The Last Bath

Will we know it when it happens?

And (if so) how will we know?

Will we know that we know?

Will we be able to recognize it?

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Will the moment herald itself

  with the shout of an archangel?

Or will we anticipate its coy arrival with

  a kind of parental prescience?

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Will we decipher cryptic foreshadowing

  or detect an otherwise obscure clue?

Will we commemorate it in the moment,

  in real time, en diem?

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Will we parade it down the staircase

  like Calvin’s living art?

Will we celebrate it, savor it,

  memorialize, or mourn it?

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Perhaps, like a winter holiday

that we tacitly cling to,

it will unceremoniously,

surreptitiously pass us by—

a moment unmarked,

unheeded, unnoticed—

until finally, in years distant,

as erstwhile nesters,

we cringe and discard

the last of our last child’s bath toys?

.

There are notes of melancholy

  in every goblet raised to Progress.

Often a veiled pain accompanies

  the celebration of success.

Milestones are marked and praised,

  and dreaded as much as desired.

We long for what’s next

  while we pine for what’s past.

And we never really know

  which Saturday evening

  will bring us

The Last Bath.

January 7, 2022

Melting Pot on Nostrand

Before our client starts construction in the vacant lot (foreground), I need to photo-document the conditions of the outside of the neighboring building and the interior walls of all the apartments bordering the site. I have been granted access to 16 apartments this morning and am waiting on five more after 3:00pm.

Although the floorplan of each apartment is repetitive, walking across each threshold is almost like traveling the globe, visiting a different culture in seemingly every home. The superintendent says there are tenants from at least Haiti, Indonesia, Israel, Jamaica, India, and South/Central America—not to mention the tenants native to this borough. She estimates there are at least ten languages spoken in the building (she only speaks two!).

I could only begin to mention all the sights, and sounds, and aromas of this six-story melting pot. Prayer mats, quotes from the Quran on the wall, a crucifix above a bed, wigs on the bedposts, mattresses on the floor, a Skype call to India between toddler and father, and a superintendent who knows each tenant by name and greets them all with affection and warmth.

In my 36.5 years of life, I have never left North America—but on days like today I feel like I’ve travelled the world.

December 21, 2018

Thy People Shall Be My People

How often do we reflect on the profundity of the simple proverb Opposites Attract? It’s a brief axiom as familiar as a surname and ordinary as an apple, but to probe its meaning and implication is to plumb a mine shaft of mystery. What do we mean when we say, “opposites attract?” Why are we so often compelled to audibly acknowledge this lucid, conspicuous truth? Why do we so frequently delight in this revelation and bask—as if it had fallen afresh upon Creation—in the joy of its light?

We feel attraction to the Opposite because so much of our lives is spent in the enduring embrace of the Known, the Familiar, and the Like. Our friends and follows, our politics, and even our pantries are all neatly curated and discriminately culled. Little about our lives anymore is foreign or happenstance. Insular unto ourselves, each unto his own, and ever more so ad infinitum.

So many of us, if left as unchecked captives to our wants and desires, would otherwise descend further and further into the inertia of our own self interests. Our affections would be guided chiefly by clannish and tribal mores. Our pursuits would be fed by the familiar and perpetuated by the predictable.

But that which is Other sparks a flash of novelty across our familiar, placid landscape. And Opposite dances a Funky Chicken to the offbeat of our innate and incessant rhythms. The Opposite in another can unexpectedly attract us because it is outside and apart from us. We can become bewitched by another’s polarity and find ourselves inexplicably and inseparably intoxicated by one’s differences in behavior, opinions, and worldview. Opposites, as they say, attract.

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One of the most delightful and enduring means by which Other has been introduced into my life has been my marriage to a daughter/granddaughter of the Roszel family. The portion of my life spent conjoined to my Rebecca Rose has been one bright, burgeoning ray of newness and novelty. My wife is both my singular Compliment and my supreme Opposite.

Of course, we share a number of overlapping interests and a similar list of essential tenets. Music, literature, and time outdoors comprise a significant portion of the former. The orthodox Christian faith, familial devotion, and conservative, constitutional patriotism the latter. The concentricity of our passions and creeds is no small portion of our relationship’s Venn Diagram. But the Otherness and even the Opposite of our personal histories and heritage is what continues to fuel an attraction.

