Sorghum

Sorghum harvest,
Wellsburg, W.Va.,
October 2016

The day we harvested sorghum
it did not matter if the sorghum
grew on red or blue land.
The cane was green,
the community a rainbow
of calloused hands and smiles.
The sky voted for life,
the sun for abundance,
the sap for a sweet finish,
its excess cooking off
over the wood fire, late into the night,
our differences as steam
rising to the October moon.

Posted in Americana, Goldenseal, Photography

A veteran for peace

Walter S. Nicholes slid into the school bus seat next to me, nodded and asked me where I was from.

Walter is from Shaker Heights. He is a World War II veteran. He served in the Merchant Marines; entered the academy in July 1942. He saw the world but not much of the war. When the D-Day landing was going on, Walter was in the Mediterranean.

View a slide show of the D-Day Conneaut, Aug. 19, 2016, morning events.

That’s one of the reasons he and his son came to Conneaut on Friday morning, Aug. 19, 2016. Walter wanted to experience the war he had “missed” as a Merchant Marine. The re-enactors, the machinery of war, the uniforms, the invasion – they would all serve to give him a taste of the fighting to which he and other Merchant Marines had been party by supplying and transporting the troops.

Walter also wanted to bring a message to this event.

“To reveal to the public the full costs of war, and to end the use of wars as U.S. foreign policy,” Walter tells me.

He gives me his business card with contact information and the website and mission of the group to which he belongs, Veterans for Peace.

Five minutes later, the bus arrives at Conneaut Township Park, and Walter and his son are soon lost in the interpretive signs, the encampments, the souvenir stands and the events. I don’t see him again.

Some might say Walter is an anomaly in this place, just as much as the World War II equipment and soldiers are anomalies and anachronisms in a place where people come to relax and have fun.

There is tension in this park when D-Day Ohio brings its D-Day Conneaut Invasion to Conneaut every summer. There is the tension of facing down the enemy, of seeing the Germans as humans just like you and me. Of looking at the bayonets, and tanks, and guns that claimed the lives of Americans and made mothers weep rivers of tears and fathers grieve alone in the barns and pubs of our nation for decades to come.

There is tension in making the transition from talking to re-enactors who are bankers, teachers, machinists and engineers when they are not in uniform, to the real soldiers, the World War II veterans who come on canes and in wheelchairs, with wives and sons by their sides, to be honored, remember, let their stories mingle with the other billions of words that have been spoken about this war.

Walter hopes war will never happen again, at least not for money or power. He is not a pacifist, but he is no lover of war, either. And as a veteran, he has every right to speak his mind on the subject. After all, Walter S. Nicholes put his life on the line to defend that right.

He did his duty back in 1942; and 75 years later, is still doing it.

Thank you, Walter S. Nicholes. Thank you for serving; thank you for sitting next to me on that bus. I am honored to meet you.

Posted in Americana, Ashtabula County History, Ashtabula County tourism Tagged , , |

July 4, 2016

antenna 2The fireworks in the neighborhood didn’t keep me awake, much.

I was tired. I am tired. Working on a 100-page book about the county where I live and work is a wearisome, worrisome task. It has consumed me for three months now, and it will continue to consume me for the next six weeks, when finally I turn over to the printer the data that will become a book.

My summer will begin when that project is done.

Researching, writing and photographing “Ashtabula County: A Field Guide to Where Great Things Happen” has forced me to revisit the places I thought I knew and rediscover them again, to update my mind and points of reference even as I update a book.

Kelloggsville house

In Kelloggsville, there is a fine field of wheat. And the old tire swing in the yellow house at the crossroads.

Hearing protection suggested.

I had not been to Raceway 7 in Monroe Township in 30-some years. Not much has changed. It’s still dirty. Noisy. People eat unhealthy food there. Drink beer from cans. Make their little ones wear big ear muffs, the kind I should have worn when those hoodlums tossed the firecracker into the concrete porch and destroyed much of my hearing.

Camping with mobile gear.

