Straw Bale House: Part 4 (Driveway)

Point A to Point B

One thing in life we must find/have/create is a reasonable way to get from Point A to Point B. We have to get our bodies from sit to stand, our emotions from down to cheerful (☹ to 😊), our brains from first grade to second, our friendships from I-know-you to I-like-you, our careers from entry level to positions of seniority.

No matter where you live, you have to get from public space to private space, from the road to your own front door – a little snippet of your overall journey perhaps, but a vital one. If you live in the country, the thing that comes in handy for this purpose is a driveway. Not a big deal, you say. Simply step or drive off the road and walk or drive toward your house by way of the driveway. Most of the time a house comes with a driveway – a designated, hard-packed (or paved) surface between the road and the house. So simple and straightforward. You just drive on it. Duh.

Unless there isn’t one, as in the case of Lincoln and Julia’s Vermont property that they subsequently built the straw bale house on.

Unless the land immediately bordering the road is heavily wooded and drops off steeply along the entire length of the road-front property line. When I say steeply, I mean steeply, sharply, almost unmanageably. There was no way to walk from the road down to a reasonably level (but still not overly level) part of their property that felt remotely like a path for feet to tread on, let alone vehicles.

I remember it well. The first time I visited in the spring of 2017, we parked up on the road. When I say up, I mean up. Walking down felt like descending nearly vertically into a forest by way of roots, stones and irregular-sized patches of dirt. I found out later that Lincoln and Julia made the patches with a shovel and a good bit of stomping because they knew I was coming and had to create something that vaguely resembled steps. Walking down it while holding four-year-old Rise’s hand as well as a bag or two was not un-doable but still a challenge. How on earth had they hauled lumber, chairs and other bulky/unwieldy items to the yurt site we then carefully navigated our way toward?

Clearly high on the agenda in the development of this property was the construction of a driveway. If you have ever constructed a driveway from scratch, you know that constructing a driveway is different than paving or in any other way surfacing a driveway. Lincoln started that spring making way for it, including countless hours with a chainsaw felling trees, moving trees, setting trees aside for later use, cutting up trees for firewood.

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The property had come with a permit for the driveway, allowing for one to “cut in” off the road at a certain point, but Lincoln and Julia wanted a different entry point, so needed a new permit. Some things go easily (that did), so they ordered the first load of gravel. (Note the mailbox not standing upright in the background. The guy who delivered the gravel worried that he might hit the mailbox, so Lincoln pulled it out of the ground temporarily.)

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This pile included rocks up to 3-5”. The sole purpose of the first load was to fill in the space between the level of the road and the level of the land such that a vehicle could drive on it, the first vehicle being the excavator that would allow him to do the rest of the work — not the thing that might be interpreted as a car in my cross-section drawing that might make all this clearer, though Lincoln says the ground after the drop-off isn’t that flat!

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From below, from the land, that first load looked like this.

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Once this load was smoothed out (by hand) and Lincoln was able to get an excavator down onto the land, he moved copious amounts of dirt from here and there. For eight days straight, he dug, carried and dumped load after load, changing the contour of the land rather dramatically in some places. He had to move not only fill dirt, but also some very large rocks to use for a retaining wall.

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The driveway slowly began to take shape. On six acres there’s plenty of dirt to create an acceptable grade. “Best practices” in driveway construction suggest that 10% is acceptable, meaning a 1-foot change in elevation for every 10 feet that the surface goes laterally. Lincoln got somewhere near that.

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It is hard to describe just how tedious this work was, how stressful and harrowing those eight days of maneuvering of the excavator were, how very many buckets full of dirt and stone had to be moved uphill, how soupy some of the areas became as he took dirt away, how careful he had to be to not get the large machine stuck in mud because you sure don’t want it to sink so deeply into “the soup” that it can’t self-rescue with its own arm. Hours were wasted getting unstuck, and you pay by the hour when the machine is running.

When trying to make a reasonably flat ground, you necessarily aren’t on reasonably flat ground, so not flipping the machine is also a significant concern. Lincoln has flashbacks of ending up 45 degrees over with his feet up on the sides before catching it with its own arm. This happened, for example, while carrying a heavy boulder from one side of the machine to the other; he was not able to swing on the uphill side because of an obstruction (or maybe that tread didn’t have as solid a footing left), and halfway around the whole shebang started to go over. In retrospect he simply says, “Wheee!”

At one point one of the treads fell off, which was its own adventure,

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to say nothing of how the bucket kept losing its teeth!

On the left in the photo below you see the huge rocks forming the retaining wall. Harder to see is the swale on the right, on the upside of the 200-foot driveway, so that any water coming from above the level of the driveway would go into the swale and turn into a stream along the side instead of washing over the driving surface, introducing too much water and/or washing away surface gravel. A swale was as necessary as a wall.

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When Lincoln was done with the machine, he hand-graded for about a week before being satisfied that the driveway was smooth enough and had the right grade. It was still so soupy they could barely walk on it. The earth that became the primary passageway between the town road and their front door took all summer to dry out enough to drive on, but in the meantime, he built the barn (which we will come back to).

By fall it was time to keep going with surfacing the driveway, but reality forced more felling of trees, beautiful trees this time. In September Lincoln rented a truck with a 10-foot bed to bring some items from New Jersey to Vermont – items from his grandmother when she was moving out of her house. He backed the truck from the road to the barn without much trouble, and Rise and Eppie gave us another darling image,

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but once the truck was empty, it was exceedingly difficult to drive it back up on account of there being no weight in wheels where power was trying to be delivered. The front wheels sank into sand, and all manner of spinning and sliding into the swale ensued. To get it up to the road required a winch, that is, hand-winching. During this laborious process, a beautiful maple tree that they had suspected would be seriously in the way was seriously in the way. They knew it would have to go. It’s not an easy thing on your heart to take down a beautiful, healthy tree, even if it just happens to be in the wrong place. Afterwards, visibility was much better, and they knew they had done the right thing, but it’s a pang to this day.