So knitted are the events and changes of our last 18 years together, that it’s hard to recall just how many differences we brought to the His and the Hers sides of our relationship in the beginning. I was a Presbyterian minister’s son from the most densely populated state in the Union. She was a dairy farmer’s daughter from a place where you can only hear the neighbors if they’re shooting firearms or fireworks (or both). My home life was stable, almost sedentary. She was a child of divorce. Rebecca grew up on a diet of Uriah Heep, John Mellencamp, and Van Halen. My home rang with peals of Canadian Brass, Handel’s Messiah, and Peter Paul and Mary.

Rebecca met my dad while he was chaplain at Camp Susque. In a way, you could say she met him while he was “at work,” teaching and preaching at a summer camp. My first impression of her father was similar—except he was crouched under a cow, rubbing iodine on a teat when I made his acquaintance. Oil paintings and rose gardens v. beaver pelts and rifles. British Canadian traditions and manners v. Susquehanna County sensibilities. Jacob v. Esau—Opposites.

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It wasn’t until we welcomed children into our own home that Rebecca and I reflected on the unique blessing that we both held in common: Both of our fathers worked at home during much of our childhood (and these were days before people pretended to work from home on things like Virtual Desktop Infrastructure and meetings a la Zoom). Our fathers were actual masters of crafts and tended shop right upstairs or down the dirt road. We were like little smithy’s kids. I remember how my siblings and I were shushed outside when Dad had counseling appointments or sensitive phone calls, and I greeted the men of session like family. Rebecca brought her dad lunch out in the hay fields and chatted with the visiting farm vet like a familiar family friend.

Our close proximities to our fathers and their domestic professions gave us each access to their persons in a wholistic sense. We knew our fathers’ schedules and obligations and needs because our own worlds orbited and intersected theirs. We watched them bear their burdens and toil against the thorns. We felt the weight of the hard times and we shared in the celebrations of their modest (but meaningful) successes. We knew our fathers because our fathers were part of our lives. They were present—more than present—they were active pillars and living fixtures of our lives.

As I reflect now on the breadth of what was occurring seventeen and a half years ago as a young engineer from northern New Jersey was asking for The Blessing of a second-generation Pennsylvania farmer before proposing to his daughter, it seems like so much more than a bestowing of permission. It was more than a declaration of intent and a corresponding assent, more than a confession of young love and a nod of an elder’s approval. I was—there at the barn in the pre-dawn light of a Sunday morning, and then a year later on a Saturday afternoon at the front of a church sanctuary—asking for permission and then later vowing to steward another man’s greatest treasure. There was in that conversation and in our subsequent covenant a transfer of headship, and an entrusting to me and to Providence the care of a good man’s only daughter.

My mind keeps coming back to that morning at the barn in these days since the death of Rebecca’s father in July. It stands now as one of the bookends of a relationship that has ended here on earth. I continue to reflect on what was asked, what was promised, what was granted, and what was given. I consider all the ways that those things have played out and have been fulfilled over a year-long engagement and 16.5 years of marriage. But I am surprised to realize that never—neither at his Blessing nor in any of the subsequent days—never did I once consider the fact that I would be caring for Rebecca after her father’s death. The shortsightedness of Youth is blind to even the most obvious facts of fate.

At 22 years old, standing before a man exactly double my age, I had no wealth or portfolio to present as dowry. I could not hang a persuasive speech upon any assurance outside of myself and my aspirations. My career at that point consisted of a summer internship and a week of entry-level orientation. My debts far surmounted my assets. I was at best earnest and honest and eager to try. But beyond my words, I offered hardly anything more than a pink carnation and a pickup truck.

Since that Sunday morning conversation with her father, I think that I have in many ways spent 17.5 years striving to—humbly, respectfully, with a good and grateful heart—be considered worthy to stand in the place of that man, my father-in-law. This is no small thing, and it occurs in no modicum of time. Both in his sight and beyond it, within his home or my own, I had aspired to earn his respect, to make good on my simple youthful promises, and to assuage beyond reasonable doubt any fears for his daughter’s condition. My wife’s hands had, as it were, always been just-received into my own from her father’s at the head of the aisle. The answer to “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” still as ardent a focus, as magnificent a burden of duty, and as joyful an aspiration to fulfill.