The campground at Pymatuning State Park is beautiful. For a brief moment, very brief, I thought I’d like to try camping again. Then I remembered that thunderstorm at 4 a.m. and sleeping in the car … besides, most folks there my age had their faces in an LCD screen with their black Lab by their side. I can do that home.

DrawbridgeRichard Gillespie has a good sense of humor. Put up a sign on the road at Penn View on Pymatuning Lake: Drawbridge Ahead.

pumpThere is a hand water pump in the town square at Andover.

video shelf

The old bank building is home to a video rental store.

Yes, you can still rent DVDs and Blu Ray discs in Andover.

And they were quite busy.

Andover website (1 of 1)

And there also is a real movie theater on the square. A single-screen, digital theater. 138 seats, and most are filled on Thursday nights when admission is just $3.

chop sueyAnd a Chinese restaurant that serves chop suey as late as 9 p.m. on a Saturday evening. A young Chinese boy of about 12 or 14 takes your order. He is very polite. I dare say he is the most polite and courteous young person I have met in years. His sister was very sweet and polite, as well. I assume the petite lady who served my meal is their mother. And she was very polite.

And the food, it was good. Steaming hot. Perhaps too many onions for my taste, but at 9 p.m. in Andover, Ohio, on July 2, a vegetarian cannot be choosy about his meal.

I do regret eating when I did, for while consuming chop suey and reading one of those free magazines that are stuffed with pictures of used cars, trucks and industrial equipment from the tri-state area, the sky pulled a fast one on me.

What a sunset. I should have positioned myself across the lake, in Pennsylvania. It would have been a gorgeous shot.

silosRed reflections on grain silos and the Congregational church’s steeple were my lot. Sometimes, even after working all day, all life gives us are the reflection of a sunset and a plate of chop suey.

And I am grateful for both, and the freedom to enjoy them.

 

Posted in Ashtabula County tourism, Ashtabula County, Ohio Tagged , , , , , , |

Scars

scar carl feather photoI have two rather prominent scars on my face, both of them acquired in my early years and both of them of my own stupidity.

There is one above my eye and one on my chin, both of the same side of my face. Both came when my parents were living in an apartment on Priest Street in Kingsville. I was only 2 or 3 years old when they happened, so my memories of the incidents that caused the damage are formed from hearing my mother talk about the trauma, blood and drama of the incidents.

One of the cuts came from jumping off my father’s lap and landing onto a metal toy truck. Back then, they made toys that could harm the body rather than the mind. The sharp metal ripped a hole in my face. My parents rushed me to the town doctor, John O’Bell, and he sewed up the damage and sent a bill.

The good doctor also repaired my face when I decided to ride my toy tractor down a flight of concrete steps. Something like 13 stitches sticks in my mind.

Nearly 60 years later those scars are still there. They will go to the grave with me.

I have other scars that people usually don’t see, including ones that mark the self-inflicted lacerations on my legs and arms. The cuts are there because of anxiety and depression, the dark nights of the soul.

We all have scars. Sometimes, like the scars on my arms and legs, they are reflections of even deeper cuts and bleeding inside us.

Three years ago this month I cut my heart and soul very deeply by divorcing. The scar will be there for the rest of my life; it is scabbed over, but there are times and situations that pick the scab off like a four-year-old who finds fascination in peeling off the crust to see if the pink skin below will still bleed.

It does. Mom knew what she was talking about when she said “don’t pick at it, it will become infected if you do. Your body knows what its doing and the scab will fall off when it is ready.”

A book I read said that a piece of our soul dies every time we break a vow, every time we divorce.

Scars disfigure us. If they are in the right place, we can hide them with clothing, revealing the wound to only those with whom we are most intimate or feel most comfortable around. Other scars, like the ones on my face or those on a tired professional boxer, define us.

I find it interesting that Jesus, when resurrected in what we assume was his immortal, eternal body, retained the scars of the crucifixion. As my Savior, his scars define him. I wonder if there is any other deity in the universe of religion who bears scars that resulted from my sins?