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The three standing trees in this photo all came down. They were leaning heavily toward the road, and naturally you don’t want them to fall into the road. That’s where the car (photo below) helped. The rope you see was longer than the tree was tall, don’t worry.

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Once the grade was correct and those unfortunate trees were down, they could begin creating the driveway’s hard surface. On top of the native soil it is typical to first lay “road fabric” to keep a barrier between your soil and your gravel. Otherwise the earth will just eat the gravel, and in Lincoln’s case, with how wet the soil tended to be, this would happen fast. Lincoln worried about fabric because moisture can go through it and he was unsure how his driveway would behave with so much water. Bottom line: He didn’t want soup again.

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Demonstrating sound problem-solving skills, to say nothing creatively reusing otherwise landfill-worthy materials (wouldn’t Bertie Boyce be proud!), he put down shingles, which later got topped with gravel. Shingles? Yes, instead of just gravel or just road fabric topped with gravel, he created a weather shed using roofing shingles that made a solid surface of the first 100’ of driveway (up to the barn) so water can’t permeate, and soup cannot form. (With the leftover shingles he made a floor for the barn four layers thick).

This came about because Lincoln and Zach were re-roofing someone’s house at about that time, which resulted in a lot of used shingles that, per the contract, needed to go away. Instead of paying to dump them in a landfill, Lincoln took them to use on his driveway. The sticky point was the history of the disposal of shingles. Apparently it has been common enough practice among unscrupulous builders to dig a hole and bury unwanted shingles (causing the homeowner an unexpected sinkhole some years later) that it became illegal to “bury shingles.”

Naturally therefore Lincoln didn’t want to advertise what he was doing, even though his application in no way resembled the outlawed practice. This didn’t stop some people from misconstruing, looking askance and even asking outright, “Isn’t it illegal to bury shingles?” Following an explanation, he got a broad spectrum of responses including “Okay, guess that might work” (tinged with incredulity) and “Oh, brilliant!” (with genuine excitement followed by stories of their own unconventional solutions to similar challenges).

Lincoln’s driveway has been “hard as bones” even during Vermont’s famous mud season. Unconventional works sometimes. May we open our minds to it more often!

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Lyn’s Comfort Quilt

Hopefully every one of us bears witness to – or is blessed to be part of – a truly wonderful marriage. I’m talking about the kind of marriage in which both people know beyond any doubt that they are each other’s best friend, that only together are they the best individuals they could be, that because of being together their lives are full, rich and meaningful to the limit of what humans can experience and that words like commitment, trust, companionship, care and joy are not just words, but are lived out in tangible, consistent ways.

Lyn and Bertie had one such marriage. I got to know them in my early 20s and was blessed to watch in awe for decades as they walked their godly ways, kindly opening their home to me and many others, being the best of neighbors and friends, modeling grace, humor, generosity and gentleness. Ten years ago we stood in their living room capturing a single moment in their wonderful world.

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We never want sad things to happen, especially to people we love, but we know we are not immune, that we will not escape crying buckets when the realities of life and death impose upon us their at-times-devastating ways. There are no words for the heartache that comes, as it did for Lyn a year ago, when one of a perfect pair is left behind.

I had tried for years to tell Lyn how much she meant to me, how her everyday walk inspired my own, how her selfless service to those in her path shone brightly and brought good beyond measure. I wrote notes and letters mostly, but words are just words, as they say, and you can’t hold them in your hands and they don’t dry tears.

My dear friend Kim, Lyn and Bertie’s only daughter, had an idea that turned into an opportunity for me to show my love, gratitude and admiration. Shortly after her father passed away, Kim told me she wanted to use his shirts to make pillows (or something similar) to remind her own sons and their cousins of their grandfather. As we talked, the idea quickly evolved into using those same shirts to make a quilt for her mom – a way to help her feel close to him, to be wrapped up in him, to have a part of him near. Kim said the only problem was that she herself would have a hard time cutting her father’s shirts.

That’s where I came in. One thing led to the next and Kim sent me the shirts – mostly conservative, neutral buttondown oxfords that were either solid color or had teeny, muted plaids, but also one dark green solid, a work shirt as Kim called it. All of them had (as men’s shirts generally do) a chest pocket. Bertie always kept a hard candy in his chest pocket to be able to offer one to others, but also, as Kim says, “as handy access for himself because he loved sweets!” He also liked to wear bold-striped rugby shirts, but using knit fabrics along with woven fabrics would be tricky, plus the stripes are proportionally bigger than would work well.

Kim agreed to leave the project in my hands. I did what I always do when a quilt is happening – I opened my own fabric scrap boxes and began to see what might work alongside the shirt fabrics. By themselves, the oxfords and the one dark green would have a hard time being interesting, even if they were the core of the piece. I found some perfect blue and white bold-striped material, a miniature version of rugby stripes that would serve as the rugby element and got Kim’s permission to add color and some femininity – it would, after all, be a lady’s (a dear lady’s) quilt and lay on her bed in a room papered with tiny rosebuds.

I had some other good coordinating fabric scraps, but not enough, nor enough variety of color. Coincidentally, my friend Anett was coming from Germany to visit for five days in April. If anyone has an eye for color and design, it’s Anett. We went to the store and found the following to add to the shirts and what I already had.

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Making a quilt is more fun together. This was already a group project with Kim’s idea, Anett’s eye and Lyn’s consent. It was even better that Anett was willing to iron, cut and organize squares with me. We even got a few of the nine-squares sewn together while she was here. My dining room table was the perfect work surface.

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Anett and I cut large squares of the shirt fabric and alternated these with nine-squares that themselves were put together with a variety of fabrics. After Anett left, I kept going, hugely motivated by the hope that somehow this quilt would bring comfort to Lyn. I knew I was taking a chance with the additional fabrics. I hoped, for example, that the polka dots (tiny as they were) wouldn’t strike her as frivolous or too playful at a time when her heart hurt so much.