Under normal circumstances, from the vantage of youth, marriage does in many ways feel like standing in the place of a man—with fear and trembling at times. And Youth hardly knows any better (in fact, Christ’s rebuke to the sons of Zebedee, “You do not know what you ask,” comes to mind). But young men in ages past and present have hardly ceased to scale those mountains and to stand astride their summits. This is at least a small part of what is meant when a man is said to “leave his father and his mother and be united to his wife.” But beyond the wooing and the wedding, beyond the rings and the vows, a young man at his wedding receives a vetting and a validation. When a young man receives The Blessing of his father-in-law, he is being entrusted—invited, even—to stand in the place of his wife’s protector, provider, and primary authority. There is a real transfer of stewardship, and a profound charge of the most precious kind.

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A father-in-law/son-in-law relationship is unique in many ways. It is one of the rare instances where two men can love the same woman without significant tension (or bloodshed). It is a love without jealousy or competition, without subversion or sabotage. It is an extraordinary and many-splendored thing in the world of Men. So the death of my wife’s dad was more than the loss of my father-in-law. It is more than the greatest source of earthly sorrow that my bride has ever known.

Here we now stand together at this new threshold, Rebecca and I—the loss of the first parent between us. I am lacking the distant but affectionate approval of my wife’s father. I have lost his “Old Son…” wisdom and a seat at his hand-made table. I will miss the thrill of psyching myself up to tell him a story and the quiet euphoria of occasional successes. My wife, though, is more likened to a satellite thrown off its orbit, tumbling through the ether past the memories and memorabilia of her father’s life. It is at the loss of her father that we have truly and most accurately started to plumb his impact and legacy in our lives. It is only in his wake that we realize what a wide berth he occupied on our horizons.

Suddenly I find myself, as it were, rowing in the boat alone, my fellow oarsman no longer pulling from the other side. I may heave and strain against my oar earnestly, but there are very real ways in which our modest craft is only spiraling, albeit broadly. It is a question of balance, and the answers remain elusive. No longer does my wife draw assurance and security and affection from that other oar. My wife has lost the other great love of her life. And she has lost that special man who loved her first, as the country song says so well.

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Perhaps a young buck thinks that he is loving his girl well if he loves her better than her father did (or still does). Perhaps the ideals of immaturity can be forgiven for aspiring—innocently, ignorantly—to stand in the place of father, brother, uncle, grandpa, etc. with a love that is unique and enticing and debonair. But the humility and wisdom that only come with age teach a man that his greatest aspiration should be perhaps to only stand alongside his wife’s kin with his devotion—a love enduring and ethereal but different. He will, after all, only ever (if he does his job well and for long enough) establish himself as a primary oar on one side of his wife’s galley.

A young man does well to live a married life worthy of standing in succession to his father-in-law, be he nobleman, journeyman, hero, or hermit. It is the wise man who realizes with contentment that his wife’s heart is never really his sole possession, whether in sickness or in health, in joy or in sorrow, or “‘til death do us part.”

Autumn 2021

The Maples of Broad Street

The maples of Broad Street were slumbering in bed,

They were dragging their feet as if gilded in lead.

They’d put off preparation until late in the season,

And kept snoozing their alarms for some quite unknown reason.

But the maples of Broad Street, to a tree, knew their duty.

The maples of Broad Street have (at last!) shared their beauty.

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The maples of Broad Street have ceased to be tame,

The maples of Broad Street are shaking their manes.

They’re screaming out oranges, and roaring bright reds;

Up and down the street is colored, from our lawns to their heads.

The maples of Broad Street are a fiery glow.

And the spectacle on Broad Street continues to grow.