God  forgives sin, through the blood of his Son, but the scars remain with us. They are like the marks left behind by the branding iron: HUMANITY.

For all their ugliness, a scar indicates that healing has taken place. I wonder if the wounds Jesus suffered on the cross were healed and scarred over when he stated “It is finished?” If not, three days later they were; if the translations we have are correct, the disciples saw scars, not scabs; healed-over holes, not open, infected wounds.

Not so fast for us stuck in these mortal bodies. Healing of our cuts usually takes weeks, even with help from antibiotic products. The pain can be alleviated by balms applied to the source of pain, but bump or brush the wound in the wrong way, and it’s like having the trauma all over again.

The emotional pain from loss, betrayal or destruction of a relationship can be numbed by counseling, diversions, alcohol and anti-depressants. But healing takes time, there are no shortcuts, only scars. If only there were a “brush” in our toolkit would allow us to “Photoshop” the scars my soul.

I’d like to think I could be smart enough, wise enough in the first place to avoid the wounds that result in scars. You’d think that a kid who got a dozen stitches after after jumping onto a piece of metal would not try to ride a metal tractor down a flight of concrete steps, but he did. You’d think that someone who suffered the pain of a long-term relationship falling apart would be smart enough to avoid relationships altogether, but he didn’t.

The longer we live, the more scars we seem to collect.

People seldom ask me how I got my scars. I think it is probably impolite to ask someone that. Perhaps we ought to ask it more often, however.

The scars that reside on our hearts and souls, while invisible, are actually the ones hardest to hide. The eyes are not so much windows to the soul as they are windows to the scars that reside there. The scars are cataracts that diffuse and dim the beauty behind the scar tissue. Eventually, so much tissue accumulates, nothing of the soul can be seen.

This is my great fear of slashing my soul once again with the sword of divorce; more bleeding, more pain, more scabs, more scar tissue that obscure the person behind the scars. The question becomes if prefer one large scar or thousands of little ones.

 

Posted in Baby Boomers, Christianity Tagged , , , |

Good music passing through

John Lilly at Mary's Diner in Geneva, Ohio.

John Lilly at Mary’s Diner in Geneva, Ohio.

Sometimes good things come out of the blue. Such was the case Saturday when John Lilly stopped by in Geneva to have lunch with me at Mary’s Diner.

John was editor at Goldenseal Magazine for the entire time I wrote for the magazine. He was a nurturing, kind and encouraging editor, adjectives seldom attached to that title. I loved working for John and especially appreciated the freedom he gave me in the development of the Back Roads feature, which I still write.

John left Goldenseal last year to embark upon his lifelong dream of being a full-time songwriter and performer. John has been called Hank Williams with a sunny disposition. His voice is rich, authentic and filled with life’s hardships and rare joys. His lyrics are real and probe the complexity of our emotions and relationships, with some yodeling and Irish and Scottish elements thrown in for good measure.

John played in Fairview, Pa., Friday night and was heading to another house concert, in Streetsboro, this evening. Another musician, Artie, a guitar player from Baltimore, joined us for melts and memories amid the 1950s diner’s decor.

John’s latest project is to record all of the state songs of the U.S. He recently did a online funding project to pay for the studio time that will require.

Last year, John released his solo acoustic CD, “Thinking About the Weather.” John’s great sense of humor comes through in “She Talks to Me,” a song about the woman’s voice on his GPS, while we can all identify with someone who has hurt us in “Do What You Do Best.” And he questions how it is that even though we get hurt by it, we still manage to fall in love again in “How’d You Steal My Heart?”

John loves singing his songs, whether in the studio, in a small house concert or on West Virginia Public Radio’s Mountain Stage. But he admits it is a very financially challenging life, even more so than he’d originally expected. It covers the very basic necessities, but the big items that hit us out of the blue can destroy the dream and send the musician back to the day job. How sad, but tragic, that for many of us Americans in this land of opportunity, where supposedly we have the freedom to follow our dreams and be that person we were born to be, economics and a playing field that is owned by corporate interests make the decision as to whose dreams come true.