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I played around with the arrangement a good bit, getting closer to what seemed best every time I moved them around on my bed, and finally got them connected with the strips of gray that form the mullions of the panes. I chose a lighter gray for the back, a soft flannel sheet in fact that looked silvery to me, like the silver lining of a cloud. I chose one of the shirt pockets and appliqued it on the back of the quilt in the upper left, about where (proportionately) a shirt pocket sits on a shirt.

The dark green worked as a defining border around the edge. Kim said later, “One thing that struck us about the quilt is that you used my dad’s work shirt cut into those small strips as the edging to frame it and hold it all together. Far beyond the dark green edging looking nice, it was symbolic of my dad’s hard work, strength and care for his family.”

I quilted the three layers together and carved Bertie + Lyn on a tree, so to speak, on one of the shirt squares. If any part of this project brought tears to my eyes (and still does), it’s this.

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Some of you may recall that in the early spring there was a huge building project at my house – a new chicken coop. I had helped dismantle the old run, dig post holes for the new run, set the cedar posts in cement and erect the foundational elements of the new coop. Then right at the end of April, I got sick. I got a coughing sickness that kept me pretty much planted on the couch for almost a month. By the time this happened, the main part of the quilt was together and mostly handwork remained. Had I not been sick and confined to indoor, quiet work, I am not sure how this quilt would have been finished by the time Kim and I planned to rendezvous at Yoder’s in Madison, Virginia, for the hand-off in May. But it was.

Before I packed it up, I put a hard candy in the pocket.

Kim had asked me to send a photo of the quilt while it was in process. I had this photo of it finished…

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… but I told her a photo would spoil it, would not give the best idea of it (I still think this) so I didn’t send it. She waited. I was very happy that when she finally held it in her hands, she was sure her mom would like it.

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Along with the quilt I sent a note to Lyn. It included: No doubt you will recognize Bertie’s shirts. But all by themselves they would have made a very dull quilt indeed and not come close to reflecting his unique personality. Plus, we all know that only together with you was he the man he was. You were there every step of the way and he needed you as you needed him. So the quilt had to reflect you too. You are so beautiful!

Oh the fun I had! There had to be some bold stripes for his rugby shirts, a pocket for his candy, some rosebuds and other flowers and some pink for you, some softness, some delicacy, splashes of color, old and new, subtle and fun, conventional and unexpected, greens for the Green Mountains of Vermont, blues for the glorious, endless sky, golds for the golden years you had together, your names carved together somehow (I hope you like the how!).  Hopefully the fabrics, each in different ways, bring you good, peaceful, comforting thoughts, and the combination of them pleases your eye and your heart. Hopefully it looks nice in your room and adds warmth in ways that only God can make happen. Hopefully Bertie feels a little bit closer.

Lyn sent me a beautiful, heartfelt letter of thanks that overjoyed me. Kim said, “The quilt is a treasure. Mom snuggles down beneath it as she rests. I often go in and rub my hands over it when I am at the house. It feeds the longing I have to be near my dad. I think the quilt, made with love and with all its symbolism, is the most beautiful gift you could have given my mom to bring comfort to her broken heart.”

When I went to Vermont in August, I got a big hug from Lyn and was able to see it on her bed. How blessed am I to have such marvelous people in my life, and how grateful to have had the opportunity to give back some small measure of good to Lyn, who has done more for me and for everyone around her than she will ever know.

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Straw Bale House: Part 3 (Yurt)

A Shower or a Fridge: Which Would You Choose?

Lincoln and Julia’s one-of-a-kind, pentagonal, straw bale house was first of all a dream. It did not come in a kit. There were no pre-existing plans. This photo, taken with immense joy in late 2018, shows the first time smoke came from their stovepipe. Walls, roof, heat — these must come first.

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Houses like this, especially when you are building them almost single-handedly, do not come together quickly. It took nearly two years on the property for Lincoln and Julia to be able to abide in this abode, even if it is far from finished. Until then, they all had to rest their heads somewhere. The choice seemed perfectly logical: a temporary dwelling just down the hill.

In the late winter of 2017 they bought the land. The first two weeks (thankfully now just a memory) they slept in … a tent. That year at that time was not as snowy (snow might have been less brutal) as it was rainy — a nonstop, 40-degree drizzle that erased the snow but gave them nowhere to warm up. In their memories this qualifies as the worst part of the adventure. But spring came and with it, the beginnings of permanency. You can cook outdoors on a camp stove for a while, but an indoor kitchen, however rudimentary, has advantages.

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The yurt that would be their home for nearly the next two years had been erected twice before – the first time on a hillside overlooking Mt. Mansfield immediately following their wedding in October 2011. (Yes, they lived in it all that winter! A small wood stove inside heats up the entire space to a toasty 65 degrees or so, and 65 feels toasty indeed when it’s 4 outside.) The second time was for a short while in Virginia before Rise was born.

This time they sunk pressure-treated 4x4s down to bedrock and built a non-equilateral hexagonal framework of double-beamed 2x10s. That’s three long double beams laid parallel to each other — one 17-footer (about 5.2m) across the middle, one on each side of it about 8 feet away and four more that closed in the frame, like my imperfect sketch (you get the idea).

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The 2×6 joists that stood on end across the framework then each had at least two points to rest on.

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So far this was more like a freestanding deck than the base for a dwelling. But let’s be real — this is Vermont and it gets mighty cold. So they got underneath, stapled landscape fabric to the undersides of the joists and filled all the in-between spaces with regular loose-fill cellulose insulation that was repurposed from the walls of their good friend Zach’s house. The insulation provided a critical measure of warmth and the landscape fabric gave incidental water a way out.

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After the insulation between the joists came the pine plank flooring. Remember this is the third go-round in a yurt. They chose pine planks “after not enjoying being on osb or dirt.” (OSB, oriented strand board, is, according to Wikipedia, “a type of engineered wood similar to particle board, formed by adding adhesives and then compressing layers of wood strands (flakes) in specific orientations.”) Lincoln says, “It’s not really a great foundation,” but it served them well.

