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.

.

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

The Former Things That Have Passed Away

Interstate 80 stretches like a spine across the commonwealth’s equator. Just a few degrees north of Pennsylvania’s actual axis of latitudinal symmetry, the bituminous byway traces parallel paths of two- or three-lane highway across the white ash graveyards of our westerly neighbor.

As is now standard across the federal interstate highway system, I-80’s exit numbers across Pennsylvania correspond to mileposts. So, starting with Mercer County’s Exits 4A and 4B in the far west, and culminating with Exit 310 before the Water Gap, the exit numbers increase ever upwards for the homebound traveler destined for the spirited embrace of Jersey’s verdant shore. The exit numbers decrease accordingly for the westbound traveler (who, if discerning, will either take a last exit in PA or make a U-turn before he enters that malodorous state beyond Penn’s western flank).

But the exit numbers did not always correspond to mileposts. Scattered across the commonwealth still stand the remnants of the old numbering system, memorialized on seemingly random “OLD EXIT ___” signs accompanying the larger, contemporary placards. For example, the exit for the always dubious “Jersey Shore” is labeled “Exit 192” with a subtle “OLD EXIT 28” in neat white print beneath it. “OLD EXIT 50” helps us find PA-611 in Stroudsburg, “OLD EXIT 30” encourages us on toward Lewisburg or Williamsport at US-15.

The noteworthy aspect of this otherwise uninteresting observation is not that a state entity improved a flawed provincial system in favor of a universally sensible one. What is remarkable about the “OLD EXIT ___” signs is that they are 20 years old. PennDOT changed the exit numbering system (to great fanfare and publicity) two decades ago. George W. Bush was the President and Justin Timberlake was still in a boy band in 2001.

Who are these signs intended to help, now–in the year 2021? Who needs to know what the old exit numbers were? Who is acting on that information or speaking in terms of nomenclature from Drew Brees’ rookie year? In an age when even the few octogenarians behind the wheel have some sort of electronic performance-enhancing device aiding their navigation, who needs to read these signs?

These references to archaic exit numbers stimulate the imagination to remember things like AAA Road Atlases and a tracing a paper map from a rest stop. It isn’t too hard for *most of us* to remember printing directions from MapQuest or DeLorme and anxiously scanning our surroundings for the next exit, turn, or milestone. It’s almost comical now to recall the feeling of knowing that Exit 9 was next, but not really having any idea if it was two miles up ahead or 26 miles in the distance.

So the little green “OLD EXIT” squares signal to us as signs of a time long in our collective rearview. They blur in our periphery, unheralded and unheeded–outdated relics in an age of advancement and obsolete in the new order. Yet what these archaic aphorisms still do is stand. They still have an objective message and, for now, a means to convey it. While the last of them still remain affixed to their posts, they will remind us of What Was.

“Stand by the roads, and look,

and ask for the ancient paths,

where the good way is; and walk in it,

and find rest for your souls.”

Jeremiah 6:16

August 4, 2021

The Unheralded Life Arc of a Scrap of Iron Ore

In July of 2018, a piece of mangled metal was unearthed at a construction site in eastern New Jersey. Exposed to that afternoon’s sun and prostrate upon the loosened soil, it appeared equal parts Unredeemable, Ignominious, and Unwanted.

But this metal has not always existed in such a pitiable condition. It was once sheathing outside of an appliance—perhaps a washing machine or a refrigerator. It was once smeared with fingerprints and speckled with magnets and finger-paint artwork.

Decades before, it had surely been affixed to the appliance by a combination of machines and the hands of men whose plant was perhaps the primary industry of a flyover Midwestern town.

It had almost certainly been delivered to the plant by a truck driver who had insisted that the forklift operator load the sheet metal Just So and had tenaciously adjusted and re-tightened the straps at every rest stop on his journey there.

The sheathing had more than likely been designed and built to exact specifications by a research and development team in New England six years prior. They had probably struggled for weeks to dampen the vibrations during the spin cycle of the washer, but had worked long hours and made their production deadline. They received the bonuses their families had hoped for, and one even took a vacation to Ft. Lauderdale.

The metal itself had been shipped from a Great Lakes port like Marquette on a freighter, and prior to that it had been loaded, unloaded, reloaded, stockpiled, inspected, refined, and—initially—mined.

Behold! The unheralded life arc of a scrap of iron ore! No pomp, no circumstance. Handled by a hundred human hands, regarded by none. Unearthed to bring life, design, and purpose to ore. Buried and unearthed again to be exported as demolition debris.

July 26, 2018

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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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:

.

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.

.

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.

.

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