Dump Trip Saturday

Dump Trip Saturday is sacred among Saturdays.

It stands alone unto itself, unique and holy.

Its rites and rituals are solitary and serene;

their execution is communal (and clamorous!).

.

Dump Trip Saturday is always borne from Saturdays past:

A pile of scraps after a completed project,

appliances failed beyond repair,

a neglected playhouse, a weary mattress,

tattered furniture, rusted tools.

Dump Trip Saturday starts with necessity.

.

But necessity soon blooms into charity.

A dump-bound man looks at his half-empty truck bed

like the parabled rich man–

appalled at even the possibility

of an unfilled banquet table.

Messages are texted down alleys and avenues

and streets of the Borough:

Have anything for the dump?

I’ll stop by after work.

Sure, there’s plenty of room!

I’ll just move the dishwasher.

We’ll throw that couch on top!

The load piles high, and the truck bears it up gladly.

And his man is happy.

.

Dump Trip Saturday dawns a still and quiet morning.

Men rise before the sun–no alarm clock, no external impetus.

It is their call, the order of the day.

Coffee is pressed and boots are tied.

Straps are strung, and tightened, and checked.

.

Dump-bound trucks on Dump Trip Saturday

lurch out with rusty groans,

From driveways and demo sites,

from fixer-uppers and farmsteads,

each embarking is alike:

Easy on the gas until the load settles in.

Real easy around the corners, and steady up the hills.

Rearview mirrors rendered useless.

Daddy’s helpers wearing galoshes and granola crumbs,

bouncing on backseat benches.

.

A dichotomy of diversity gathers at the scale house gate:

Chevys and Fords and Dodges in tranquil ecumenicity.

Work trucks and farm trucks

and old trucks and new trucks

in one idling iron queue.

A creaky old Ram with a one-bedroom apartment

waits after a Chevy with a hoarder’s last will and testament.

An old Ford arrives with an entire razed barn,

all but the weathervane heaped on the trailer in tow.

Nary a cubic inch is but spoken for–

every bed piled to heaven like the Joad family’s Super Six.

.

Dump Trip Saturday is needful and necessary,

but it is melancholy and rote.

In its path of annihilation and eradication

lies the balance between sentiment and suffocation,

hoarding and habitat.

Each heave is a release–a flush, a forgetting.

Dump Trip Saturday is the crash of the past

into the dumpsters of history.

It is the fate of all the rusted, the broken,

the sagging box springs yearning to breathe free–

the wretched refuse of the county’s filthy floors!

.

There is no remembrance of former things,

nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be

among those who come after, says the Preacher.

All trucks come the dump, but the dump is never full.

To the place where the trucks go, there they will go again.

April 2021

To the Forgotten Lady

Every year,

at about this time—

when Spring has sprung,

and April, come indeed she has,

when the Easter eggs are empty,

and the garish garden lanes

are settling down for Summer—

every year

it happens that

I beg forgiveness of a tree.

.

It usually happens

on a Saturday

in the morning,

leaving the hardware store

under sunny blue skies

or opening a camp chair

along the third base line.

.

This ritual of my repentance

is prompted by

a discreet “Ahem”

from my periphery.

“Ahem,” she signals—

modestly,

chaste and unassuming—

or, “Pardon me,”

bashful,

courteous,

and demure.

.

Then—

at that moment,

and in that instant—

enraptured by her glorious appearance,

before the beauty of her blushing boughs,

I remember

what it is

that I had forgotten.

I realize again my recurrent transgression,

and I confess my annual treason

to the forgotten lady,

to the Crabapple.

.

I had,

unknowingly—

silently and subtly—

started to refer to Spring

in the past tense,

as if it were

coronated,

culminated,

complete.

.

I had,

unwittingly—

incorrigibly and ignorantly—

acted satisfied with Spring,

“sufficiently suffonsified,”

and satiated with the season.

I had,

as it were,

imagined my soul’s storehouse

filled to capacity—

incapable of

anymore awe.

.

Every year,

about this time,

my heart aches

to think that I had forgotten

the Crabapple.

Every year,

at this very time,

I repent,

I reform,

and I spend the balance of my days

in the resplendent glory

of her blossoms.

