by Adam Kapel
I was in the backyard talking to my cat the other day. He's good for that because although he does judge and belittle you, he does it with silence and class. I was telling him that I needed a place to put my beer. Well, to be more specific, I needed a place to put my beer when I was grilling. For that matter, I actually needed a place to put my grill, I declared. The cat responded by licking himself. You're right, I thought, I do need a patio. And that was all it took.
The project started simply enough. I would build a nice little circle patio at the foot of the stairs leading from the deck in the back of the house. Unassuming. Rustic. Practical. My little spot was on a relatively level piece of ground and only required a bit of grading. 40 blocks, 16 bags of concrete, 3 bags of sand and a wheelbarrow of pea gravel later I was done. A nice dayís work when it was all said and done.
I was pleased, my wife was pleased, my boys were mildly amused, the neighbors were curious, the cat could hardly give a shit and my in-laws were flat-out shocked. You see, Jewish marketing professionals rarely get involved with things involving concrete, except to write the check and complain later. We set the grill on the patio, I fetched a beer and my wife left to fetch meat for the beasts. The beasts, in this case, are my two boys. The boys, also known as the guys, also known as Thing One and Thing were getting amped up for the grill because it promised fire and mayhem more than any interest in food.
And life continued. It was a nice little patio project, but it was not the end, nor was it really the beginning. I had a taste of concrete and I was about to turn a little experimentation into a full time addiction. It became clear to me, and only me Ė for this is where my wife detoured from her ďpleasedĒ state and became rather skeptical of my visions and capacities, that we needed more space to put more people, beer and fire. I determined it critical to cut into the side of the hill, build a retaining wall and create another patio ring twice the size of the first with steps up to patio number one.
Circles! I exclaimed and explained to my wife. Don't you see it? It's all about circles, intersecting circles and the arcs intersect to make stairs and wrap around the tree. Circle patios with plants around them, your plants! I even said. I went on like this for about five minutes. She didnít see it. But I was not to be dismayed. In my headÖ who are we kidding, in my soul, I saw harmony with the woods behind our house joined into a oneness with our home and our family by intersecting circle patios. It would be a completion of our universe!
This last explanation did not do anything to further my wife's understanding, or spiritual growth for that matter. She did, however, go check the expiration date of the allergy medicine I had taken that morning.
Assuming she was having a simple envisioning problem, I proceeded to use white spray paint to demonstrate what the second circle would look like. I created a compass from a stick and some string and painted my white circle on the lawn. It was all coming so clear to me; the yin and yang forming before my eyes. Buzzing with anticipation, I was high on the manifestation of my path. My wife said I was high on the paint fumes and to make sure I didnít paint any of her plants by mistake or it would be my ass.
I was sure she would eventually understand the way, the interconnectedness and the harmony that awaited her. So, I started to dig. And dig. And dig. I dug a lot. There was a lot of earth to be moved. There was also a lot of sky that opened up on me. Nearly 90 degrees worth of hot sun beating down on that dig dug day. Often I would stop to dunk my head in the guys' swimming pool to cool off. I had to limit these pool visits, however, because while the cool water did the trick, I generally ended up with pool toys bounced off my head, water pistols aimed at my face and threats of various beatings if I didn't get back to my work. They are gentle souls, though, really.
Back in my pit, the dark soil, the bright sky, the running water and the fire in my creative soul were spinning in harmonic convergence and conversing in my brain. Then a neighbor came over to chat with my wife and after a bit I overheard the neighbor asking my wife if she had always had so much gray hair and damn, didnít she have a lot of it. It was an odd juxtaposition of conversations, to say the least. My wife, needless to say, was unnerved. But I was transforming, in a state of non-action, allowing the manifestation of spontaneity to continually form the pit. She was just in a state and I wasn't helping.
I spent most of a Saturday digging a ditch for the retaining wall. People would come out and watch me digging and sweating and smiling. My wife would occasionally ask if I was having fun playing in the dirt. Playing? Didn't she realize that not only was I beautifying her home, I was achieving enlightenment for all of us? She didnít. Well, to be fair, how could she? It is hard to find the path while being insulted and anyway Things One and Two had found their path and were now turning the hose on the neighbors, themselves and the cat Ė and she didnít have time for my nonsense.