Hearing, quite by accident, the untalented, cacophony called “hits” today, and thinking of how many millions these flash-in-the-pans, cleavage stars are making for screaming into a microphone, makes me wonder about our values as a nation when it comes to art. Perhaps it is because we are raised on noise that we are so quick to accept anything that is loud and irritating as “music.” Or perhaps it is because our culture is in love with eye candy. Whatever, true artists like John Lilly can still write a song that has lyrics that go beyond a single word and a tune that haunts you long after it has faded into the night ether.

Read more about John on his website and support his work by purchasing his CDs. Hopefully, John will be coming back up this way later in 2016 and we’ll have him in concert.

John Lilly web

Posted in Baby Boomers, West Virginia Tagged , , , |

A day with the Easter Bunny

bunny 2

 

 

My church, Friends Cornerstone in Madison, Ohio, a Quaker congregation, held its annual Easter Egg Hunt and Spring Carnival on Saturday. I had the honor of manning the photo booth, where a youngster could be photographed with the bunny and receive a print in a folder for just 15 tickets (tickets are much more manageable than money at this level. Come to think of it, perhaps we should be paid in tickets).

I quickly lost count of how many babies, toddlers, youngsters and parents, grandparent and aunts and uncles took a seat in front of the camera with the bunny. During the next five hours, I learned some valuable lessons:

  • Babies are afraid of the Easter Bunny, very afraid.
  • Toddlers are afraid of the Easter Bunny, screamingly afraid.
  • Children 5 and older love the Easter Bunny.
  • Most children can fit inside the Easter Bunny’s head. As a result, the Easter Bunny seems to dominate every part of the frame, no matter how you compose it.
  • Composition is secondary to expression.
  • Easter Bunnies get very hot and need frequent breaks.
  • Easter Bunnies have to go potty.
  • Printers run out of ribbon at the worst possible time.
  • Printer manufacturers require a firmware upgrade of the printer to be able to use the new style of ribbon.
  • That upgrade has to occur at the worst possible time.
  • The new ribbon arrangement is prone to jamming.
  • People are very patient and understanding.
  • This event is huge!
  • Where are all these people coming from?
  • People who can work with kids are incredible. How do they do that?
  • Sean is amazing. Where does he get his energy?
  • Did I mention that Easter Bunnies need to go potty?
  • Flashes, even those hooked to Pocket Wizards, fail to fire at the worst moments.
  • Children love the Easter Bunny.
  • You can have too much of a good thing. Easter candy is a good example.
  •  I’m glad I’m the photographer and not the Easter Bunny.

 

Posted in Christianity Tagged , |

Maple syrup and snakes

In a typical year, I would make my first West Virginia/Back Roads journey in early May. But so far this year I’ve made two trips, one in January and one in March.

Wheeling's castle at Wheeling Hill is an urban version of the castle at Berkeley Springs.

Wheeling’s castle at Wheeling Hill is an urban version of the castle at Berkeley Springs.

The January trip, to the Eastern Panhandle, was during a weekend when the temperature on Saturday was 60 degrees and fell to near zero by Monday morning. It was so cold, I chose not to walk around my favorite place in the world, Harpers Ferry, that morning. My old bones feel the cold more acutely these days, it seems.

My March trip to the Northern Panhandle was on a Saturday. It’s about 100 miles from my house to the tip of W.Va., Chester. After all these years, I still feel a sense of relief, of coming home, whenever I cross that state line heading south, and a twinge of sadness when my front tires hit that Buckeye pavement.

The weather Saturday was perfect. When I left home, the trees were weeping with the frost melting from their branches; there was golden steam everywhere. I could have passed for a May morning.

Within three hours, I was in Wellsburg and Highland Springs Farm, where I was greeted by Cooper, a pot-bellied pig who was coming back from his morning walk.

