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  • On Mondays I eat lunch with the third grade boys . They compete for my attention, knees on the benches half out of their seats and sometimes more than half across the table, talking over each other, and pressing close like a tangle of puppies.

    We’re building a house in Kansas City, Trevor announced with a spray of peanut butter and jelly. Since he’s sitting across the table from me under a thatched boma in sunny South Africa I am pretty sure the building is being done by someone else.

    That happens a lot. People say they are building a house. I am not much on grammar but there seems to be confusion about what the word build means. Kind of puts Poor Bill Clinton’s struggle with the word ‘is’ into perspective.

    But my daughter Carly and I, we built our house on the island. Over four summers we went from piles of timbers, board and plywood on the shore to a house. From foundation blocks to solar electric system. It was us.

    The house building part I was OK on. I had worked as a builder for several years and layout and framing, stud walls and rafters, roofing and decks, windows and hanging doors, all that I had done before.
    After the second summer people asked if we were done. From the outside it looked like a house. Inside was another story. We had a grand two storey tool shed. Inside, wiring, plumbing, wallboard, trim, flooring, paint, and a fireplace awaited us.

    Have you ever built a fireplace before, asked Carl. He was taking an architect friend on a tour of island job sites.

    He leaned against the porch rail and looked over the front dooryard. Ranged along the gravel track that serves as the Town Road on the island, were pallet after pallet, stacked and banded. Brick and block and chimney tile and bag after bag of cement and mortar. It looked enough to make a small fort

    Well, I had worked as a mason’s tender on a couple of jobs years ago. I could mix mud.

    You’ve got balls, said Carl. The fireplace was going to divide the kitchen from the living room. It would be exposed brick work on two sides.

    I figured it was more about my back than about my balls but that didn’t seem like a debate with much of a future.

    What I did have was a masonry text book. I had the mortar pan set up on the stack of wallboard in the middle of the open space that would be the living room. I puzzled out brick laying patterns, the formula for width and depth, the angle of the back, smoke chamber, smoke shelf and flue size.

    I listened to Leonard Cohen and followed the string lines.

    And then came the arch. I didn’t want to try and source a steel lintel because that meant trips off the island and I knew that no matter how clear it might be in my mind when I got off the island and into the lumber yard they would be sure to ask the one question I had never anticipated. If I built an arch I could use what I had on hand. On the island using the materials you have on hand is a supreme virtue.

    I have used the arch for organizational metaphors in later years. But the simple truth of the matter is that the arch is a miracle. The immense weight of all that comes after is caught and carried and spread to flow downward.

    When we built the first test fire and watched the draft pull the smoke up and out. It was as if an act of faith had been affirmed. Physics articulated in rough red brick. A living heart for our house. The house Carly and I built.
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