Mud

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By Tim Raufer


The core of Open Hand Ministries is community. This is true both of the end-goal of families living in thriving community and the process of getting there. The work on our houses is the culmination of hundreds of hours of work by countless staff and volunteers. This year, Open Hand is glad to add corporate sponsors to our team. The work at our house this month is underwritten by Riverview Abbey Floors. Riverview Abbey Floors have been keeping the Pittsburgh area on solid footing for over 40 years.

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Mud.

10 buckets of blue-lid mud.

That’s what our drywall contractor requested in order to complete the drywall installation (In addition to the 15 buckets that we started with).

Soil and water, check…I’ve got all the ingredients right here in the yard!
Alas, that’s not what he meant. He could have called it Joint Compound (lightweight, all-purpose, joint compound, specifically). He could have called it spackle. He could have called it finishing compound or topcoat. No matter. I knew what he meant.
10 more buckets. 4.5 gallons each. About 45 pounds per bucket. Nearly a quarter ton.

But, mud.
In this context, there’s an ironic earthiness to the word. Ironic because drywall mud is what brings the wall surface to smooth, flat perfection. The earthy mud underfoot rarely approaches such a lack of texture.

Drywall is one of the interactive components of a building—not because it tells you the weather or reads your horoscope, but because it’s visible to the occupants. They’ll see it and touch it daily. Most of the things installed to this point have been carefully obscured, behind insulation, behind drywall. As clean and pristine as the house ever is, it will always contain 25 buckets of mud.

But this isn’t the first time we’ve rustled up 10 or 20 buckets of mud on this job. In January and June, we excavated muddy soil from around broken sewers—in January in the basement, in June in the yard. In February, we carried mud by the bucket out of holes in the basement in order to pour new footings, for new columns, for new load-bearing walls above.

Throughout the spring, we fought mud and rain to excavate a trench for the addition footers. On the day of the pour, as volunteers hustled wheelbarrows full of concrete to the rear of the house, our mason barked out greedily: “More mud! More mud! Over here, right there! More mud! Dump it. Good!”

Later, laying concrete blocks, ‘mud’ was the word for mortar, bedding for each block. Masons standing in mud, spreading mud over masonry, making walls to hold up walls that would be finished with mud.

Not infrequently, I’ve found myself alone on the job, quiet for a moment, contemplating the many hands that have poured work into the house. The word that wells up is ‘primal’. There is something primal about our work, I increasingly believe. We grunt. We sweat. We lay blocks together and bang nails in 2x4s. We carry buckets. We sit on buckets to eat pizza. We lift heavy things and set them in place with great care … shingles, ducts, sheetrock, trowel-fuls of mud. We are building a house greater than the sum of its nondescript, uninteresting components.

But it’s not just the work that feels primal, it’s the essence of the work. Shelter. Warmth. Security. Community.
Housing ranks high in the shortlist of humanity’s most fundamental and universal needs. A shortlist that includes the ingredients for mud—water and soil, for farming. Pizza is also on the list, I think.
Is it surprising then, that mud should find such a pervasive home in the builder’s vocabulary? Perhaps we are not building to escape from the mud, but to return to it, again and again and again. We have all the ingredients, right here.

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