October 19, 2016

A Simple Wooden Glider

A simple wooden glider at the curb for Bulk Trash Day. Its rear cushion sags and hangs tenuously by a loop re-sewed twice. The armrests have long since lost the softness of their pseudo suede and are worn and polished like a haystack rock on the Oregon coast. Years ago, the chipboard seat support bent and then failed. It was replaced with a custom-cut piece of plywood that improved support at the expense of sustained comfort.

But this tattered piece of nursey furniture is more than just a portion of the homeowners’ 500-pound annual allotment of bulk residential waste. Its function and form are associated with the most tender maternal attributes of my wife, while its presence on the curb recalls the sharp sadness of the longest and most chasmic disagreement of our marriage. This chair has supported a mother and her infant babies for hours too numerous to be quantified and in moments more precious and intimate than can be described. This chair has rocked four babies to the hymns of heaven and has held and supported a tender-hearted woman who in the darkness of newborn nights was at times crying harder and more desperately than her child. This cushioned glider has been a silent, supportive partner in cold winter midnights and a cheerful companion on bright summer mornings.

This chair has borne my wife and my four children for a decade and contains within its rhythms and textures and scents and sounds so many of the memories and moments that make a mother-child relationship so singular and precious. It has served faithfully and has more than earned its retirement. Even from a father’s vantage, it feels less like discarding old furniture and more like bidding farewell to an old friend.

October 10, 2020

In His Time

Every year I marvel more and more at how long it takes for the Aster and the Goldenrod to bloom. Think back to when you saw your first blossom of Spring. Maybe it was a Crocus against your house, or perhaps you spied Snowdrops in Central Park. But now, in the damp of an autumn morning or the dry warmth of an October afternoon, they seem like memories more distant than a high school romance. Even the Daffodils and Tulips of early May feel less contemporary than Christmas decorations at this part of the growing season.

Why do some flowers jump out of bed and race into bloom at the first light of Spring while others dawdle and delay for months and months on end? Relative size is not the answer—after all, the Maples blush red at even the first hint of warmth on the March breeze. The Aster and the Goldenrod seem like twin hares yawning out of bed with drooping ears and mussed whiskers, expecting to sprint to the flower finish seemingly unaware that a veritable parade of tortoises have been bursting into bouquets and nestling into nosegays since April.

Why do some flowers bloom in March, and some in April, and some in May, and still others in June, July, August, and even now in September and October? Why such a spread, why such a timeline? Why doesn’t everything bloom during some uniform window of ideal conditions? Why don’t the flowers just hold a grand convention in the third week of May? It would certainly save the Goldenrod the annual embarrassment of oversleeping for six months of broad daylight only to arrive for the gala after all her friends and relations have been plucked, mowed, or laid to rest weeks and months before.

Why do the October flowers wait so long to bloom? Why do they hold out this late? What makes them grow with such persistent sloth, forming stalk and stem and leaf but withholding the blossom until first frost is upon us? Isn’t the answer in the question? Isn’t the most likely conclusion that the reason there is a wonderful progression of the earth’s blooms is because it is wonderful to have a progression of flowers throughout the temperate months? Isn’t this just simply a gift from God?

Endless options for the tireless drone.
Unceasing inspiration for the aspiring artist.
Unlimited opportunity for the wayfaring romantic.
Infinite doxologies for the awe-filled eye.

“He has made all things beautiful in His time,“ says the Preacher. “Yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these,“ says our Lord and Creator. Indeed he who has eyes to see, let him see.

October 8, 2021

For Rebecca

I knew something that she didn’t know about the cornfield on the left. “Guess what they’re going to build there,” I said. “I dunno, what?” she replied. “A gas station,” I answered. “Not the whole 100 acres–just that corner by the stoplight.”

I knew this because our firm had won the bid to do the geotechnical investigation in advance of the site plan approval and construction of the project. I thought she would be a little impressed that I knew something of the development plans for our part of the county. I thought that she might be happy to hear that I might have a job site close to home. Instead, I noticed tears in her eyes before I drove another mile down the road. “There is nothing in New Jersey that just stays the way it is. Farms can’t stay farms. Empty land has to be sold and built on. Nothing is sacred,” she sniffled as I finally pulled in front of the house. We unloaded the car after our weekend away and started bedtime routines with the kids.