To be able to cut the pine planks where they needed to be cut (see them lying flat but sticking out under the lattice?), they first put up the accordion-like walls, then circularized the bottom by suspending the cone-like framework of the roof on the lowest intersection of the lattice.

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The roof framework was then disassembled and reassembled up in its proper place, as you see in this photo. The opening in front is for the door of course.

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The canvas, having been used twice before and clearly showing wear, tear and rot from four years of storage and getting hauled all over the place, was not in its original very white condition, but it did the job surprisingly well. It wasn’t long before this simple structure began to feel like home. Let’s just take a nice book and sit in the sunshine! That’s Eppie, almost three.

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When I came to visit that spring, all was in order. A workable kitchen area with running water, gravity fed from a nearby stream (the red tube hanging over the sink)…

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…small bunk beds for the girls along one side…

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…and Lincoln and Julia’s bed against the wall during the day when not in use.

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As summer went on, the grass came in, making an idyllic front yard. Their garden, with natural fencing to keep small critters out, included strawberries, tomatoes and squash.

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Probably the most exciting thing that happened that year was on July 25 when power came!

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The very first thing they hooked up was a small, dorm-style fridge, which very much improved upon the previous need to continually refresh the ice in a cooler. Oh, the joy of a cold glass of milk!

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“Refrigeration!” Lincoln said. “This may have been the happiest day of the whole project to have that modernity. Real running hot water/a shower will probably be the only thing to top it.” They put the full-size fridge near the site of the barn initially, next to that glorious fuse box! To put it in the yurt required a proper gauge wire (that would support a full fridge’s amperage draw) long enough to make the 310-foot trek between fuse box and yurt. That didn’t happen until the following spring.

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You will note the absence of (and have perhaps been wondering about) indoor plumbing. When it comes down to it, until such time as water from a well would run indoors, they could take hot showers at Zach’s house, use water being led into the yurt from the on-site stream for general washing of dishes and hands, and fill and refill large dispensers with potable water from Zach’s outdoor spigot.

But on site there must be a toilet of some kind, and indeed there was, built according to the same specifications Vermont uses to build the privies along the Long Trail. They figured if it was good enough for the state, it was good enough for them. Countless generations of humans have constructed similar structures and managed their personal needs adequately, if not warmly or luxuriously. I daresay this one is a far cry nicer than a lot of its predecessors.

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Now think about it: If you had to choose between indoor plumbing and electricity, which would it be? How many of us have to choose? How many of us could (uncomplainingly) manage neither for a while and then one-but-not-the-other until both, in their proper time, were a part of our reality?

How much we take for granted every day! How blessed we are!

Straw Bale House: Part 2 (Site)

(This is the second of a multi-part series that will document the development of Lincoln and Julia’s property, the first having been entitled “Lincoln’s Pentagonal, Straw Bale Insulated House in Vermont.”)

Say you want to live in the country. You have been dreaming about and looking at properties for years. You finally find a piece of land that has privacy from almost every side and a river a stone’s throw away, yet is only a mile from town. You see the view, the potential. You see the price tag, and it’s doable. On this solid piece of earth, you imagine this here, that there, where the sun will rise, how far a walk it will be to that lazy river one fine day when you are all settled in. Images take shape in your mind. With a canvas, an artist can paint.

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There was snow on the ground when Lincoln and Julia first set foot on the land they would come to call home, land that would come to include their yurt, greenhouse, beehives, garden, barn and of course their pièce de résistance: a pentagonal, straw bale insulated house. In their heads and then on paper they drew up a rough schematic plan showing where everything would best be situated before they even closed on the deal. We’ll come back to this.

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Sometime later they calculated many years’ worth of firewood standing/leaning/lying on site (that would not have to be paid for by the cord) – maybe a lifetime’s worth if they were good stewards of the land. Bonus!

Was there any question that this piece of land was the right one, that buying it was a good decision? Any reason not to jump in with both feet? Absolutely. Skepticism was strong. Lincoln worried that his excitement might rose-color-blind them. He knew he’d be a fool not to ask: What’s wrong with it? What are we not seeing?

Snow is not unusual in Vermont in the wintertime, and it does present assessment challenges. For example, why is there a cattail here in what seems to be a clearing? How wet is it underneath?

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The cattail was worrisome. They talked to the neighbors across the street, who described the land as “kinda swampy.” It was, however, a swamp on a slope. Let’s think about that now (and think long and hard they did): A swamp on a slope can be only so bad and should be manageable. They decided to deal with it. So they worried as they dreamed and they dreamed as they worried.

Before making a decision, they walked the land again after a spot of warmer weather. If they had been excited before, they were even more so when they saw plainly in front of them all they wanted: river, rock, field and forest. They loved it in every way above all other pieces of land they had seen. The big piece of exposed rock overlooking the river put one word in Lincoln’s head: Swoon.

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They knew it was just land, land that dropped off at a steep angle from the road, land with no house (no dwelling of any kind), no driveway (barely a spot to pull off on the side of the road to park, so even an RV wasn’t a temporary option), no electricity, no well, no septic. They knew it would require countless hours of labor, more money than they at that moment could lay claim to and years of patience before the word finished became an accurate descriptor. Yet in they plunged!

Then winter weather kicked in again. Their first campfire says Determination loud and clear, but the first two weeks of snow and cold were the worst. In Lincoln’s words, “The first two weeks on the land sucked. Sucked bad. Probably why we take some other stuff in stride: nothing compares to how that was.”

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Nonetheless Julia’s TA-DA says Ours! as she shows off their first campsite.

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That first night inside the tent, with Rise at age four and Eppie at two, they began an adventure that will last for years.

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The yurt would go up first, becoming a temporary place to sleep, cook and plan the next stage of the ongoing, unconventional, ambitious project they set their minds to. My granddaughters will grow up watching their amazing, energetic, creative parents continually researching, learning new things, doing the next thing, discussing options, working, resting, researching more, learning more new things, meeting challenges, staying flexible, correcting mistakes – ever unfazed by inconveniences that many (most?) of us would not so gladly endure and with a measure of patience that comes with a prize. Three prizes really: peace, self-reliance (though they are forever grateful to all the people they have relied on) and debt-free ownership of their dream home.

