Saturday, April 23, 2011

Easter Vigil

I consider myself a Christian.  I was raised in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, by two devout parents.  My mother, in her nature, needed to be told what to believe.  My father, in his nature, needed to live up to the hopes of his father, the Lutheran minister with ten children, of whom Dad was number nine.

I think he was nine.  I have never kept them straight.  I think Uncle Paul is the youngest, and Paul is still alive, my favorite relative, along with his wife, Aunt Vicki.

Church attendance and avoidance of scandalous behavior/attitudes were part of my upbringing.  Bible stories and church music were also part of my upbringing.  Before I was eight years old I sensed that I had ideas and perceptions that were uniquely mine, yet I was formed in the cosmic view of my church until I was over fifty years of age.

Here I am, an acolyte, age 11, with Pastor Bartels at Bethany Luthern Church in Trenton, New Jersey.

I welcomed the opportunity to cease church attendance when I went away to college.  I didn't resume until I was 52 and my late wife, stricken with cancer, needed to reestablish her connection to a church, though she rebelled against organized religion.  Because we were Anglophiles, loving the sheer beauty of the words in the Book of Common Prayer, we joined an Episcopal congregation in St. Louis and remained members until her death in 2008.

I left that congregation then.  I had seen and felt the ugliness of church politics.

But I had also authored that church's new mission statement as part of a committee working on self-assessment.  That statement began, "We are followers of Jesus Christ, whose example prompts us..."

For me, that was a radical statement, ushering in other radical statements that no one would argue with.  My mission statement contained no assertion of "creed language."  It made no reference to redemption, salvation, virgin birth, or resurrection.  It pointed only to the principle of making oneself a disciple of Jesus and trying to follow the way he lived and preached.

For me, that is what is essential to being a Christian.  It is not about whether an unbelievable tale is literally true.  It is not about faith in the unbelievable.  It is about faith in the rightness of a teaching that made life itself a sacrament and made us all responsible for the stewardship of other people.  "Love" of one's neighbor is stewardship.  It is, first, acknowledgment that their existence is sacramental in its nature, even if their soul is diseased and they are consumed with evil.

Sin, in my theology, is a failure of love.  The sin-sick soul hasn't a clue about stewardship of other people, and probably not about stewardship of tangible property or the environment.

In my theology, Easter is pointless if we are to take it as a proof of the divinity of Christ.  I don't have to believe in the Resurrection to have faith in the teaching of Jesus.  I don't have to have an opinion on his mother's sexual history.  He didn't.  He had nothing at all to say about his miraculous origins.  From his perspective, the philosophy of living correctly was at the center of his teaching.

The cross is a symbol of his "walking the talk."  It is a symbol of his absolute integrity.  In that sense, Easter is the essential marker of the seriousness of his life.  Up against the regime, he had to lay his life on the line.  That's why the story of Peter is also essential to Easter.  Peter at that moment cannot walk the talk, cannot risk his life.  Only Jesus could see that if his teaching mattered, he had to stand up to the Powers That Be and take the consequences.

And so he walked into the most gruesome form of death by torture then practiced in the Roman world.

The torture is in the nails.  Death comes from slow suffocation.  When you're hanging with arms above you, you can't properly exhale.  To resist suffocation, the person on a cross must push against the nails holding his feet to the post to try to raise the torso with respect to the arms.  This goes on for hours, while the sufferer also experiences a deep sunburn like no other.  Pain, fear, dehydration, sunburn, shock.  It was a horrifying thing to behold.  I imagine the grief of his mother.  When the soldiers became bored with how long it took, they broke the victims' legs so they couldn't push against the nails any more.  Then their suffocation was assured.

Perhaps Jesus rose from the dead three days later.  Perhaps he ascended into heaven.  In my theology, it doesn't matter.  He spoke of the essential importance of how we behave, not what we believe about his life.  To be a Christian is to listen to what he said.

We are all children of God.  Jesus is my brother.  So is Hitler.  While I can't reconcile that, I don't have to.  I only have to listen to Jesus and see if I can follow along, see if I deserve to be near him.

My sweet Lord.  I really want to know you.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Let's Go Swaling!

