Though the Fig Tree Should Not Blossom

Spring in 2021 and 2022 brought hard and brutal frosts in late March. Overnight temperatures dropped near single digits and the mercury didn’t rise above freezing for consecutive days. These arctic blasts were unusually late, and all the magnolia trees had already gone to bud when they hit. The tender petals of their satin blossoms were scorched brown in the cold and most buds dropped to the ground by early April, having never opened. I hardly remember a year when we had no magnolia blooms, and I am sure beyond doubt that I have never lived through two sequential springs without the prettiest of all flowering trees on display.

The stark and unexpected loss of the annual joy of magnolia blossoms was particularly difficult in these last two years considering the political and societal climates at the time. The feelings of helplessness and impotency related to national and global events were exacerbated by the pain of a comparatively lesser but no less personal tragedy unfolding domestically in the natural world. It felt like loss upon loss.

But another March has nearly completed her course, and Spring is yet again moving in the air above and in the earth below, penetrating plant and animal alike with its spirit of divine discontent and longing (to borrow from Grahame). The magnolias are again ripe with buds, and the forecast bodes well for blossoms before Palm Sunday. Despite the keen sense of that which we have certainly and irreparably lost these last two springs, I find my heart swollen with the joys and expectations of the season, as always. I eagerly await the unfolding of the vintage of New Jersey spring that I have known and loved my forty years. Even so, come fair season.

What feels significant about the magnolia buds this year is that they bear no scars. They are perfectly new—fresh and newborn—naïve, even. They are forming and foliating under the watchful eye of their Creator with nary a remembrance of things past. They are not anxious about things to come. They bear not a hint, not even a faint scent or a trace of “the new normal” or any other such maxims of bleak resignation and dystopian despair. The buds on the trees this spring are small triumphs unawares.

There are still desperately broken people walking alone in parks wearing cloth masks in March 2023. Millions of children bear indelible marks of neglect and abuse at the hands of their appointed public servants and elected representatives. The chaos and carnage of one too many Progressive Springs is inescapable and seemingly irreversible. Few expect a return to the norms of polite society, and to expect any expression of regret or repentance from an espoused Leftist seems akin to holding out hope for the blind to see.

And yet the magnolias are in bud. Now, in March of 2023, in the wake of a lifetime’s worth of ‘unprecedented circumstances’ and a series of years ‘like no other,’ the trees are getting ready to bloom. They are in bud, and they will likely blossom. They will glorify God and enjoy Him with as many days as they have breath. But they are not in bud because we have reunited or reconciled–certainly not because we have ‘returned to normal,’ so called. The magnolias are in bud and they will subsequently bloom as a testament that all rivers run to the sea, but the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, there they will flow again.

Though vine nor fig tree neither
their wonted fruit shall bear,
though all the fields should wither,
nor flocks nor herds be there,
yet God, the same abideth,
His praise shall tune my voice,
for while in Him confiding
I cannot but rejoice.

March 28, 2023

Thank You Very Much, Mr. Komatsu

A brief but meaningful ceremony was held at the groundbreaking for the proposed assisted living facility off Pine Street this morning. Mr. Komatsu was summoned to the podium and creaked his aching joints up the ramps to accept his Lifetime Achievement award for Excellence in Excavation. Although his toothless speech and antiquated jargon were difficult to decipher, everyone in attendance was impressed with his impeccable record of ripping shale, hogging out fill, and trenching pipelines across the Garden State. No longer able to handle the cobbles, boulders, and coarse debris of northern New Jersey, Mr. Komatsu has been assigned to a pipe crew on the south shore of Long Island, where he can labor with ease in the glacial outwash south of the terminal moraine. Mr. Komatsu, we salute you!

March 27, 2019

A Mother’s Mind

The heart and mind of a Homeschool Mother are displayed with the widest apertures when she is excited and eager to learn about the subjects she’s teaching. In her joy of rediscovery and/or new learning, she is like a rolling kettle that can’t help but sing out what’s she’s found amazing and interesting *this week* or for *this class.* Her mind leaps from book to blog to biography and, like Maria up on the meadow, her heart wants to share everything that she reads.