WV Department of Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick and his wife Rita Fay talk to Chatman Neely (right) on the porch of the bed and breakfast room where the couple stayed the night before. Barn With Inn has three rooms, one in a hay loft, one in a former horse stall and one in the innkeepers' home.

WV Department of Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick and his wife Rita Fay talk to Chatman Neely (right) on the porch of the bed and breakfast room where the couple stayed the night before. Barn With Inn has three rooms, one in a hay loft, one in a former horse stall and one in the innkeepers’ home.

The innkeepers were expecting a state dignitary, Walt Helmick, the commissioner of agriculture, and agreed to give me a tour while we awaited the commissioner’s arrival. I won’t go into details about the farm except to say these gentlemen, Harry Sanford and Chatman Neely, have assembled a near-perfect repose for animals and people using mostly reclaimed materials (as in an old log barn for the frame of their dining room and a discarded pig pen for their dogs’ condo). They operate the Barn With Inn bed and breakfast on the property. You can stay in a loft room in the barn and look out the window into the animals’ stalls, take an outdoor shower and enjoy West Virginia sourced appetizers and drinks at night and eggs straight from the hen house in the morning.

Read more about them at the website.

I tagged along with the commissioner, his wife and staff as they toured the farm, which raises hay and vegetables, and provides shelter for animals that otherwise would not have a home. It was during that stroll that we came across this:

Lodge (1 of 1)Everybody was fascinated by these intertwined garter snakes, including the commissioner, who being from Pocahontas County, had a few good snake stories to tell. I’m guessing that, between all the cameras pointed at these reptiles, at least 100 pictures of them were snapped trying to get them with their tongues out. (I didn’t get one, I was too busy making sure they didn’t strike! Yes, I know garter snakes don’t strike.)

It was a real pleasure meeting Walt Helmick, his wife and their staff. They were friendly and down-to-earth folks, the kind of people you’d like to find as your neighbors at a bed and breakfast or on a three-hour tour. And Chatman and Harry were equally hospitable, as well as their assortment of cats and dogs, all of them adopted (Harry’s a vet so a lot of their “livestock” comes in as tough-luck cases at the clinic).

From there I traveled to the Family Roots Farm, also in Wellsburg, where the owners, Charlie and Britney, were waiting for me with a customized welcome sign:

 

Britney Hervey Farris and Charlie Farris were waiting for me at their farm.

Britney Hervey Farris and Charlie Farris were waiting for me at their farm.

Married just three years, this young couple is building a farm for the 21st century on the farmland that Britney’s ancestors, the Herveys, first settled on in 1770. Their specialty is maple syrup, and although they’ve been at it just a few years, their maple sugar won best in the world at an international competition in 2015. Their maple syrup received a perfect score.

They’re branching beyond maple trees to sorghum, sweet corn and other vegetables. Last year they planted five acres of vegetables and this year they’re shooting for 10 acres. And they both work full-time jobs.

Hopefully my editor will find their stories worthwhile and you can read more about them in a future Back Roads column in Goldenseal.

After wrapping up at Family Roots, I was ready for lunch/dinner. I went to my favorite restaurant in Wheeling, Coleman’s, and ate the fish sandwich and fries. Yes, I am a vegetarian, but once in a very great while, as in when I’m in Wheeling, I do eat fish. Coleman’s is the only fish I’ll eat.

Mount Wood cemetery is a rural cemetery that overlooks the city.

Mount Wood cemetery is a rural cemetery that overlooks the city.

Next stop, Wheeling Hill, Mount Wood Cemetery and the castle. The cemetery is amazing. Built on a steep hill, the top is reserved for the movers and shakers of 19th-century Wheeling. My Goldenseal Back Roads story will feature one of these fascinating residents.

Descending the slope of the rural cemetery, the graves become more prosaic, the obelisks give way to broken sandstone tablets. At the base is the Jewish cemetery.

Across the street, at the overlook/castle, there is a great view of the Ohio River and the city.

