Blessed Be the Ties That Bind

“Hard is the day’s task –
[Jersey], stern Mother –
Wherewith at all times
Thy sons have been faced:
Labour by day,
And scant rest in the gloaming,
With Want an attendant,
Not lightly outpaced.”
(from Sir Alexander Gray’s “Scotland”)

In the last dozen years we have been on the receiving end of any number of solicitations to move away from New Jersey. Many of them are lighthearted and congenial daydreams from the lips of sincere friends. We reply to these with an earnest measure of flattery, affirmation, and/or acknowledgment. But many such appeals are rife with no small modicum of poignant pressures and enticements. The appeals of this genus are predominately of the financial nature. Cost of Living is presented, and Property Taxes are paraded for our review (as if new information). Come for this amazing homeschool network… Be closer to family…This church could really use a family like yours… Imagine the size house you could afford… Wide open spaces, Greener grass, Leeks, Garlic, etc., etc.

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We know everyone’s reasons for leaving New Jersey, and we could etch more than a few very personalized items onto that list. But here we are—fourteen years into a mortgage, seventeen years into a career, sixteen years into a marriage in the crucible that is our Garden State. Four children, one income, $66,000 per acre in property taxes. Believe me, we know the numbers and what they add up to.

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Late Monday morning I will attend the funeral of a woman that I have always referred to as “Grandma.” But this 92 year-old saint was not my grandmother. She was not related to me in any way except through the bonds of Christian love and charity. With her husband and children, her family in 1981 comprised a sizable constituency of the members that originally founded the only church home I’ve ever known. Forty years ago, she and her husband welcomed a wide-eyed, newlywed pastor and his wife when they were called to the wilds of northwestern New Jersey to help organize a new OPC church. This faithful, godly woman (herself a Chicago transplant) mentored the pastor’s wife (a Philly suburbanite) and befriended the young pastor (a British Canadian from the Upper Peninsula, Michigan). She loved them and cared for them as if they were own two children. She was, after all, a mother to anyone and everyone, and it is no surprise then to see how she became like an adopted grandmother to me.

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In these days since we heard the news of her death, it has occurred to me that (at her passing) I have lost yet another person who has known me for my entire life. There is now one fewer person alive who was praying for my safe delivery when I was yet unborn. There is now one fewer person who remembers me in diapers and who can laugh and remember how big my head was as a toddler. Of course, the significance is not merely in the knowing—the Social Security office has known me from birth, too, after all. No, the immeasurable, irreplaceable, priceless treasure was being known *and loved* by this surrogate grandmother for 39 years. She wept when I wept and rejoiced when I rejoiced. She prayed for my health, my education, my marriage, and my salvation. She solemnly vowed to be devoted to me in love and then spent nearly 40 years amassing for me a debt of friendship, family, and grace that the cost of my very life could not repay.

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When I listen to another offer to leave New Jersey for Place(s) Unknown, the reference to intimate, multi-generational relationships is conspicuously absent from the appeal. Of course, it *cannot* be part of any portfolio or package to lure me away from my home—because I have it. I possess it already. What I have after 39 years of life in one New Jersey county cannot be quantified or codified. My treasure is appreciable but not appraisable.

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I know and I am known here. I love and I am loved here. My place here is my birthright and no financial incentive can lessen the luster of this, my home. I have ties that bind me here, and they are—to me, and in so many words—blessed ties indeed.

Sassafras albidum

An encounter with a Sassafras is like an exercise in advanced, graduate-level tree identification. The Sassafras doesn’t grant the novice any of the same entry-level assistance that her arbor sisters offer. She doesn’t produce any noteworthy fruit or nut, and boasts no conspicuous flower. Her bark is relatively non-descript, and she doesn’t reach a grand height or caliper. At a cursory glance, her boughs diffuse into the verdancy of the forest without garnering attention or making any significant impression.

Yet playfully peeking out from the ends of her unassuming arms is a marvel unique to the Sassafras. For reasons inexplicable to man and truly known only by the dryads and God Almighty, the Sassafras produces three different leaf shapes on the same tree! Three different shapes in a triad of lobe counts. On any and every branch in any and every combination, she sends out unlobed ellipticals, asymmetrical two-lobed mittens, and three-pronged tridents. Like a capricious child dressing herself, she scatters them in apparent random order, as fanciful as a daydream and as predictable as a whim. She shrouds herself in elation and eccentricity. She does because she can. She can, and so she does.