The love of learning is a great and intangible treasure that anyone can impart to anyone of any age. But the conduit by which that gift can be conveyed most intensely and interminably is through a Parent: a phonics lesson in the dairy aisle, an internal combustion primer in the driveway, logical fallacy lessons over curried lentils, deciphering the differences between hue and tone and shade while sauntering west into a sunset. In your house, by the way, lying down, rising up. Beneath your doorposts and between your gates.

Our young women are encouraged to pursue professions and empowerment, education and autonomy. But the pots of gold at the end of the rainbows they are urged to chase are rarely more meaningful than paychecks or promotions. How ubiquitous and insistent is the call to forgo (or at least subcontract) the care and nurture of eternal souls for the glory of a Masters in Ambiguity and/or Employment by Others. What does it profit a woman if she gains her own practice but someone else raises her kids?

Modern women, you are equipped for the task of Motherhood, and it’s not because of anything Academia has bestowed on you. You don’t need to take out a student loan to be a Good Mother. One of the best ways that you can teach your children is by being an example of an eager student yourself. Love God’s world and delight in its myriad marvels. Seek wisdom, practice virtue, and develop your mind. A child can hardly be more blessed than to have a mother who loves to learn and leaves that same inheritance to her children.

March 21, 2023

God Made a Clerk

“Hey, these meetings are fun—and the snacks are great. But, like, don’t you think it would be a good idea if someone wrote down what we do and say?”

And so God made a Clerk. 

“Yes, capital idea! He can write down everything—who was at the meeting, who was not at the meeting, the reasons they were not at the meeting, the time the meeting started, the time the meeting ended, and all the things we do, and say, and vote on in between!”

And so God made a Clerk. 

“No, not everything we do and say. Who wants to read an exact transcript of *everything* we say at these meetings? He should only chronicle the Important Things.“

And so God made a Clerk. 

“But how will this Adonis know which are the Important Things and which are the things that are just Discussion? Who by himself is equipped for such a task? Should we form a Committee?”

[Clerk’s note: No, kindly refer to the preceding paragraphs distributed electronically to the board for review. God has already created a Clerk.]

“Will we at least have a chance to review and criticize his work in a public manner at every meeting and/or following every distribution of his documents?“

So the Committee for the Review and Ratification of the Minutes was created. But the vote was not unanimous.

“This Clerk will have to be someone who cares about details.”

“He will have to be someone who has a way with words.”

“He will have to be someone who can sift through the meandering, nebulous ramblings of liberal arts majors and distill them into something concise, practical, and definitive.“

“And it won’t at all matter if he’s very handsome, because he will be hiding behind a laptop all meeting.”

And so God made a Clerk.

Respectfully submitted,

The Clerk

Deciduous Doxology

I watched The Poconos wake up this morning.

Out the door at five-thirty,

and across the Gap by six,

I was there when they started their day.

Behind the wheel,

racing the setting moon to the western horizon,

I watched dark turn to dim

and dim give way to dawn

with a serendipitous series of wonders.

In the increasing incandescence of early dawn,

I drove through a cacophony of color

cascading down a thousand hills.

Maples, poplars, and hickories,

birches and beeches,

sumacs and shrubs

in surprising synchrony.

Trees of every tribe, language,

lobe count, and tongue

aflame with autumn’s blaze.

Penn’s peaks proclaiming

their general revelation.

A deciduous doxology.

October 12, 2022

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

My new (to me) pickup truck came equipped with a backup camera. A thick fisheye lens now bulges discretely from a perch just to the left of my tailgate latch and transposes a warped digital image to an index card-sized display screen where a man’s CD player used to be.

I didn’t ask for the camera to be installed—it came standard on the used truck that I took for a test drive and eventually purchased in November. But the salesman at the dealership spoke about it as if it were a desirable new option, and he spoke with the knowing diffidence of a paid expert, so I didn’t press the subject. I reservedly kicked the tires instead.