On the one hand Lincoln would like it to be clear that they do not live on a massive bucolic estate, rather on “a haphazard swamp where everything is half built or falling apart or both!” On the other he holds fast to Gradatim Ferociter*: slowly, step by step, with ferocity.

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*coincidentally the motto of the rocket company Blue Origin

The Light of 2019

Last year during the week between Christmas and New Year, it was very, very cold here in Virginia, inordinately cold, exceptionally cold. We seldom get to single digits, let alone for a week straight. We took Katja, a visitor from Germany, to Washington, D.C. and walked from one end of the National Mall to the other. It was 4 degrees F (-15C) that day.

Just before Christmas we were in Vermont. I did not pay as much attention to the temperature because we were busy insulating Lincoln’s house and hauling household items up the snowy hill, but I do remember hearing it was 11F. That’s not as cold as 4F but it’s still mighty cold. Coco doesn’t like it. Poor baby. There’s not a lot of fur on her belly, and it’s very tough on her. She would much rather be tucked in.

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When we got home it was much warmer. It makes me smile to see her finding her spot outside on the front porch (that’s no closer to being finished than six weeks ago)…

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…or inside where the sun comes through my south-facing bedroom window.

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She finds and occupies the only bit of rug that also has sun in that room and has her trusty fox toy behind her. Now we’re talking! New Year’s Day in my neck of the woods is predicted to be sunny and 64F (17C). Ah, glorious sun!

If a patch of sun can make Coco so happy, imagine what it can do for you, what it does do for you without you hardly noticing it most of the time. Think about how you feel on a drab day vs. a sunny day. If you live in a place that’s sunny all the time, you may not be as aware of the effect that cloudy days have on your emotional well being. But winter is harder in places that get snow not only because it’s colder but also because there is less sun.

Imagine if we arranged our built spaces to take advantage of the sun whenever possible. One of my favorite books about the design of living spaces is A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander. In it he suggests some examples to encourage indoor sunlight: “(1) a porch that gets the evening sun late in the day; (2) a breakfast nook that looks directly into a garden which is sunny in the morning; (3) a bathing room arranged to get full morning sun; (4) a workshop that gets full southern exposure during the middle of the day; (5) an edge of a living room where the sun falls on an outside wall and warms a flowering plant.”

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In Lincoln’s pentagonal house, he has chosen to put an oculus (which will become a cupola with functioning windows) in the center of the second-floor ceiling. Light will stream into almost every room of the house through this amazing component of his design.

This (in my woobly red line) is the oculus I’m talking about. Only some of that flooring will remain.

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Most of us are stuck with the house we have, the orientation it came with, the sun we get. But on this first day of 2019, I am thinking about what the sun does for us and how we can and should take advantage of it. Find a sunny spot to sit in if you can, even for a little while. Let the sun do its work on you. See what happens.

Beyond that, I think about what we can do for others by being “sunny” in our interactions. The expressions that come to mind and go hand in hand with this concept include:

You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar – a favorite of mine because it’s true not only figuratively, it’s true literally. The image of a flypaper hanging from a ceiling in a cabin somehow resides in my mind. If the strip of paper were coated with honey, no way could a fly’s wings detach once they landed on it. What (very dumb) fly would land on a paper coated with vinegar? I translate as: You accomplish more by using grace and kindness than by being sour/vindictive/mean/angry/etc.

In honor of Mary Poppins, all the rage with Mary Poppins Returns being in theaters right now: A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. In the Julie Andrews original, she applies this literally, though why the children need medicine when they are not sick is beyond me. Nevertheless, my translation: The world can be a tough place; anything we do to make it better makes it better! Add an element of good to something that is unpleasant or difficult and you will find everything easier.

Lastly: This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine! I was thinking today about how limited we are, how our sphere of influence is small, how many people there are in the world and how few of them we can in any way affect. So what? We don’t have to save the world (this has already been done), but we sure can make our own corners — and the corners of those we love and care about — less dark by our chosen actions.

Several years ago, I found the essay We Were Made For These Times by Clarissa Pinkola Estes (American poet, post-trauma specialist and Jungian psychoanalyst, author of Women Who Run With the Wolves). It made me think about why I do what I do, what I think is important, what the future might hold. Maybe it speaks to you and helps you make 2019 a wonderful year in new and important ways.

My friends, do not lose heart. We were made for these times. I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world now. Ours is a time of almost daily astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.

You are right in your assessments. The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking. Yet, I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is that we were made for these times. Yes. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement.

I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see one. Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able vessels in the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind.

Look out over the prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you. Even though your veneers may shiver from every wave in this stormy roil, I assure you that the long timbers composing your prow and rudder come from a greater forest. That long-grained lumber is known to withstand storms, to hold together, to hold its own, and to advance, regardless.

In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails.

We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us and guide us, and we will know them when they appear. Didn’t you say you were a believer? Didn’t you say you pledged to listen to a voice greater? Didn’t you ask for grace? Don’t you remember that to be in grace means to submit to the voice greater?

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.

What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.

Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.

There will always be times when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it. I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate.

The reason is this: In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours. They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here. In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.

Christmas Trees Among Friends and Family

Sometimes I forget things. My first waking thought today, Christmas morning, was not (I am sorry to say) about the real meaning of Christmas, but instead Oh, right, I told Mom I would make scalloped potatoes to go with the dinner today – better get to that! Yesterday was pure relaxation after Samuel helped me finish up the chocolate lime pie, our traditional Christmas dessert. I got out a new (very hard!) jigsaw puzzle and got completely absorbed with that until we turned on It’s A Wonderful Life while enjoying Samuel’s excellent pizza.

Now I realize I also forgot all about the popcorn garland I was going to add to the Christmas tree. Could have done that yesterday too. Do you think it needs it?

