need them inspected? Little boys and girls who need to learn what to do in an emergency?
Lately, we even talk about my work as a parish priest. He likes to imagine what I do all day while he is at daycare; and I let his imagination run wild because often it’s way cooler than what is actually scheduled on my calendar.
Each brief wondering forces us to take notice of the circumstances and small context clues in our world. Moreover, they force us to go deep and approach the people and items that populate our lives with gratitude and carefulness.
I knew this practice was working when at a fourth birthday party for a classmate, my son went up to the mom of the honoree holding his cupcake and said, “Thank you for the cake, and for the farmers, gardeners, and cake makers who helped you.” She looked over at me and made eye contact with a smile, then looked back at my son standing beneath her, took his hand and said, “Thank you for coming here to celebrate, and for your daddy who drove you, the car mechanic who tuned up your car so it runs smoothly, and the refinery worker who produced the gasoline in the engine.” He beamed!
On this feast of Saint Bartholomew where can you apply some imaginative inquiry in life?
How can you get the kids involved in wondering aloud about all those who populate their lives, seen and unseen, known and unknown?
Who stocks the grocery store shelves? Who paves the roads?
What does your priest do during the week? What might the ministry of a store clerk be?