Adoration of place contains the seeds of catastrophe. Ben Gurion’s mind-experiment wish for the razing of Jerusalem’s Old City was based on his political insight that there would never be stability for Israel when the fight is about a place preternaturally sacred to warring tribes. With “Land for Peace” at stake, peace never really has had a fighting chance.
Also, clear as Crater Lake, and rather deeper, is the abiding truth that total lack of connection to place, any place, leaves a soul barren. For attachment to place, along with people to love and purpose-filled service to others, are three keys to a centered soul. Those special places which stir our hearts provoke their affection based not solely on their intrinsic beauty, but from their association with one or both of those other two soul keys.
Losing my father at a young age, has put a memory-premium on those places that we inhabited together.
When I was eight years old, Dad and I built a small outbuilding in our large suburban backyard. It had four sturdy walls faced on the exterior with cedar lap siding and on the interior with unadorned plywood; a gutter-less shed roof structure of 2x4s, 2x6s and plywood, topped with tar paper and cedar shakes; and a wood-laminated latching door with a genuine metal door knob. It wasn’t insulated but it was watertight.
I wanted it to be a kind of fortress, where I could retreat with friends to plot the dissolution of our foes, the glorification of our friends, and the restoration of a universally acknowledged new world hegemony centered on our secret backyard lair. To that end, I needed the ability to climb onto the roof and scout for possible intruders. Or, on cloudless summer nights, give up the grand strategic war plans and just search the star-strewn heavens for signs of meteors or intelligent invading life. A vertical ladder nailed to the backside of the shed roof did that trick.
The development of the building itself remains the core of my affection, for it was the only construction project I remember doing with Dad.
To start, we sat down together at the kitchen table to design the thing. Growing up in New York City, Dad had been a Life-Scout, one step down from Eagle. Remarkable, in that he managed through scouting to develop a range of practical skills that his parents never possessed nor would he as an adult and academic seemingly ever need. But Dad was pretty much good at anything, so designing and building a backyard fort was done with competence and confidence.
I was awed by his assurance, as Dad asked me a series of questions about what I wanted, and then sketched out the design. What followed was like Little Red Hen offered bread – only this time I helped at every stage and earned my just rewards.
First, we established the structure’s dimensions, then proceeded to develop the materials list. Dad was teaching me a practical math. This was also when I learned about 2x4s and 2x6s and 4x4s and what each was good for and that, surprise surprise, a 2×4 isn’t actually 2” by 4” but no matter, is called it anyway.
Dad had a clarity, stream and precision in everything he did. From slicing eggplants to bowling to chopping wood to ping pong there was a distinctive bounce, flow and meticulousness to his movements and his intellect. The materials list was written up in ordered columns, and off we went to the lumber and hardware stores.
I loved how Dad knew exactly what to ask for at the stores and where to go. He taught me how to shop for knotless lumber. The difference between anodized and non-anodized nails. Why cedar is such a cool wood, with its water-shedding properties and tribal heritage.
Back from the stores, we went to the shop to measure and saw off the lumber. More math, pencil snapped lines, and my first use of a skill saw.
We hauled all the materials and essential tools to the construction site and started nailing and hammering away. I was excited and delighted as the plans came to life through our labors. It took two days. From beginning to end. From the kitchen table design to the constructed fort. And it was just Dad and I doing it together.
The fort actually never did protect humanity from invasion, nor result in world domination by me and my friends. The roof of the fort did, however, serve as a frequent retreat for the act of gazing up and simultaneously delving inward to and through the perils of maturation. It felt a bit precarious and thus dangerous to climb up to the roof and I was proud of my courage.
Years later, when I was no longer using the building, I noticed its constant decay. Dad wasn’t maintaining it, and the wood we used wasn’t treated for rot. Climbing to its roof became more than a little dangerous. It flipped to downright foolish.
After Dad’s death, Mom lived in my childhood home for another half dozen years. By then, my fort, my special place, was not fit for habitation, storage or much of anything. The natural path to decay had won again, aided by indifference. To prep the house for sale, I tore down the remnants of my fort and hauled it out to the dump. There was, of course, a sweet sadness to yet another parting with the physical reminders of my time with Dad. But by then, I knew that my fort, my special place, was not the object of my adoration. It had become merely a symbol of a place I could take with me anywhere I dwelt. And that was both true and sweet enough.