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.

.

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.