The magic hour, when the light takes on a beautiful quality and bathes the city in blue, was rolling across the streets. It was a perfect time for a walk with my little Fuji X100T, a digital rangefinder with a fixed 23mm, effective 35mm, lens.

I looked for Wheeling’s most famous citizen, Moon Dog, but he was not patrolling, at least not yet. As the lights on the suspension bridge came on, I walked on the bridge toward Wheeling Island and was lucky enough to see a tow boat and barges heading down river. I positioned myself to take a series of pictures.

The entourage slipped past Wheeling Island, then followed the strings of industrial and residential lights toward Moundsville, Cincinnati and perhaps Nashville. Their destiny was downriver, mine was to follow the river north, to Chester, away from the mountains and that inexplicable sense of peace I feel when I’m there, back to Ohio and The Feather Cottage.

Posted in Goldenseal, West Virginia Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Hanging out

WebMeet the rest of the family.

Brody, on the left, is a black Lab. A big black Lab.

He is around 11 years old, very spry for his old age, but has selective hearing loss. Excellent hearing when it comes to the cupboard door opening, the unwrapping of a piece of candy or cookie and the rattle of his lease coming off the hook. Goes stone deaf when he’s outside and on the loose. Forgets his name. Fortunately, has not forgotten his way home.

He’s a gentle giant. His worst habit and abuse of his strength is to place his large head under my elbow when he wants something and give a mighty nudge. Not so good if there’s a cup of hot coffee in the hand or while typing on the keyboard. His paws also smart when he steps on my bare feet with them.

Otherwise, he’s a gentle giant, and real pal.

Next to him is Kitty Mew Mew. She was rescued from a snowbank by Amanda back in January 2015. A kitten at the time, she’s grown into playful cat, the first I’ve ever shared a house with. I have nothing against cats, I just never had one. I’m discovering they can be as pesky as a dog, and as vocal.

Recently, I started giving her a teaspoon of canned food in the morning. Now, every time I open the refrigerator door, she’s there meowing her heart out. She can very vocal about hunger, but she’s stingy with affection. Brody more than makes up for that;  he’s very affectionate. He’d let me rub his belly all day. And he loves being brushed.

Kitty Mew Mew’s favorite pastime is sitting in the big chair and looking out the kitchen window, which faces the forest. I keep a concrete ledge outside the window well stocked with goodies for the wildlife. Kitty Mew Mew watches the Squirrel Nutkin and Lumpkin sit at opposite ends of the ledge and devour the corn and sunflower seeds. Poor Squirrel Skinkin has lost most of the furn on its head and back. I feel sorry for it in these bitter temperatures.

There are deer tracks, and my father testifies to having seen the beautiful creatures browsing in my yard, but I have not. And the wild turkey aren’t anywhere to be seen, despite assurances by my neighbors that I’ll have a lot of them, thanks to all the acorns.

These days, my head is in the closets and corners of the great room upstairs. It’s an 18X24 foot room that is just a shell; drywall over studs, subfloor and five windows. My friend and superb woodworker Jeff Scribben is trimming out the windows, but we’ve run out of red oak. I’ve been painting the past two weeks, and six gallons later, I am in the homestretch. I spent Presidents Day painting the closets. Soon, they will a new floor, and it will start to feel like a real house rather than a construction zone.

The past four years have been very difficult for me. There’s been a lot of turmoil, loss and sorrow. Yet when I come into the living room and see my two animal friends sleeping together, I can’t help but smile and thank God for the gift of animals. Nowhere is to be found a friend more faithful.

It’s no secret I’m a vegetarian, and much of that stems from being around animals all my life and often sensing a closer affinity to them than humans. I’d rather watch a nuthatch or Squirrel Lumpkin on my window ledge than a football game, superstar or most any other thing delivered via television. The natural world still amazes me after nearly 62 years.

Brody is settled into his bed for the night, and the cat is in her chair. The house is quiet and lonely. The upstairs room is painted and looking much better than it did two weeks ago. My shoulder and hands ache from painting all day. Life is imperfect and always will be. An old dog and young cat, sleeping together on a second-hand store couch, makes it all seem a bit more perfect.