“There is nothing in New Jersey that just stays the way it is. Farms can’t stay farms…Nothing is sacred…”

After all four children were down and out, she took me up on my offer to sit under the tree in the backyard. I lit a pipe and admired the last few leaves on our black walnut, solemn and still in the brown streetlight from the nearby alley. There were already dozens of stars out and a few crickets were singing. It was a sirene early autumn evening, although a little chilly. I was at ease–happy to be off the road and alone with my wife.

Rebecca’s thoughts were miles away. “It is so beautiful where Guy and Hannah live,” she said. “Life is so peaceful there. The fields and the hills go on forever. I would love to be able to walk out my front door and see that every day.” I didn’t have an answer. Eight neighbors’ windows were lit and I could see the traffic light change from yellow to red through our picket fence over her shoulder. A baby could be heard crying, but it wasn’t our own. Suddenly I was reminded how closely we lived to our neighbors. The contrast to Juniata County was jarring.

The chill in the evening air became too much for Rebecca and before long I was alone with my tree and my thoughts. From my blue canvas camp chair I looked out at our 0.09 acre for the first time, as it were, from my wife’s eyes. Our majestic walnut wasn’t such a glorious canopy in the dull glow of the brown streetlight. In fact, it looked caged. The crickets’ song was swallowed for a moment by the wake of the firetruck that sirened down Broad Street and onto the state highway a block away. I didn’t count to verify, but it seemed like fewer stars were visible.

Before long I was alone with my tree and my thoughts. From my blue canvas camp chair I looked out at our 0.09 acre for the first time, as it were, from my wife’s eyes.

It occurred to me tonight how differently we see the setting of our very house, the place that we together call Home. We have always considered our colonial at 30 Broad Street less than ideal, but in a profound way I realized tonight how much my wife was sacrificing to live at this address. Of course I wish that we had more property, and I think it’s sad that we have only one tree. But my Jersey upbringing has trained me to see the upside–a smaller yard means shorter mowing time and less work during fall cleanup. After all, the neighbors’ tree is barely larger than a sapling.

I was raised to appreciate that state parks and game farms and hatcheries were all around us–just a short drive away in any direction. We still have almost a dozen farms near town that didn’t subdivide before the Highlands Act made it illegal, and look how our state taxes are keeping them afloat as preserved farmland. This really is the most beautiful part of a beautiful state, if only you have eyes to see it.

But tonight was the closest that I have ever come to seeing our county, our town, and our home from the view of my own wife, my own flesh.

But tonight was the closest that I have ever come to seeing our county, our town, and our home from the view of my own wife, my own flesh. She who grew up with 200 acres of Pennsylvania farmland at her disposal hasn’t been trained to see the beauty in New Jersey that has been left untouched by commercial development–she mostly sees the commercial development. She is not cheered to know that three state parks are 10 minute drives in three different directions–she hears “drive,” not “walk.” She who as a little girl roamed a hundred-acre wood thinks me soft in the head to obsess over our single black walnut that only lies on our property by a mere trunk width.

Tonight I finally stopped what I didn’t even realize that I had been doing. I finally stopped expecting Rebecca to see what I saw and to love what I loved and to appreciate what I had grown accustomed to defending. Tonight I finally wept with those who were weeping. She who was weeping was my wife.

I finally stopped expecting Rebecca to see what I saw and to love what I loved and to appreciate what I had grown accustomed to defending.

And it wasn’t about land use or the preservation of open space. It wasn’t about New Jersey or Pennsylvania or the country or how many inches of space shoehorn between our north wall and our neighbor’s vinyl siding. It wasn’t about how many acres or how quiet the front porch, but it was suddenly and clearly all about perspective.

Christ’s commands to love our enemies aren’t instructions in the abstract. In Matthew 5, our Lord tells us, “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” We don’t love our enemies from a distance–we love them by walking in step with them, living alongside them. How much more our spouses and children and brothers! It is the natural bent of my heart to look to my own interests and not to the interests of others (Philippians 2:4). After 10.3 years of marriage I finally made a major step in understanding why my wife finds Warren County no comparison to Susquehanna County. I finally relaxed my posture of debate–but only after I realized that there was no one on the other side of the table. I had always been debating with words while my wife was loving me with action.