April 19, 2020

Every Branch That Does Bear Fruit

Pruning whispers a metaphor every spring, but this year it seemed to grab me by the face and look me directly in the eyes.

Pruning primarily consists of removing old growth—the cutting away of that which was once vibrant and fruitful. Even the most sentimental of us acquiesce to ordinary pruning.

But sometimes the gardener has to snip a healthy, living branch for the overall good or the grand design of the garden. Sometimes two healthy branches are growing too closely to each other or to a neighbor. Sometimes a healthy twig that bloomed once is trimmed to force it to bloom twice next year.

This is the pruning we find difficult and even object to. We cry out and demand that the Gardener explain Himself. We resist His shears or bristle at His touch because we can’t look past the cut or the void left behind. We can’t imagine new growth in the immediacy of our loss.

But we must trust Him who makes all things beautiful in His time (Ecclesiastes 3:11). We must believe that He will be faithful to complete the good work He has begun in us (Philippians 1:6). We must rest in the promise that He prunes every branch that does bear fruit so that it will bear more fruit (John 15). Apart from Him, we can do nothing.

March 21, 2020

Up to the Light

My younger daughter spent a considerable amount of time (I am told) writing this note for me the other day. She was so obviously pleased with herself and her tiny correspondence that she met me at the front door and wriggled like Christmas morning as she told me where in the house to find the note. I located it and unfolded it, and then I tried with no little difficulty to decipher the orange-on-pink letters and associated accents. When she noticed my furrowed brow and squinting eyes, Lydia squealed, “No, Daddy–you have to hold it up to the light to read it!” So I followed her outside and was, in fact, able to (a little) more easily read the hand-written note in the bright afternoon sunlight.


Her note has caught my eye from my office windowsill a few times since that day and her cheerful “You have to hold it up to the light!” has come to mind every time. This has prompted me to reflect on her sage advice and its broad applications. So many things in our lives need to be “held up to the light,” so to speak, in order for them to grow and thrive. Our children need the love of a father and a mother to shine upon them. They need the bright light of truth and clear boundaries for their feet, and they crave the warmth of kind words and forgiveness. A wife flourishes in the light of her husband’s steadfast affection and his devotion to her needs and delights. Her petals radiate in the light of his attention and adoration, but whither or wander without it.

Conversely, when we find our hearts vining toward and becoming entangled with the pleasures and treasures of this fallen world, we are really rejecting the one true Light of the World. This exchange tries to shutter the truth of God and seeks to live in the darkness of lies that ultimately disappoint and destroy. “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” I John 1:5-7

October 1, 2020

Willings

I.

A man stores away his heavy winter gear

in the second week of March.

“I’ve no need of these ‘til November at least.

Spring is here at last.”

.

He locks away down linings and microfleece,

with reasons to believe:

a skunk was in the trash last night

and he spied a robin on Tuesday.

.

He knows the risk; he knows it’s early–

March is most mercurial.

But the storing is a willing

and–if successful–

a double blessing.

II.

A boy paces the shoreline in the afternoon,

considering his castle’s plot.

His creation must be free from foaming harm

or all he builds be lost.

.

“Ideal,” he decides and marks the spot with an X.

“No wave could reach walls built this far in, and

the sands are still moist enough for shaping.”

.

Parapets peak and spires shoot upwards,

Yet all the while the moon rises and

waves lap ever nearer.

But the building is a willing

and–if successful–

a double blessing.

III.

A boy brings an empty bowl to the counter,

asking for a refill for his table.

No, his campers didn’t really

want seconds on peas,

but the girl in the apron doesn’t know that.

.

A pleasant greeting and feigned surprise,

a request, a smile, and a refill.

He left his seat and his cadre for this exchange—

certainly not the peas.

.

Eight red-blooded boys sit unattended at

their table in the dining hall.

Their counselor is fraternizing at the counter,

risking sabotage, risking disorder.

But the visit is a willing

and—if successful—

a double blessing.

March 16, 2014

Another Man’s List

Another man’s list:

impressed by wet boots

into the pavement

of a parking deck

on a Tuesday.

The author,

by now,

unseen and unknown,

shuffled off the coil.

His orders

since discarded in the marching–

a fleeting, transient

monument

to his duty.

.