 

 

Posted in The Feather Cottage Tagged , , , |

Signs and stories

DSC_2143I generally don’t like church signs. Not the ones that identify the church, but the ones that preach, cajole and attempt to convict people who really ought to be focused on their driving rather than their spiritual condition, although, granted, the two often go hand-in-hand.

I am especially wary of those church-sign keepers who, desperate for something cute to say in 10 words or less, revert to: “Sign broken. Come inside for message.”

No, the sign is not broken. If it were, it would not be bearing that lame, untrue message.

And if the church finds it appropriate to tell a lie on the sign in order to get folks to come inside and hear the message, what is it preaching from the pulpit? Just take the sign down if it is broken. Don’t break the message for the sake of a sign.

In other words, I would never trust a church that put that lame thing on its sign. A simple welcome will do.

All that stated, on Saturday morning I did something I rarely do. While traveling through Bedford County, Pa., on Route 220, heading toward the Maryland border, I saw a church sign that made me think. Indeed, I turned around and went back to read and photograph it.

On the opposite side, was this message.

DSC_2142

This sign was in front of an Assembly of God congregation, a denomination that, unfortunately, I’ve seen display some pretty judgmental and harsh messages. But this one engaged me.

As a writer, stories intrigue me. One of things writers learn early on is that every person has a story; it’s our job to unlock that story and craft it in such a way that it is compelling and interesting. Being readable helps, as well.

The idea of God being able to use my story, or your story, is engaging. Most church signs tell us to give our talents, our time and our money to God, that is the church behind the sign. But this sign suggested that God just might be more interested in our story than the other things.

I’m not sure what scriptural basis the pastor is quoting, if any, to backup the sign. It’s probably a good idea, however, that a statement like that have a biblical basis.

Certainly a lot of the characters we read about in the Bible had a story. They were quite a lot — murderers, liars, adulterers, prostitutes and persecutors of the faith. Their life stories seemed pretty predictable — be born, sin, die.  Except the story took a twist when God became interested in them, intervened and used their story for his glory.

That gives me hope that all the horrible incidents that are part of my story  will somehow be used by God and he, not I, will end up being the one who “looks good.” Years ago, when I was living my Christian life according to a different model, I totally felt in control of my story:  Be born, sin, accept Christ, strive for perfection (and assume many days that I had achieved it), die, go to heaven. That was a life without grace, a life of self-righteousness rather than his love and right-ness. Predictably, it crashed; I learned I was not as righteous as I pretended, not as impervious to error and sin as I portrayed.

So the life story took a whole new direction. And that’s OK. Interesting stories usually don’t follow the pattern we expect. Otherwise, there’s not much point in reading them. Indeed, it is the surprise element of life that makes it worth getting out of bed each morning or turning the next page in the book. Just how are we going to get out of this mess? How is this pain going to be healed?  Will we find peace? Will things work out “OK?”

Perhaps more sermons ought to focus on the “story concept.” Christians just got done focusing on and celebrating the “Christmas Story.” Perhaps between now and the “Easter Story,” we can focus on our stories, and even more importantly, the concept of giving God ownership of it and permission to do whatever it is he wants to with the narrative. For some, that will involve sacrificing much more than time, money or talents, it will involve relinquishing our scripts and storyboards to the author of life, himself.

But I don’t want to preachy about these things; I don’t want to sound like just another church sign.

Posted in Christianity Tagged , , , |

The Feather Cottage

cottageAs 2015 comes to a close (sigh), I am reminded that we never know where life is going to take us.

A year ago, I was living in a tiny house on a dead-end street in Ashtabula. Two bedrooms, a postage-stamp sized lot. 700 square feet, two people, one dog of 100 pounds or so.