Yesterday I spent another three hours tossing chunks of rock and broken concrete driveway out of the swale that carries storm water from this part of the neighborhood, through my yard, down to Hidden Lake.  I figure I have about ten more three-hour sessions ahead of me until I've removed all the rubble, or enough of it, to start over and place small rocks in there to hold down further erosion.

We had a brief, heavy rain this morning, so I was able to assess our progress and get some pictures to remind me of what I still need to work on.

I see that the channel I've made down the left side is doing its job.  However, there is still too much rubble in the channel.  A large obstruction about halfway down the picture forces water to the right, out of the channel, and onto the back yard.

That's the major problem that prompted this weight-lifting project.  You can see the excess water flower down a low spot in the lawn, following the line of the rubble.

In the next picture, you'll see how the escaping water, about where the little red flag is in the ground on the right side of the picture, flows across the areas we want to develop for vegetables and flowers.

You may also have noticed the bright orange cord across the swale near the bottom of the picture.  That is apparently a cable from Charter, to which we don't subscribe.  It's only in the lawn an inch or two deep.  I don't know why it needs to run across the swale, but I think it's a candidate for being cut and disposed of.

Here's the way the excess water gets into the planting area:

The two four-foot wide strips closest to me are Kathy's vegetable beds.  The distant beds are part of a design for mixed perennials.  The daylilies will adore all this water, but I want no flooding in the yard!

Here's a look at the grand scheme of things for the back and right side.  In the distance is the zone for seedling production and evaluation.

We're had twice the usual rainfall this month, so rototilling those areas is in the distant future, I'm afraid.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Closing Time at the Duckworthy Estate Rubble Museum

It's all about beginning the ending of bad things.  Someone who will not be named had a really, really bad idea one day on the side of the Duckworthy property he couldn't see unless he stepped out on his deck.  "Someone" is not me, by the way.

On that side of the property, a neighborhood storm drainage system empties into Hidden Lake by means of, first, a concrete swale, and second, a ditch of some kind that may once have been lined with concrete.  The concrete part at the top of the hill cracked over the years, allowing water to gradually undermine it, causing further cracking and further undermining and erosion.

The former owner addressed the problem, if addressed is an apt word, by tossing patio bricks into the holes and gaps.  It looks like an extensive patio was sacrificed to provide those bricks.  Other pavers, concrete blocks, and hard things were tossed in over time.

This was the beginning of the Rubble Museum.  At some later time, the owner had his concrete driveway broken up into convenient twenty- or thirty-pound pieces and replaced.  Rather than have the broken driveway hauled away, he thought the pieces would make good rip-rap material for the eroding gully.  However, instead of keeping the shape of the gully concave, so that water could course through it, he mounded up the concrete rubble with a bad consequence.  Water began to run around it.

Also, the continual undermining of the upper part carried dirt down the line to the pile of rubble, where it dropped between the stones, bricks, and concrete pieces, gradually raising the bed of the gully.

A few days ago we had the heaviest rain in the past seven months, though nothing for the record books, and I woke to see most of the back yard covered in the runoff that should have gone down the gully to the lake.  That's when I decided we'd have to close the Duckworthy Estate Rubble Museum and return it to its former glory as a gully.

Yesterday Kathy and I spent an hour and a half or two pulling rubble away from the left side.  We got a lot more done than we thought possible in that time.  I think we can clear  the watercourse in the next couple of weeks and then try to remake it, perhaps with some help.  Here's what it looked like at the end of our first work session.

The orange cord in the foreground is not an electrical cord, but seems to be some sort of cable system no longer in use at our house.  The company that installed it (Charter?) only put it a couple of inches into the ground.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

My Way Or The Highway

Old Highway 94 slumbers beneath the grass of my new back yard.  Before lunch today I went out with my heavy iron prying bar and shovel and started trying to remove a piece of the highway that was visible at the soil surface.  This section of the lawn is nice and flat.  It's an ideal planting space for a lot of my daylilies.

You may ask what Old Highway 94 is doing under my grass.  The road is a mile away from here, after all.  The story I heard from the former owner of this property is this:  he wanted to make the slope of the lawn gentler, and he was trying to economize, so he approached the crew working on the highway to ask if they wanted a place to dump some fill.  He forgot to say, "clean fill," and so what he got was a load of rubble with some dirt bulldozed over the top to cover up the hideous mess.