Once the digging was complete, it was time to lay down retaining wall blocks. I wonít go into great detail, because as I found out after the fact from my cousin the engineer, I went about the process all wrong. Apparently you are supposed to start at the base of the hill rather than at the top. Huh, little does he know. You canít engineer the universe, the sun, the moon. These things must emerge, self organize and co-evolve. There is no starting or ending, it is continuous, ongoing. Start at the base. Please.
Actually, he might have been right about that base thing. But it still would have been in conflict with the natural order of things and I wasn't about to let a little thing like structural integrity ruin my zen.
Now to be fair to the engineers out there, there are properly effective ways to go about these things. And to be fair to my cousin, I probably did choose a few suspect methods. For example, my emergent approach to building material procurement probably cost me an extra two hundred bucks, new shocks on the car and what I now think is a hernia. But the work actually felt good, it did progress and even my wife had to admit that an impressive wall now navigated our uneven little hill and framed the second circular patio. She was beginning to see the light.
Now those of you that have not spiritually bonded with concrete may not understand what I must convey next. And honestly, those of you who have may still wonder what the hell Iím talking about. Blocks of concrete, the unformed sludge of cement and even the powdery bags of Ready Mix paradoxically combine the pliable with the impenetrable, the formless with the structured and the clarity of nothingness with the fully realized shape of completeness. Where there was once a bothersome little hill that you couldn't do squat with, you now have a fully level, earthen retained, paver-set patio.
But I do get ahead of myself. Before we could start pouring cement, we had to fill and level our newly built patio-in-waiting. The walls were up and it was time to find more earth. Together with the wife, for now she is nearly entirely onboard and my vision is clarifying in her mind's eye, I wheelbarrowed a few loads of soil into our circular wall and started to grade it. The guys each helped out, although that mostly consisted of fighting over who got to use the shovel and buzzing around the wheelbarrows like angry mosquitoes.
To increase our efficiency, we set the guys down in front of the cat for one of his afternoon lectures on Wu Wei (non-action) so we could get about the business of mixing the cement, loading up the molds and laying down the pavers. We were about half finished and the cat was just wrapping up a demonstration of four-stage breathing when it started to rain.
A bit of background is appropriate here. You see, whenever my wife and I create cement pavers, and this was now the third time, it rains. Every time. We had made a patio at a previous house and it rained. When we made the top patio in phase one, it rained. So, it was no great surprise that as we were mixing cement and filling the molds, it started to rain. We of the earth connected with the water of the sky, a lovely concrete harmony forming in most all places on our bodies. A little concrete here under the sock, some over the right eyebrow, a good portion under each fingernail (which is still there as I write this four weeks later) and some concrete in other places where concrete not only doesnít belong, but could stop you in your tracks for weeks trying to figure out how it even got there.
But that really is the fun of it. Because once the wall is set and the pavers are down, it is all about getting tight with the concrete to fill holes, recreate special size pavers, glue the wall to the earth and the earth to the pavers until all is one and one is all. And now there are not pavers or blocks or bags of sand or patches of dirt for steppable plants. It's all one thing. A single patio that can no longer be broken into its constituent parts. The cement sets and the sand settles and rains pack it in and the sun dries it out. And it is all connected and one. One from many and something from nothing, calm from chaos and place from persistence. Concrete is truly most satisfying.
So as promised, we now have two patios at different elevations represented as intersecting circles that emerge from the earth. My wife has fully accepted and enhanced the vision with surrounding wood chips, flowers and plants, Adirondack chairs and a fire pit complete with Tiki torches (the guys can hardly stand themselves there is so much fire) -- you might almost think she has accepted the Tao into her heart as well. Even the cat commented that the whole thing was pretty cool.
And then she did it. The reason we merged earth, sky, fire and water. The reason we needed a patio. The reason we needed a place. She set down a simple little plastic table, up next to a chair, across from the grill. And she said, will this work for you to put your beer on when youíre grilling? Man, I love that woman. I could now sit near the grill, looking at the concrete of my dreams, with a comfortable place to set my liquid refreshment. And do you know what she said next?
"Have a seat, try it out. Can I get you a beer?" And at some time near that point, I became deliriously one with the universe and I think the cat started to lick himself again.
Adam Kapel lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington. His work has appeared in
publications including the River Walk Journal and Applecart Magazine among
others. A husband, father, PhD candidate and marketing executive, Adam finds
time to write in between ferry rides, Lego engineering and weekly staff