Two Banjos

The sound of voices wandered from a wooded trail, across the lake and up to the porch of a deep red dormitory.  On the porch sat the two banjo players: one the teacher, one the student.

He, the shaggy-haired, white-bearded, Ogden Nash aficionado, shares the strings that need to be plucked.

She, the curly-haired, McCreary-loving girl who learned long ago how to laugh at her mistakes, listens intently and tries to follow the movements of his fingers across the strings.

The music twangs from the tapping of strings on a round white belly as he hides the smile in his eyes behind a pair of seldom-neglected sunglasses and she laughs when her fingers hit the wrong note.

He makes a dry joke about his teaching skills while she passes him a question.

“What just happened?”

“C Chord.  Open fifth string.  You’re real close.”

She bows intently over the banjo.  She’s learning.  The music is coming.  Gifted from one friend to another.  On a porch.  At a camp.  In Kentucky.

We Sang Just to Bless the Morning

“What are you doing, Dad?”  the skinny college student, progeny of CAP harmony, stretched his legs out and looked up at his curly-haired father.

“I’ll give you two guesses.  Last one doesn’t count.”  He set a box of matches on the porch railing and pulled on the sleeves of his jacket.

“Shooting off bottle rockets?”


“What then?”

“I’m going to start a bonfire.”

Once started, like most sources of warmth, it began to draw people towards it.  All Workfest volunteers – college students, long-termers, short-termers, and employees alike, sat on the rustic wooden benches that circled around the fire while Janean started to strum her guitar.

Heading down south to the land of the pines…” We sang together – Janean, Carlo, me, and any others around the campfire who knew the words.  Water started to drip from the sky as we neared the final lyrics of the song, but we ignored it.

One of the college students had brought along his guitar as well.  As the final chords slipped from Janean’s guitar, he took over.  “Lord, I come, I confess, bowing here I find my rest...” Music rose from the edge of the flickering flames.  Suddenly the rain started to fall more heavily; more thickly than could be ignored.  We all got up to find shelter, but the song continued as we headed up the hill.  As the rain dampened our hair and our jackets, we walked to the rhythm of voices singing “Lord, I need you.”

As I listened to the music mixing with the patter of the rain, I couldn’t help but think what a good sign this was for the second week of Workfest ahead.  It was going to be a good one.  I could already tell.

Monday morning found me on a bus driven by a campus minister named Roy given to bouts of delightful ridiculousness.  He jubilantly welcomed us onto the bus and headed down Sand Lick.  As he took the curves just a tad bit too fast and sang tunes to make up for the lack of a radio, we the passengers couldn’t help but laugh and “oh, geez” as we made our way to the jobsite.

On the jobsite, our task was to continue the work that the previous group started last week.  We built the inside walls and put up drywall, finished shingling the roof, and resumed putting up the siding.  Words like Jack and King studs, cripples, California corners and wall t were thrown into the air and came back down in the form of one interior wall and a couple of closets.

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At the beginning of the week, we had been informed that there would be a safety competition.  Always enthused by any form of competition, Roy started a list on the wall to record how well we were doing.  He began it by writing down something that we had done wrong.

“Wait, Roy, what are you doing?  You should be writing down things that we’re doing right!”

He grinned.  “No, no.  I’m being honest and reporting the things that we do wrong.  They’ll appreciate our honesty and we’ll get extra points for it.  All those other groups are liars.  We’re not liars.”

I laughed, shook my head, and went back to my work.

The drywall went up in twelve-foot sheets.  We used the lift (I know, we were spoiled) to raise it to the ceiling, then screwed it into the rafters.  The walls followed suit soon after.

Roy discovered a piece of drywall on the floor that had been cast aside with a slit cut close to the top.  “Look!  If walls could talk!”  He moved the partially cut piece up and down like a mouth.  “Hello, Larry!”  We laughed while our fearless leader Larry shook his head and Roy went off to share his drywall puppet with the people in the next room.

I volunteered myself to drywall the closet.  I accidentally put up one of the walls before the ceiling, which resulted in a prolonged wrestle between me and a piece of drywall intended for the ceiling in a very small space.  That piece of drywall just did not want to fit into its place.  Several minutes (we won’t get into how many), a pile of white dust, and one (laughing, squished into a little closet on a tiny ladder with me) helper later, the piece of drywall was up.  Victory!