The words are

simple,

cryptic, and

pragmatic.

They describe

a morning errand,

a quick task,

a domestic

or professional

obligation.

Maybe the writing is his,

but the words are

his wife’s,

his co-worker’s,

his master’s.

Here lies the record of

an act of kindness,

a fence mended,

or a bet lost,

a debt repaid.

.

We write out

on paper

that which we

do not trust

our mind


to hold.

Times, dates,

quantities,

instructions,

directions,

brands, names,

shapes, colors, and sizes.

Our lists remind us,

guide us,

and help us.

They pull us by the nose,

and they push us

to completion,

to fulfillment,

to the end of our days.

February 13, 2021

Flagstones

I rebuilt a retaining wall last summer. But it certainly wasn’t a project that I had decided to undertake after holding my finger to the winds and deciphering that 2020 was a suitable year to undertake such an endeavor. I don’t know what type of activities I would have planned for myself if someone had given me an accurate forecast of the past nine months, but I doubt that demolishing and rebuilding the northwestern boundary of our little property would have been my first choice. Still, after a year of cancelations and disappointments, it was nice to finally cross a sizable item off my To Do list.

Of course, as these things have a way of doing, a modest home improvement project bore with it a greater scope of labor and time than I had “counted” (Luke 14:28). One hundred and five hours doesn’t seem daunting when compared to our daily bread-winning labor. After all, it’s little more than two white-collar work weeks. But taken incrementally, three weekday hours after a shift at the office, then six Saturday hours when the weather agreed, stretched out over four and a half months, it began to harken closer comparisons to the Gantt Chart of King Solomon than that of Chip Gaines. It also, rather unexpectedly, served as a conduit for a great many reflections on labor and legacy.

Embarrassingly, rebuilding the retaining wall had been on my To Do list for almost 13 years. When we moved into our narrow little colonial as starry-eyed newlyweds, we aspired to a multitude of modest domestic improvements and threw our energies into fulfilling them nearly every day in which a red Netflix envelope didn’t arrive in the mail. The short wall retaining our uphill neighbors’ front yard was cracked and bulging like a bullfrog’s throat—even back then. Its stucco was spalling and our curb appeal was literally crumbling with each freeze/thaw cycle. But ceiling fans ascended with the rising mercury to the top of the To Do list that first summer of 2007. Then the clapboard siding on the southern and western exterior faces of the house began undressing itself with the decorum and tidiness of a toddler, and I struggled to keep it covered over the course of eleven years. Four children, two hot water heaters, five vehicles, eleven pieces of living room furniture, and four lawn mowers came into our lives during our first baker’s dozen on Broad Street–and some of these even still exhibit enough resiliency to answer “Present” during morning roll calls.

Four children, two hot water heaters, five vehicles, eleven pieces of living room furniture, and four lawn mowers came into our lives during our first baker’s dozen on Broad Street–and some of these even still exhibit enough resiliency to answer “Present” during morning roll calls.

My decision to finally lay sledgehammer to stucco was made in mid-April, just days after we received our first (!) stimulus check from that impertinent federal government. The two events were unrelated, but that didn’t stop me from joking that now I was going to “build a wall with Trump’s money.” It was an ill-informed joke in poor taste, but you must remember that times were different then. People in early 2020 often made boorish, sensational comments about political issues for fleeting personal motivations—not like it is now.

It was an ill-informed joke in poor taste, but you must remember that times were different then. People in early 2020 often made boorish, sensational comments about political issues for fleeting personal motivations—not like it is now.

It was a sunless Saturday morning when I started demolition, and I remember the distinct sensation of hesitancy as I hovered next to the old retaining wall with a sledgehammer. The feeling returns to mind even now because it was so unexpected. Granted, I didn’t really know what I would find behind the wall’s spalling façade, and I my plans for the rebuild weren’t any more crystalline or detailed than a conceptual mind’s eye rendering. But I recall almost talking to myself and avowing that I would have to be fully committed to this new project from the exact moment I finally struck the bulging old wall. I couldn’t just partially demolish it and then change my mind. I couldn’t leave it half-demolished and half-failing. So I reared back and I swung my sledge. I dimpled the stucco and my project was underway.