As I began this task, my memory drifted back to our new tract house in a new section of Levittown, just northeast of Philadelphia, where we moved on my December birthday in 1954.  Levitt had thought through the details of instant landscaping for every homeowner, so the first spring we were there a crew came by and planted fast-growing trees and shrubs and then seeded a lawn.

This is a favorite family photo from the spring of 1956.  There's no human being in it, just the jazzy red and black Mercury station wagon with seat belts.  The color was chosen to please me.  This was the car I learned to drive in four years later.

To the left of the car, outside the picture frame, is the brick patio that was to have been a weekend project on Memorial Day in 1957.  My father had selected a style of kiln-fired brick with variable color, and we had a pile of bricks along the side of the garage and a pile of sand.  Dad planned to use no wet cement, but to lay the bricks dry and then brush a dry cement mixture into the cracks and wet down the patio to affix the bricks in place.

However, there was a hitch.  When we began to remove the flagstone walkway and level out the ground for the bricks, we hit a chunk of concrete.  Much of the first and second day of this one-weekend job were spent in digging around the chunk to be able to lift it out.

We dug and we dug.  Finally we had exposed something the size of a pony.  It was left-over concrete from pouring foundations for the houses in the vicinity.  They'd used a backhoe to open up a hole the size of a grave and just dumped the concrete into the hole and covered it up.  There was no way we were going to remove that lump.  We had to build the patio on top of it and hope for the best.

This took all summer, as I recall, but we did get it built.  Here's a picture of me on the patio, indexing my record collection one summer day in 1970 as I recall.

There was never any furniture on it, nor any potted plants.  It was just a way to make the place different from every other place in the neighborhood.  All the neighbors did one thing or another to redesign their houses and original landscaping.  Within sight of our house, just across the street and down an embankment, was one of the very few older houses belonging to people who would not sell out to the developers.  There were three such old places within a mile of our house, and they had for me the only attraction of "history" in that immense landscape of tract housing.

We were living in a new place that had once been some other, "historical" kind of place with some other identity.  We were in the cradle or uterus or seedbed of the American Revolution.  Washington's Crossing State Park was about a half-hour north of us.  My father had received a commission to design a small auditorium there to house Emanuel Leutze's painting of "Washington Crossing the Delaware."  The local school district had an Indian name, "Neshaminy," though nothing about Indians was taught us.

And now I am back in such a place.  I have come full circle since my tenth birthday journey to Levittown.  I am in a thirty-year-old ranch-style house with more access to the garden space I've wanted than I ever had before, and I'm facing an unknown extent of asphalt obstacles just below the surface.  Oh, Dad, are you smiling?  Are you having a good guffaw about what I'm remembering about our patio project?  Are you straining with me on the prying bar to help me heft the hundreds of pounds of chunks out onto the grass?

Would you have left the Bradford Pears alone, as I have, until they shatter in a wind storm?  I'm already planning their successors.

Would you have cut down the ill-trimmed cherry tree and started over, as I have decided not to do?

Would you have reminded me of all your beautiful raised beds for your iris collection in Levittown twenty years ago, or would you have been more direct and just said, "you should not fight the rubble under the grass.  Just bring in truckloads of soil and raise the level where you want to plant your daylilies."

Would you have guessed, as I didn't, that this blog was going to be about you?  There you are with Mom, at some architects' convention in a tropical city, about forty years ago and ten years before your retirement.  You were in the decade of your best work as a school designer, at the top of your game, head of the firm, both children out of school and married.

Your passion for growing irises would emerge by surprise during your retirement years.  Your hobby of making furniture from rosewood xylophone keys would continue until your move to Florida in 1996, when you would develop an interest in watercolor and paint some of the Vermont landscape photographs I'd had published in Vermont Life magazine.

And then one day in late September of 2000, I would come to your hospital bedside and bless you, and then you would learn that your days were numbered, literally, in mere days.  You would tell Mom what she already knew, and then you would fade away into the fog of your death.

Since that time I have been unable to sing all the way through the Christmas hymn, "Once in Royal David's City."  My throat becomes a knot and my eyes fill with tears on the last stanza, "And our eyes at last shall see him."  The knot binds me to you, Dad.  It's my memorial.