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Speaking of trees, I almost didn’t put one up. I was so enchanted with the way my outdoor tree looked this year, especially when we got snow, I said to myself, It’s enough. I wished it had snowed before I made up my Christmas cards this year!

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But snow (in Virginia) melts and various people I know sent me photos of their Christmas trees. How could this not nudge me??

Louisa in North Carolina was the first. How amazing that her tree is not only so incredibly beautiful but that she got her precious pups to pose in front!

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My sister Lynn in Massachusetts was next. I love the way her star on top shines on the ceiling, so soft, and I bet it looks different from different angles and at different times of day.

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Fred in Kentucky, I venture to say, could tell you where every ornament came from. How precious a walk through memories…

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Marie’s (in Idaho) made me smile big. They went out with neighbors and cut one from the woods. I love it!

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Even more precious was the photo of Ellie, who is three, holding an ornament. Marie said, “Grandma gave me this one when I was three.” I hope Ellie’s child (someday) is smiling as she holds the ornament I sent Ellie this year…

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Claudia’s tree in Germany is full and jolly!

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I also loved her table decoration prepared in time for the first Sunday of Advent. How we take such simple elements and put them together to make something so pretty and meaningful!

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Kim’s in Vermont is not exactly a tree, but it is made from branches of trees! At their family camp where they traditionally get their trees there just … weren’t any. She said it’s growing on her and is much more manageable than a real tree! I love it!

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We make do and we make it wonderful! Lincoln and Julia in Vermont, in their straw bale house, decided to be even more unconventional. I love theirs too!

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Lincoln’s, Kim’s and Marie’s made me think – here I am with the unboring path and yet I have a rather conventional tree. They get the prize for Unconventional! How fun and wonderful to see such a lovely variety, to bear witness to the creativity of those I know, to see and hear about the joy and fun that surrounds this custom.  They all made me smile! What a funny custom it is – we buy a tree or go to the woods to cut one down (or cut some branches, if you are Kim and Dave), then install (assemble?) it indoors in a prominent place and decorate it with our favorite ornaments. Or if you are Lincoln and Julia, you put up some lights and hang ornaments and use your imagination! What a special way once a year to slow down, do something unnecessary but just fun,  share a tradition with countless others and revisit our Christmas memories as we make new ones.

Merry Christmas! God bless us every one!

Lincoln’s Pentagonal, Straw Bale Insulated House in Vermont

My son Lincoln is building a house, but not a normal house. Twenty de-barked trees taken from his six-acre riverside property in northern Vermont constitute the vertical supports, and the first-floor walls are stacked straw bales that serve as insulation. Oh, and the pentagonal design means the corners aren’t square.

Presently it looks like this. The smoke coming out of that stovepipe might lead you to think it’s warm in there. Indeed, it’s warmer than outside!

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Last week Samuel and I traveled to Vermont to work alongside Lincoln and better understand his project. I found myself awestruck not only by the hard work, craftsmanship and ingenuity evident everywhere, but also by the fortitude, patience and ease with which every member of the family is walking through this process.

First of all, it’s not warm in Vermont in December. It wasn’t warm in November either. This year, Thanksgiving was the coldest on record (11 degrees Fahrenheit, -11C), and snowfall broke the previous record set in 1900 with 32” (81cm) of snow in November. As Lincoln has been building this unusual, amazing house, he and his wife Julia and their two delightful daughters (Rise and Eppie, 6 and 4) have been living in a 16’ (4.8 meter)-diameter yurt on the same property. It has a wood stove that keeps it toasty, but the privy is detached and the adjacent “greenhouse” that Lincoln and Julia slept in is unheated.

Some nights it got down to –4 degrees Fahrenheit (-20C). Think about that. How many blankets would you need? They would turn their electric blanket on about 40 minutes before going to bed. A couple weeks ago when he was about to get the wood stove in the house set up, Lincoln said, “It’s very exciting for those of us sleeping in unheated greenhouses waking up to -4 degrees on our faces.” When I said I could not even imagine how that feels, he said, “Eh. Our electric blanket is awesome. It’s basically just like getting out of bed into a walk in the freezer.”

You can see the yurt and the greenhouse down the hill from where Samuel is standing with Coco tucked into his jacket. (She was a constantly shivering camper during this week, but that is another story!)

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This is glorified camping. In the winter. In Vermont. As the fire dies down, you can sometimes see your breath inside, but no one seems to notice. None of them complain. They just carry on. Here we are cooking dinner together in the yurt one night early last week. I have an ear warmer on under that hat, and I am wearing four layers on top (including a wool sweater and an alpaca sweater), and two on the bottom (cold weather leggings under snow pants) and the girls are in regular clothes, oblivious.

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There is no running water right now. The pipe that brought water into the yurt froze during the very cold November. No matter. They bring in water in large containers such as the one behind me in the photo above, filling and refilling at their friends’ house (Zach and Nicole live a very short drive away). But there’s electricity and internet. They have a fridge, a stove, a microwave and a toaster oven. You heat up water to do the dishes. You put on another sweater if you feel cold.

Lincoln works on the house day after day, one task at a time. Julia works outside the home, coming and going with gentle, saintly tolerance. Rise goes to kindergarten and Eppie to preschool, and I suspect few of their classmates are as unspoiled or resilient, or as well equipped to handle the various forms of adversity that their own lives will bring. The snow, the cold, the construction zone, the tight quarters, the inconveniences – they all take it in stride. They may not have running water yet, but they will. In the meantime, as they love, support and serve one another with smiles and strength and kindness, they are happy, healthy and secure in a peaceful, incredibly beautiful place. They ask for nothing and have everything they truly need.

I stand in awe.

Lincoln could have built a normal house, and it would have been done by now, or nearly done. A normal house would have square corners, a shingled roof and indoor plumbing as it applies to both kitchen and bathroom. There would not be sawdust and bits of straw everywhere or 6ml plastic for windows.