I had always been debating with words while my wife was loving me with action.

Rebecca didn’t take a New Jersey address for the school districts or the bagels or the proximity to The Met. She certainly didn’t cross the Delaware for the tax code or the baseball teams. She didn’t fence herself into a town lot without a view for anything other than love of husband. My wife has forsaken wide open spaces to make my people her people and my church her church. Tonight I finally met her on the riverbank, so to speak, and thanked her for braving the current and the wilds on this side.

Sara Groves sings a line, “Lovin’ a person just the way they are–it’s no small thing / it’s the whole thing.” Tonight I became aware just how well my wife has been loving me all along.

October 5, 2015

Juxtaposition on 37th

I noticed this scene when I was stopped at a light crossing Manhattan. The longer I watched it unfold, the more I wondered if I was watching a prank or a living art exhibit. I looked around for hidden cameras or an exhibit plaque but found none. The young woman on the left took (I do not exaggerate) at least a dozen selfies in less than 30 seconds, slightly adjusting her hair or the tilt of her head or the pucker of her lips between each shot. The two older men on the right were reading and flipping pages of printed newspapers while muttering a low conversation to each other. I can hardly remember a more surreal juxtaposition.

October 4, 2018

Cacophony

It must have been

an evening in early August

when ‘cacophony’ was coined.

What other moment

could have minted

such an awesome articulation:

the world’s most perfect word?

It could only have been

an evening in early August—

summer’s penultimate peak,

its yellow apex

of crisp exhaustion,

relentless haze,

and infinite insects.

.

It was surely an evening

in early August

that was first christened

‘Cacophony.’

Two grown brothers

in Adirondacks,

surmising over snifters,

searching, scratching

for that word

as yet unborn,

unspoken and unknown.

Webster was found wanting,

with its diminutive ‘din,’

and its incomplete ‘outcry.’

‘Tumult’ was too vague,

‘commotion’ too common–

inadequate to describe

the roaring ruckus,

the blaring, bustling, Babel

of God’s winged insects

in the August all around them.

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And so ‘cacophony’

was coined to capture

the chaos and clamor

of that auditory onslaught

unique to an early August evening.

‘Cacophony’

was an inception—an invention—

to ameliorate an ambiance,

to embody an energy.

‘Cacophony’ was conceived

to concisely convey

the singular symphony of

an early August evening.

And now every subsequent evening,

in the still of summer’s nightfall,

we sound our own barbaric yawps

we sing and are not silent–

the songs of ourselves

the songs of our summer

the cacophony of our creation

over the treetops of the world.

August 9, 2021

Grieving Until

I can suffer an August heat wave because I know that an October is not far away. I can bear up under the bleak midwinter of February in part by anticipating the dulcet delights of May. Each extreme is an opposite end of the seasons’ pendulum, and we balance and brace ourselves against the oscillation into one by the promise of the return to the other—not to mention all the pleasant valleys between.

This is one of the reasons that Grief is so painful. There is often little on the near horizon to chart by or press toward—nothing tangible or realized, at least. Often the seas and sky are empty and dark. It feels like a one-way journey into a tempest. Or Grief seems permanent and inert. A fractured family, an abandoned marriage, death, disappointment, destruction. They can feel like descents without hope of ascent; sterility and emptiness where fruitfulness was expected.

But for the Christian, Despair is a temptation, not a fixed and certain outcome. We serve a Lord who was tempted in every way that we are—yet without sin. He was a Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief. Yet, for the joy set before Him, He endured the cross, suffered its shame, and did ascend—conquering and victorious. It is, we might say, impossible for God to despair.

“If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:19-20)

The Christian’s trials and tribulations are not any less painful or agonizing. They are not any more brief. They do not always blossom (in this life) into a correlating blessing. But they are, like the seasons, temporal. They are light and momentary compared with the weight of glory. The Christian grieves “until”—until the weight is lifted and clouds are parted, or until the faith becomes sight.

“Weeping may tarry for the night,

but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30:5b)

Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus.

August 8, 2020