The Cherry garners her festivals, and the Apple her orchards. The Locust enamors the drone. The Fir enraptures the jack. Maples are tapped, Beeches are carved, Oaks are revered, Aspens are ‘Grammed–and all the while the Sassafras stands and sways, unnoticed and unheralded, without pomp or praise.  The forest’s most demure denizen displays to us–seemingly for her own good pleasure and the delight of her Maker–variety and assortment in endless acreages of similarity. Individuality and creativity in a canopy of correlation.

Tomato Plants in Late June

Tomato plants in late June

don’t smell like anything

except

tomato plants in late June.

Singular unto themselves

their redolence subsists.

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If someday

I returned to Earth

from a thousand-year, interstellar voyage,

the smell of tomato plants in late June

would re-acclimate me to life on Earth

in a moment.

If I was tortured and warped

by the deep magic

of an enchanted ring

under a mountain

for an age and a half,

the smell of tomato plants in late June

would restore me

as a son of Adam

once again.

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Tomato plants in late June

smell exactly like

exactly nothing else in the world.

But—even so,

they embody the unevincible.

They incarnate the intangible,

the impalpable,

the incorrigible—

all the best parts

of the best part of summer:

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Tomato plants in late June

are the shaded side of the house

in the exhalation

of a summer evening.

They are a snort of vitality

shocked with electric latency.

There isn’t anything in the world quite like

—and the world would

hardly be anything without—

the smell of tomato plants in late June.

June 23, 2020

The First Sunday Evening in June

The first Sunday evening in June

is like that famous score by John Cage

titled 4’33”.

He had the idea

to write a piece of music

that instructed every musician

to simply and simultaneously

rest:

to not play any note or sound

for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.

It was an experimental,

unprecedented undertaking,

and an homage to his legacy occurs

every first Sunday evening in June.

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Spring had never considered

something like rest

not since her crocus spears

had pierced Winter’s icy soles

in the great awakening of earth.

Spring’s symphony of ceaseless energy

had shocked the stick landscape

and shook out its mane.

Spring had roared and rushed,

and dashed and pranced,

and stitched and spun,

and babbled and burst—

but she had not rested.

She had been altogether unacquainted

with stillness

–unacquainted, that is,

until the first Sunday evening in June.

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June has, at long last,

taught Spring how to rest.

June has stilled that capricious nymph

and calmed her frantic cadence.

June’s noble verdancy

and golden twilights

have commissioned

something altogether new:

a thing novel and as yet unknown.

June has gifted the world a rest,

a calm,

a calibration.

It is here with us now,

a citronella sigh

in a crystalline chalice,

brim-full serenity,

on this first Sunday evening in June.

June 2, 2019

Fireflies in May

I was raking in the backyard last night at twilight, and the corner of my eye caught what I took to be a firefly. I stopped my work, and my gaze quickly followed the upward sparks of my soul ascending from my dew-pointed pasture into the cool evening air. I looked for the firefly to light again, but it did not.

“Of course not–it’s too early for fireflies,” I said to myself, and concluded that I must have seen the moon reflected in a small puddle in the bottom of my wheelbarrow nearby. The deeply rooted part of me further resolved how wonderful it is to have lived in one place long enough to know when things like fireflies and dogwoods and black walnuts make their appearances.

And then, not 10 minutes later, I did actually see–without a doubt–the first firefly of the season. And the humble part of me further resolved how wonderful it is to not know everything.

May 31, 2017

The Greens of May

It’s the morning after the gala,

and even the Cherry admits

she overdid it this year.

The Lilac’s purple litter

has fallen and faded,

and the King’s crown

lies in state.

The canopy’s canvas

is bourgeoning with green—

twenty different shades

of verdancy gleam

in fourteen splendored

hours of sunlight.

The blushing boughs of April

a distant memory,

now in May

our gaze falls down

to those petals we must cultivate.

May 9, 2019

I Have An Antique Rose

I have an antique rose;

She waits patiently for me.

When I draw nigh with pruning shears,

She utters not a plea.

Her thorny branches twine in knots,

They tangle by degrees.

Yet when I start to thin them out,

She neither fights nor flees.

She stands in proud defiance,

An indomitable foe;

It’s ne’er in doubt who will win out

Each pruning episode.

She submits to one dear Master,

And she pines to see his face.

Her roots may be on Broad Street,

But her heart’s at Christine Place.

Still, every spring I try my best:

I snip, and grapple, and grunt.

I’m the firstborn son of Ronald E. Pearce,

But that seems not to count for much.

My rose, she endures my poor pruning,

She suffers, and not only that—

Her crown looks like a haircut gone bad,

My arms, like I vaccinated a cat.

April 22, 2019