But he didn’t. He created a unique home design that is enormously ambitious and unconventional. He is living his dream, and Julia, God bless her, is his perfect partner.

Lincoln’s dream is a lot of work (a lot of work!), but it lets girls be prairie dogs,

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includes dizzying heights,

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demands outstanding joinery,

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and creates surreal images.

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I hope these few photos have whet your appetite. I plan to do a more thorough step-by-step of his building journey in future posts. If you have any questions or want me to explore any particular aspect of the project more, let me know.

Guy on Window

Bizarre as it was – the sounds, the images, the mind associations – no one flinched. No one asked for an explanation, no one cared. We all just carried on as if there weren’t a guy on the window, as if a guy on the window happens every day. Let’s take GUY ON WINDOW one word at a time.

GUY: Guy refers to a male generally, unless it’s used in the “What do you guys want to drink?” colloquialism, but that is a different conversation. I am from New Jersey. When we say “I know a guy” it means “I know a man who does X [and I can talk to him about doing X for you].” I have often been amazed at how, for the most part, even from afar (though this is not foolproof of course), we can instantly tell if someone is male or female just from how they stand or walk or gesture. We don’t need to see their face. We don’t need hairstyle or other typical gender signifiers. They can be bundled in bulky clothes. Something about the image tells us “male” or “female.” I’d put money on it: this was a guy on the window.

ON: On is a preposition that implies adherence to or connection to another object. According to Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries, “on” means “in or into a position covering, touching or forming part of a surface” as in

“a picture on a wall

There’s a mark on your skirt.

the diagram on page 5

Put it down on the table.

He had been hit on the head.

She climbed on to the bed.

What you don’t see here in this list of possible uses for “on” is “guy on window” or even “there’s a guy on the window.” Because it’s unusual. When I say on, in this case, I mean in-a-position-touching-the-surface-of-[the-vertical-third-floor-window].

WINDOW: Windows are generally glass and generally flat planes. This one was. Sometimes they open to let in air, and sometimes they are sealed shut. The kind in office buildings, especially on upper levels, are usually sealed. This one was on the third floor, and it was sealed. Windows need to be cleaned now and then. This one apparently did.

Of course we weren’t sure what was going on at first. At first all you saw was a foot.

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I was waiting for my mom to get through her appointment with the eye doctor.  There are many aspects to the appointment – various tests and various waiting periods. When you go there as the driver, you know it will be a while. Last time it took almost two hours. This time was better, only an hour and 35 minutes. Still, that’s a lot of time to observe what is going on.

Those of us sitting in the waiting room had heard water being sprayed. We had seen water streaming down the window. Someone new walked in and said, “Is it raining?”

No, not raining, but oh, look, there’s a guy on the window. Yeah, so, a guy on the window. Big deal. He has the right equipment. The water he uses to clean the windows with comes out of the nozzle because it is hooked up to a system that supplies it. He is agile enough to manage this job. He is strong enough to hold everything. He is not afraid to be up that high, though he is strapped in somehow I’m sure. He is paid enough for him to want to do this work. The businesses in this building are doing well enough to pay someone to wash the windows. The building is well made so that no water seeps through. Etc!

So much has to be in place just for this one guy to clean the windows!

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I thought about this today while Samuel and I were driving to Vermont. It took 12 hours, the first five of which were in horrible rain. Despite the rain and the accompanying driving conditions, we realized that it’s remarkable to be able to drive 650 miles in one day. Like the guy on the window, so many factors have to be in place for this to happen: We have to have a car that runs, money to put gas into it, good health to be able to make a trip. The roads have to be in good repair, we need to be able to find the gas to put in the car, so there must be gas stations along the way. The state borders through which we travel (Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and Vermont) – indeed all of the states in the US – allow free travel – no border stops, no restrictions, just keep going. We have jobs and schedules that give us the time to travel. Etc!

And because of all of this, now I get to spend several days with my sweet granddaughters and help my son and his wife with their new house – his straw-bale-insulated, pentagonal house on six rural acres in Vermont, which I will tell you more about soon.

In the meantime, remember that the things to be grateful for never end.

When I Grow Up

As we left Lyn’s house in Vermont last week, she handed me a jar of cookies, homemade maple cookies, homemade by Lyn herself of course. My heart warmed on seeing that jar, wrapped up pretty with beautiful, delicious cookies inside. It was my jar and she was, on the surface of it, giving me my jar back. This past winter, I had used it to give her some of my Virginia applesauce. In Lyn’s book, you don’t return the jar empty, or the container, or the plate, or whatever was used to give you a gift of food. You give it back with something yummy. It’s a thing. It’s a wonderful thing.

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This is Eppie, who might not remember this jar of cookies, but I hope she will always give something back in a similarly beautiful way. I hope when she gets older, she meets a dear lady who becomes for her as Lyn has been for me.

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This is Lyn. I want to tell you what she did to my stove. In my early twenties, our first house had an old electric stove in the kitchen that was, well, gross. It’s one thing to make a mess yourself and clean it imperfectly, but someone else’s mess, someone else’s baked-on spills, someone else’s goo dripping down that narrow space between the side of the stove and the counter – that is just gross.

The man we bought the house from had left a tea kettle sitting on the back burner, which succeeded in hiding the fact that there was no coil under it. Discovering the missing coil and realizing his deception was disappointment enough for me to have talked about it, and in telling the story, I must have mentioned that the stove was not exactly appealing in its present condition. I might have used the word gross. Lyn said to me, “I will come and clean your stove.” Being five months pregnant at the time, I did not argue.

Neither did I have any idea what she meant by “cleaning” my stove. She showed up in work clothes and over the course of two and a half days, she took that stove apart – screw by screw! She scrubbed and polished every piece individually, so that all old grossness of any kind that might have remained lodged between two pieces was able to be removed. Then she put it all back together.