Perhaps I had reason to hesitate. Projects involving late 19th century homes rarely progress as succinctly and smoothly as a Bob Villa episode. And by the time I had struck the stucco with enough frequency to have shed all but the last clinging crumbs and then felt rising within my forearms enough fatigue to suppress any aspirations of earning a nickname like “John Henry,” I discovered the underlying composition of my wall. The structural components of my wall were neither concrete nor masonry block. My wall, it turned out, did not consist of any engineered or man-made material beneath its cap and surficial skin. My wall was essentially a vertical rubble pile.

I surmise now that when the stone-and-mortar cellar walls of our little house were being constructed from a stockpiled assortment of culled field stones, the unused remnant was just roughly stacked and then shellacked with cement when the house was done. And as I unpacked the menagerie of reprobate rubble from the darkness of its purgatory to the daylight of our front lawn, I began to marvel that my soon-to-be-former retaining wall had stood and retained anything at all. Nothing about the arrangement of the glacial migrants inspired any notion that they had been placed with care, planning, or purpose. Subrounded boulders were balancing on platy cobbles—every shape and size in every which place, position, and orientation. Some voids were filled with weak mortar, and others with soils that had migrated from the uphill lawn. The wall that I had weedwacked along and worked alongside for so many years seemed to have been one pry bar poke away from collapse the whole time. That it remained upright is a testament to coefficients of internal friction and Sloth’s companion, Inertia.

The wall that I had weedwacked along and worked alongside for so many years seemed to have been one pry bar poke away from collapse the whole time. That it remained upright is a testament to coefficients of internal friction and Sloth’s companion, Inertia.

As I became more and more aware of the disorder that I had unknowingly tolerated, I gained confidence in my design and rebuilding efforts by inverse proportion. Any lingering concern that I had about my own inadequacies to undertake such a project dissolved when I considered the apparently random rubble that had held total collapse at arm’s length for decades. By mere default I was guaranteed to possess a wall more stable and sure than the heap that had stood before. Mine, after all, would be intentionally designed and carefully built.

The motif Chaos to Order was one that resonated with me in those early weeks of the project. Even as my old Dodge was endlessly oscillating to and from our property with loads of refuse, and even as the removal of the old wall was leaving a gaping, linear crater along our front lawn, the feelings of improvement and renewal were inescapable. With my own two hands and my old gray mare, I was making the world a better place—well, my 0.09 acre of the world, at least (the county dump certainly wasn’t getting any smaller from my repeated patronage).

Demolition took three Saturday mornings and half a dozen evenings after work. With some sporadic help from my four kids (who were very interested in the destruction I was “allowed” to carry out in broad daylight), I had smashed the stucco, pried loose the boulders, sifted through the cobbles, and unearthed the random rubble of a generation long past. Despite my efforts to salvage and stockpile any materials from the old wall that I thought could be re-usable, I still had to haul away (by hand and pickup truck) over four tons of material just to prepare my site for construction. After a month’s time, and already more effort than I had anticipated, I was ready to build. I had demolished the old wall down to underlying virgin soils. The only direction to go from here was Up.

The only direction to go from here was Up.

In the months that followed, our little front lawn was a hub of activity nearly every Saturday morning and weekday evening with clear skies. When I wasn’t installing drainage tile, I was pinning fabric and hanging string lines. If I wasn’t unloading or sorting stone, I was stacking stone, setting stones, or shimming and leveling stones. Foundation stone, show stone, gap stone, and drainage stone. So many stones.

And the stones were quite meaningful to me because of their quarry and their quarry master. Between May and August I brought back—roughly 1,500 pounds at a time—five loads of Pennsylvania bluestone (shale) from my wife’s family farm in Susquehanna County. Even though it cost me five summertime hours per trip and put untold strain on my rickety old Ram, it was important for me to build with materials from my in-laws’ physical heritage. I felt like Nebuchadnezzar, harvesting the very stone beneath my queen’s hallowed homeland in order to construct our own local wonder and remind her of the family farm’s rugged terrain. I made five trips to the farm, which means my father-in-law made 15 trips up and down Mount Roszel to select and stockpile them for me. His help as curator and beast of burden was invaluable. Without him, the dream of using farm stone would never have materialized into a reality.