This afternoon I write from one of the four bedrooms in the Feather Cottage in Geneva, Ohio. It’s actually my study, but could qualify as a bedroom. The upstairs bedroom is as large as the two small bedrooms in the other house. And the unfinished upstairs room, which was once two bedrooms, is probably about 2/3 of the total floor space of the entire house I was in before.

I won’t go into the details of how I ended up in this stone cottage. I’ll save that for later blogs, perhaps. Stories about how people get where they are can be found elsewhere. Today, I just want to write about where it is that I am.

Geneva, Ohio. Never thought I’d live here. It was too close to the big urban county, Lake County.

But here I am, on two acres, of what is mostly oak tree-shaded land set along Cowles Creek. Most passersby don’t realize there’s a house back in there. A while ago, I stepped off the driveway and it is roughly 400 yards long. I am dreading the first big snowfall.

It is a stone house I live in. I ought to say rock house, or boulder house, for the stones, especially those of the foundation, are massive. On the first level, there is a mix of large rocks, bricks, sandstone pieces and even a big wrench that must have gotten stuck in the wall by accident.

The house is rustic and I love it that way. My study is lined in knotty pine that is probably 65 years or older. It has a lot of defects, then again, so does the resident.

Neighbors and Chuck Buck, who lived in this house some 20 to 30 years ago, tell me it was built by Clarence Helwig. Clarence ran an apple orchard on this land, and in the process of working the ground, he collected rocks and boulders — or so the story goes. And, over time, he built a foundation, a stone fireplace and a house.

A great story, but I find it hard to believe that boulders and rocks the sizes of those in this house could be found around here. The variety of the rocks also raises my suspicions about the story.

City directories confirm that Mr. Helwig, his wife and their children lived here. But there is no mention of the orchard itself. However, the orchard story is confirmed by neighbors, the few surviving, aged apple trees found along Sherman Street and the cold storage unit in the back of the garage, also built of stone.

Another neighbor tells me it was a Christmas tree farm, which explains why there are so many tall, dying evergreen trees on these lots. Such trees line a portion of my long driveway and create a tunnel to the cottage.

Perhaps I ought not worry so much about how the cottage got here, or I got here, but just focus on being here. This much I know: it feels like home. Need it be anything else?

The house feels like a pair of fuzzy slippers at the end of a difficult day at work; like a kitten curling up on your lap. It reminds me of my beloved West Virginia mountains. The tall oaks speak their own language to the wind, and the stone walls feel like a cradle, just as I feel cradled and mothered by the mountains of stone.

It is a good place to meet God and listen, gather with family and friends, slumber and dream, read and write. Nap.

It also is a consuming fire, sucking in all my available financial resources and days upon days of labor late into the evening. Prior to my purchase, the house had sat vacant for four years, a victim of the foreclosure crisis. A hole in the roof admitted the melting snow and summer thunderstorms, leaves and acorns, and untold critters, one of which died on the bedroom carpet. Black mold sprouted in the damp environment. The water trickled onto the first-floor ceiling and soaked the hardwood floor underneath. The floor buckled; the skin of the drywall separated from the body and fell off.

Thieves stole the copper water lines from the house, and the bank that owned it paid little attention to maintenance. By the time it became mine, the house was a bona fide disaster area that would contribute  some 70 cubic yards of demolition debris to the landfill.

A month into the renovation project, my other house sold and we had to move into the mess. It brought my wife to tears, and rightly so. That was the scenario I wanted to avoid. But it’s hard to argue with a cash buyer.

For months we ate and breathed sawdust, plaster dust and dirt. It has been only in the past three weeks that the living room has come together, and it still awaits the red oak trim, at that. There is much to be done upstairs, as well as in the garage and the landscaping, but smoke now goes up the chimney on chilly nights, there are Edison lamps burning in the living room windows and two hot showers. Life is good, even when incomplete.

Incomplete. That’s a good word for 2015. Something has been missing. Rest, for certain. Direction, as well. Self-discipline, the kind that facilitates one being true to oneself. And so much more.

Goodbye to the incomplete year; welcome to the year of completion.

 

 

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