In the time since I left that Ram dealership with a new key fob on my keyring and an albatross of consumer debt slung unceremoniously round my neck, my truck and I enjoyed a bright and blissful honeymoon over our first few thousand furlongs. Improved gas mileage and a driver’s seat that didn’t suddenly recline at odd and unexpected times were splendors among the many with which my New Gray Mare endeared herself to me. The road ahead appeared as smooth and comfortable as my new suspension.

Yet my relationship with that standard-issue backup camera can be compared (at best) to the awkward adjustment of living with an assigned roommate. We danced around each other in fits and starts, each trying to make alternate weekend plans to avoid long interactions. But as I continued my habit of backing into parking stalls every workday morning, the inevitable standoffs that followed were tense and quixotic, if not tragically predictable.

I confess that I did come to eventually enjoy the assistance that the camera offered me when backing into parking spaces, especially on tight city streets. And I haven’t as much as kissed a concrete bollard with my back bumper in these last nine months, so there is at least one way in which my new ownership experience can be considered quantifiably improved. But the incessant manner and implied tone with which I am implored to “CHECK ENTIRE SURROUNDINGS” before Every. Single. Venture. Into. Reverse. bears with it what I imagine the neurotic naggings of an overbearing mother must feel like.

It had been an altogether transitory, if not sanctifying experience adjusting to having a camera lens on my back tailgate, and the degree to which I could state that a backup camera was a positive feature was approaching unequivocable—until, that is, the first time that I had to back my truck onto a tow hitch connection.

Suddenly, there—in that moment so familiar to me in previous years with previous trucks—I found my heart unexpectedly and inescapably bound in the cords of conflict. For in that driver’s seat, ready to back onto the tongue of our hand-me-down pop-up camper, with my front tires askew at 45 degrees to the right, my left hand at ten o’clock, and my neck instinctively craned to begin the rear-facing retreat, I first realized what choice unexpectedly lay before (er, behind) me.

It was as I crept back on the gravel toward the camper that I remembered, “Oh, I have a backup camera now.” In a flash, in the jingling sway of a key(fob)chain, the demands of the decision called me to either confirm or deny the very ethos and principles that until that afternoon I had professed to hold dear. I was at a crossroads. Before me on the one hand shimmered the Promised Convenience (so-called) of Technological Advancement or, on the other, loomed yet another demand to sacrifice the joys of Ritual and Process on the altar of Progress.

I could have in that moment chosen to ease my chariot—my new-and-improved, bigger-better-faster beast of burden—back onto that trailer tongue with the all-seeing and impersonal Eye of HAL as my guide. I could have, relying on the grainy replicate image of my rear-facing surroundings, saved my back a twist, my neck a twinge, and my oldest passenger the trouble. I could have backed my tow hitch to within a hundredth of an inch of the trailer tongue without even turning around, and I could have watched the scene transpire on the digital equivalent of an eight by ten glossy photo with the circles and arrows just like the sheriff of the town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts used to make.

But I didn’t. I couldn’t do it—not that time, at least. For the sake of conscience, for the sake of my sons, I couldn’t back up using the camera. I couldn’t move my truck in reverse while facing forward. Calmly, decisively, resolutely, I resisted the invitation to submit to the incandescent arms of Advancement and slip serenely beneath the swell of Progress. I kept my right hand on the back of the passenger seat and looked at my son and said, “Liam—hop out and help me back onto that trailer hitch.”

August 29, 2022

Room Temperature

Recipes are not written for Sunday morning bakers in 19th-century colonials. “Room temperature,” in particular, is a description that has the appearance of objective uniformity, but really possesses none of the attributes that render directions clear, lucid, or helpful to a homeowner such as myself. It is not so much that I am unfamiliar with a space like a “room” or the most common ways of measuring things like “temperature,” but it is the plethora of degrees (pun intended) by which our rooms and our temperatures vary that gives me pause at my kitchen counter and racks my mind with indecision when I should instead be sifting, separating, and/or gently folding.