I felt like Nebuchadnezzar, harvesting the very stone beneath my queen’s hallowed homeland in order to construct our own local wonder and remind her of the family farm’s rugged terrain

Then the project developed a different facet of sentiment when my grandfather died in July. He was received into the glory of his Savior one month shy of his 92nd birthday, departing in spirit from the very house that he had designed and built some sixty years prior. He was survived by a wife of nearly seven decades and a progeny of over 100 persons. Both in the weeks of decline that preceded his death and upon returning home after celebrating his life, I spent many an hour along the wall reflecting on the impact of his life. After all, the legacy that he left in his wake was marked best by those things that he had, as God blessed him, built. His enduring temporal projects, his ever-burgeoning family, and his faith and eternal hope rose before me as guideposts and aims as my wall inched higher and higher toward its crest. After all, how does a man come to harvest such rich rewards in his latter days? How is a reputation or a life of wealth, honor, or accomplishment ever built—how else, except one day, one decision, one stone at a time?

How is a reputation or a life of wealth, honor, or accomplishment ever built—how else, except one day, one decision, one stone at a time?

And so the tangible, physical project that would come to define my summer inevitably began to evolve and develop into a metaphysical memorial of sorts. It became, as it were, an immovable, interminable expression of my existential imprint. Before too long, they were not just stones that I was scanning and sorting and stacking and shimming—each selection and placement bore with it the weight of Legacy and the gravity of Permanence. The wall became a metaphor for my life’s work. For the first time in my life, I sensed that I was creating something that would outlive me.

For the first time in my life, I sensed that I was creating something would outlive me

It can hardly but sober a man to consider how he will be remembered after he at last shuffles off this mortal coil. Will he, in that dim light of dusk on Jordan’s bank, depart in the assurance that he done all, lived all, loved all that he could? Will he, when his works become manifest on that Day and are tested by fire, have anything to show for that which he toiled under the sun? Did he, as Moses prayed, number his days aright?

I have carried that sharpened sense of sobriety with me since completing the wall project at the end of August. Each task and each project since—even this blog—is marked with a renewed intentionality, a newfound focus on working to build that which will endure and appreciate.

My retaining wall project of 2020 was a long, deep drink for an ever-thirsty soul. It was an elixir of life, and each stone set in place was like another thimble of sweet remedy—an antivenom against the inane and madding crowd. The handling and arranging and sorting and stacking of 12,000 pounds of rough-quarried stone was a primitive cure for the ailments and oppressions of a modern world.

Thoreau, famously, went to the woods to live deliberately, to confront only “the essential facts of life.” My own modest campaign was much more domestic in setting, but no less existential in nature. He forsook society to secure a confidence that he, upon his death, had truly lived. I built a wall in my front yard and found the assurance that I would indeed leave something behind.

Winter 2020-2021

Out In the Harbor

There, out in the harbor,

with her back to the madding,

stands the old noble Lady

with her torch and her crown.

Just the sight of her back,

and her book, and her beacon

still thrills me the most

on my way into town.

.

She stands on her island,

stands for Hope and for Liberty.

She stands in all weather,

and without moment’s rest.

She stands and she beckons,

she cries and she offers

the salve of sweet Freedom

to all the oppressed.

.

She stands when I watch her,

doesn’t cease when I don’t.

Her charge is unending,

and eternal as the sea.

She stands in the best of times,

shines brightest in the worst,

She’s a light in great darkness,

she’s Lady Liberty.

January 30, 2020

The Liming of the Fields

The lime on the field is a promise fulfilled.

It says, “I will restore what I have taken,”

And, “I will replenish that which I have used.”

The stockpiled minerals are reminders—

Reminders of entropy, erosion,

and diminishing returns—

Reminders of the Fall.

The farmer’s lime is an acquiescence,

An acknowledgment that time is precious,

That the cares of this life are real,

and demanding, and urgent.

We cannot wait–

It takes too long for balance to be restored organically.

We must accelerate that timeline,

even at a cost to ourselves.

The lime on the field is a many-splendored metaphor,

And a parable from the rural roadside.

Let us each be replenishing

that which we receive from others,

Even in offerings as simple as gratitude

Or lives well lived—

lives lived for others.

January 18, 2020