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  • One my favorite gospel songs is “Oh Happy Day.” Hearing this song never ceases to make me smile. Even though I’m not an organized religious person, the joy and the sheer energy of this gospel rave up, made famous by The Edwin Hawkins Singers, still make my pulse beat faster and the hair on the back of my neck stand up. The lyrical hook in this song is: “Oh Happy Day, when Jesus washed my sins away.”

    Oh Happy Day is all about the gift of getting a new start in life; free and clear of the cruel, dumb, mean, immoral and even criminal actions we have perpetrated on others in the past. This is a very powerful concept, especially to those of us who are guilty of these and other, more cruel, indiscretions. It is brilliantly rendered by Mr. Hawkins and his angelic choir. It’s also based on a very popular image in gospel songs: water and its power to wash away the mess that we humans make.

    Water’s ability to cleanse all stains of the past has been thoroughly covered in theological journals, books on philosophy and religion, sermons about Noah and the flood and even movies (“Oh Brother Where Art Thou” is one that does a particularly good job of incorporating this water image in the plot). However, while in the middle of a hot, arduous chore of prepping the outside columns and wooden front porch of our 100+ year old house for repainting, I had my own, personal (albeit minor) epiphany of another image that symbolizes a new start. It wasn’t a burning bush and didn’t involve the cinematic flourishes of the Coen brothers. It was something that restoration artisans and carpenters use every day to smooth out imperfections and probably take for granted.

    It was sanding. That’s right, sanding. That gritty, abrasive paper which, with enough force, scrapes away wood, plaster, paint and even the knuckles on one’s hand and leaves a cleansed surface. It forced me to stop and think about what that old paint has seen.

    Using this sandpaper to remove layers and layers of more than a hundred years of old paint and primer from the floor and columns on our front porch in the heat of a Texas August day was exhausting but ultimately cathartic for me. Getting these wooden structures built in the late 19th Century and constructed without any modern tools or electricity which were covered with dozens of layers of paint, down to the bare wood, became very important to me.

    Plus, the rewards of a new start for this wood are many. The grain of this wood, after its tawdry past had been eliminated, is beautiful. It almost seems a shame to repaint it.

    It’s been seasoned by human drama that can only be imagined. There were times when the porch would witness the grief of a family after hearing that a husband or son would not be coming back from World War I, World War II, Korea or Viet Nam. Since we have lived here over the past 17 years, there have been more wars and deaths (which now include the daughters as well as sons), but fortunately, we have not had to hear that news. However, there have been other tragedies that are impossible understand.

    The porch has been witness to many heart-rending experiences. The real fear and hunger of multiple families who lived within this house at the same time in order to save money during the Great Depression is palpable. We’ve seen old pictures where 15 or 20 people lived in this house at one time. After WW II, soldiers and their families took over the houses in this neighborhood and they most likely applied some of the myriad layers of paint that must now be removed.

    The sweet smoke of the hippies who lived here during the 60’s has all been absorbed by the wood of this front porch and has enhanced the character of the structure and the neighborhood. However, it’s time for this house to experience redemption.

    Maybe it was inhaling all of the tiny pieces of the lead paint that altered my brain in the same way peyote enables some to enter into a state of spiritual clarity. Or, perhaps the boredom of running an electric sander, back and forth and back and forth across this old lumber played tricks with my mind. Whatever the reason, sanding away this old, peeling paint made me realize that our old house deserves a new start, that WE deserve a new start.

    Oh happy day.
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