Meanwhile, the other half of the crew that was not working on drywall was outside putting up siding.  Led by Roy, they sang Irish (or semi-perhaps-not even-Irish) tunes in honor of St. Patrick’s day while sliding pieces of vinyl along wooden walls.

The work week ended with Family Appreciation Night, where the various crews get to eat dinner with the families whose houses they worked on.  Here, we met two of the kids who live at the house we were working on (we hadn’t met them before because they were at school).  The son, a fourth grader named Trevor, took a seat comfortably amidst us and told us about his favorite subjects in school (math) and what he wants to be when he grows up:  A policeman or a football player.  “Both!” we said.  “You should be both!”  When we got up in front of all the crews to describe our week, the families were given the opportunity to speak.  The mother shook her head, but Trevor fearlessly raised his hand.  “I’ll say something.”  He took the microphone.

“I just want to thank all of you for everything that you’re doing.  Thank you.”  We smiled and gave him a hand.

Last weekend I was talking with some other volunteers when the topic of favorite song lyrics came up.  The one that came to me was a beautiful line from a Ben Howard song (Old Pine) on a camp CD:  we sang/Just to bless the morning.  And I was reminded of those words this week.

This past week we worked -and laughed – and sang, just to bless the mornings, the days, and the nights.

Because really, it was the mornings, the days, and the nights that had blessed us.  And when you find a blessing like that, it’s worth a song, a laugh, or even the little bit of aggravation that can be found in a stubborn closet ceiling.

A good week?

It certainly was.

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The Beauty in Discomfort

Spring was peering around the trunks of the trees as the college vans pulled up the driveway at Camp AJ.  Rentals mostly, built for many passengers – for the sense of community that can only be found in places like these.  When they rolled up and planted themselves in the back parking lot next to the fire pit, it was official:  Workfest had begun.

It started the way it usually does – the passing out of brightly colored t-shirts – souvenirs to take home as proof that, yes, you were here (and, yes, it was awesome).  There were the orientations – this is who we are, glad you’re here, don’t forget your safety fashions.  And then the real work began.

On my jobsite, it all started with a floor.  We were building an addition, which, like most things, requires you to work your way up from the bottom.  We nailed together pieces of wood amongst the chill of a cloudy sky and first day awkwardness.  Eyes skimmed name tags repeatedly, trying to get nine strangers’ names stored in the brain as soon as possible.  Hands picked up hammers and tried to get used to the swing of the thing – this thing that they had never held before.  The phrase “Take a picture, because my Mom is never going to believe that I did this!” was passed from one to another.  By the end of the day the awkwardness had melted, the floor was laid, and one wall stood alone atop the foundation.  The chickens next door watched as a ring of cement block started to look more like a room.

Day two.  The chill of the previous cloudy day disappeared and the sun reached down from the sky.  Eyes no longer relied so heavily upon nametags and hands were eager to pick up hammers that they had become well acquainted with yesterday.  Two more walls rose up from the floor.   And then came the trusses – big triangles carried from the pile and placed atop their new four-cornered home.  People who were strangers yesterday took a break and chit-chatted in a circle.  Sensing the more sociable atmosphere, the chickens from next door came over and dug around in the straw at our feet, but ran away when anyone got too close.

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Day three.  After we finished putting up the trusses, it was time to sheet them with OSB and synthetic felt.  People climbed ladders and nailed from their perch – something that they had been hesitant to do yesterday.  Fears of climbing on a roof dwindled along with the supply of orange-topped button cap nails in their nail aprons.  The camaraderie of the lunch circle was amplified by the presence of the next door chickens, afraid no longer, asking to break bread with us.  The white rooster was the most persistent, showing off the curve of his throat while trumpeting to the sky.  Being chased off multiple times did not sway him.  He knew a good thing when he saw it.  And that good thing was there.  In that circle.

Day four.  The last work day.  We crawled under the floor and put up the insulation in all of its pink fiberglass glory.  The window was popped into the opening left for it in the side of the wall.  The siding climbed slowly but surely up to the top of the house.  When the time of day came for prayer, two girls who had said at the beginning of the week that they did not think that they would ever feel comfortable leading prayer, led us in prayer.  A humble bit of thanks for this place, these people, this week.  The chickens looked on from the yard next door and nodded their approval.  The sun smiled down as we drove away, daffodils blooming and neighbor kids waving.

There is beauty to be found in these places.  These uncomfortable places where you find yourself amongst strangers, doing things you’ve never done before.

And it truly is special.

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