I never saw a person clean anything so thoroughly, to say nothing giving two and a half days of their own time to do it. The stove was an ugly color, that goldish tone that was popular in the 1970s and remained in many kitchens until those stoves one by one kicked the bucket. But despite the (soon replaced) missing coil, it worked, and I was not going to have a new one any time soon. By the time Lyn got through with it, that stove was shining like new and not nearly as ugly. In fact, I could not help but smile when I looked at it. I remember being awestruck at her willingness to ensure that I would have a clean stove.

What a gift she gave me! Who was I that she would do this for me? Why she would go out of her way and work so hard for me like that? And how could saying “thank you” even come close to expressing my gratitude? In my twenty-something, bumbling way I asked her, “What can I ever do to repay you?”

She didn’t miss a beat, but replied gently, “Someday, someone will need their stove cleaned. You clean their stove, and you have repaid me.”

I like to think that anyone would have realized at that moment what an extraordinary human being she is. I did think that. But my thought specifically was – and still is – “When I grow up, I want to be like her.”

It wasn’t just the stove of course. It was cookies coming to me or coming back to me, time and again. It was hours spent listening to me working my way verbally through some perplexing issue or current crisis. It was a lot of kind questions that made me think she genuinely cared about me, though I still didn’t know why she would. Her amazing generosity and warm welcomes were love in action and made me feel loved, to say nothing of her maple cookies, apple squares and buttery turnips! Lyn made the best turnips I ever had! One Christmas after moving to Virginia I was feeling especially homesick for Vermont, which perhaps she knew and perhaps she didn’t. She kindly sent a box of her apple squares, wrapped well for the journey. But to fill the small bit of empty space in the box she did not use Styrofoam peanuts or newspaper. No, she thought to cut some sprigs of a fir tree so that when I opened the box, the pine scent brought me back to Vermont instantly.

I could go on, but perhaps you get the idea that I love and admire her very much. May every woman have such a woman in her life! May every man have a man so worthy and respectable as to inspire the same kind of hope, the kind that says I want to be like that someday! The vision of that someday will stop us short when we are tempted to be lazy or unkind or bad-tempered. The vision inspires. Like the ripples in a pond, the actions of people like Lyn inspire our own actions which hopefully in turn inspire someone else’s actions. In a few years when I show Eppie the photo of herself with the jar of cookies, I’ll tell her what it’s all about. Maybe she’ll get it. Or maybe someone will clean her stove, so to speak.

May we all have people in our lives to admire, to emulate, to learn from – people of such shining, wonderful character that your own life is richer just knowing them. Let us never forget how important we are to one another, how important our actions are and how far the ripples reach.

The Maze of Life

I love it when people find ingenious ways to make money using what they already have. For 20 years a farm family in Vermont has been planting 24 acres of corn, cutting an intricate maze into it, charging admission and making untold numbers of people thrilled that they found their way out! Here is a previous year’s maze to give you an idea of what they do.

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There is a boat and a bridge in this one; a boat and two bridges in the next.

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Perhaps it’s hard to understand the scale from the aerial photos. What it looks like from atop one of the bridges is this:

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That’s a boat way out in the distance. The corn is taller than all but the tallest people. And even if you were a giant, it would be hard to see which path to take.

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There are a lot of pointless loops and dead ends. There are “guides” posted on the bridges, wholesome yet also rather smirky young people who may or may not steer you right, and they will tell you they may or may not be steering you right! (I may be reading the smirky into it.) There are two “frustration bells” located in random places just to give you something to do when you feel like you are going in circles. There are numerous paper punches mounted on stands that all make a different shaped hole in the card they give you to punch: star, apple, boat, teddy bear, umbrella, hand moon, leaf, etc. Mine looked like this by the end.

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You are supposed to punch the card every time you come to one, and when you are all done, you “compare your sequence of punched shapes to their locations marked on the aerial photo in the admissions booth to see how you solved the maze.” Let’s just say I used the card as a way to feel like we were making some progress. If you come to the same hole puncher twice, you are really in a loop! We only did that once that I remember, but I was piggy-back-carrying my almost six-year-old granddaughter a good deal of the time, so forgive me if my memory is a bit fuzzy on the details.

We were fortunate during our trek last week to have a scout in our party who often went on ahead and checked to see if we all should keep going that way or try another direction (thank you, Lincoln!). Nonetheless I am sure the nine of us went under one of the bridges at least three times. We discussed what mistakes we might have made. We tried to intelligently choose the next direction. On my own I would not possibly have made it out of there in the two and a half hours it took us.

I should have had a clue it was going to be as challenging as it was. Just getting to the place feels like going to the middle of nowhere.

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You are on a dirt road (not that that’s unusual in Vermont). Finally you see the sign that says M [ear of corn] Z E 627 feet. 627 feet?? That’s your clue right there. This going to be fun!

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Parking is easy. There are goats to visit,

Lincoln and goat

toys to play with,

Eppie

and all kinds of fun things to do before entering the maze itself.

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It’s no wonder people love coming here. Kudos to the owners/designers who give us not only a fun and challenging way to spend time together. They have also made possible an experience that fabulously parallels real life, whether anyone but me thinks about it that way or not. How is a maze like this NOT a parallel of a person’s lifetime?

We come into it, we bumble around (fairly clueless), we think about it, we rest, we have a snack, we try again, we note the milestones, we carry the little ones, we share stories, we slow down for the slower ones we care about (or they slow down for us!), we feel a bit of success, we marvel at the complexity, we get dirty, we keep going, we get help (or not, as we choose), we discuss our options, we go the other person’s way sometimes, we laugh, we leave clues for other people and hope it helps, we get frustrated (not that bridge again!), we make progress, we get tired, we sense we are getting to the end, we celebrate, we finish and we sit down!

Seems about right to me. Some people bumble more than others, some have more successes, some carry little ones more often, some get dirtier. But all in all, life is a maze. We don’t know what’s around the next bend, we don’t know how long it will take us to get through it, we don’t know what our path will be until we start going along. We back up and start again sometimes. We experience surprise, frustration, challenge, relief. We keep going.

I am in the middle of my own maze as you are in yours. Don’t you love it?!