The essence of the difficulty is that our little 1,440 square feet of living space generally has as many temperatures as it does rooms and that these change by a factor of as many seasons through the year. When I read instructions to allow two large eggs to sit “at room temperature,” I am unduly overcome with uncertainty. Does this recipe want me to soft-boil these eggs in the sauna that is our girl’s bedroom? Or is it instead instructing me to set them aside for a future biological engineering study by deep freezing them in front of our drafty schoolroom window? Our butter dish is the most telling barometer of the fluctuations in domestic atmosphere and morale. Rigid and cold as a British schoolmaster in January, as soggy and oily as a camper’s duffel bag in July. There are diametric opposites and a thousand iterations between.

So I have come to the conclusion that I need to avoid recipes that require me to regulate the temperature of my ingredients by any means other than an oven or stovetop. Or at least ones that begin with instructions to “Gather quotes and availability from three independent spray-insulation contractors…”


The Dogwood Never Fails

Now Faith and Hope and Charity—

Upon these three men all agree

None greater can in heart reside.

More fickle, though, are veins of wood,

And tenderest April blossoms could

(No lack of good intent besides)

Be withered by an ill-timed frost

Or by nor’easter be accost’d.

The life of blossoms is not sure!

The Cherry falls at slightest breeze;

Magnolia buds like castwork freeze;

The Redbud and the Flow’ring Pear,

Though more resilient, don’t compare.

Hopes often dashed ere April’s past–

Can none of Spring’s vast hoard e’er last?

Yet, ah! the Dogwood does endure.

May 14, 2022

Tulip People

Tulip people aren’t Crocus people.

They don’t tweet out

   slapdash signals of spring

   at February’s first foray into the 50s.

Tulip people are distinct from the Daffodil crowd—

apart and unmoved, apparently unheralded

   by spring’s delirious drum majors

   and clamorous countryside.

Tulip people aren’t Hyacinth hipsters 

   or Snowdrop snobs, nor (forgive me)

   are they quite odd enough to 

   associate with the Amaryllis assortment.

Never late, and rarely early,

Tulip people know who they are

and how to bloom where they are planted.

Tulips do not tell the singular story of Spring—

they don’t tell it loudest or brightest,

or fastest or most fragrantly.

Tulips don’t tell the first story of Spring,

but they do tell it best.

May 2, 2022

Apple Stickers

Yesterday I was driving to work and eating an apple. For the first time in my nearly 37 years, I wondered, “Who puts the little stickers on all the apples?”

Who puts them on and when do they put them on? Do harvesters apply stickers as the apples are picked off the tree? Does someone at the apple depot apply stickers to all the bushels and pecks that come in from the orchards? Does a team ride in the back of the apple truck and sticker the fruit as it’s in transit across the country?

I drove for miles imagining how the stickers are printed (sheets or rolls?), how they are applied (how about gloves that apply stickers from the fingertips?), and who is best fruit sticker in the world (and do his co-workers call him Johnny Applestick?). I hurled myself toward my office at 65 miles per hour, simultaneously keeping my primary care physician at bay for yet another 24 hours and blissfully entangling myself in a web of imagination and a mystery that I had never considered.

Then, I did it. I parked my truck and walked into my office. I logged in, opened an internet browser, and searched for the answer. And it did not spark joy. Google did not show me industrious migrants with leathered hands and pure smiling faces. Google did not show me fertile orchards in Washington or illuminate a niche community in the apple industry.

Google showed me machines in factories. Belts and robotic arms and soulless sensors whirling apples past an automated sticker applicator. Google took my imagined utopia and utterly decimated it with a brief but informative YouTube video. My inquest did not enhance or impel my imagination. Rather than improve my intelligence, the reality I encountered on the internet inhibited my very humanity.

Knowledge may indeed be power, but sometimes—aye, this time!—ignorance is bliss.

May 4, 2019