Being

 

 

 

 

 


Like so many others, I'm a genius procrastinator. No excuse is too lame or feable to delay a project or postpone a chore as common as making my bed—an absurd thing to do anyway, don't you have to unmake it at the end of the day? In any event, it is usually just the beginning of a project that troubles me. Once an activity is up and running, I'm just as diligent and devoted as the next guy. But starting something from scratch frightens me. Perhaps it is just the fear of screwing up a perfectly good idea that keeps me from attempting it in the first place.Doing something for the first time, or just starting a chore over tyring this time to do it right, is an intimidating attitude, but mine nonetheless. But of course, repeating a failed task isn't as fearful as I sometimes make it out to be. Any routine, no matter how unpleasant, can be comforting if I can forsee its completion and can finally move on to something else. I use such excuses each morning like a crutch to pull myself out of bed and make my way to the mission library before the schoolbell rings at 8am. The walk along the creek is the most reassuring part of the day along with the familiar warmth of my library study where personal effects lay around in a cozy confusion. Never finding a pencil when I most desparately need one is an acceptable inconvenience. By the look of the room, you would think it was winter. Coats, scarves and sweaters balance on the arm of a chair and the corner cabinet. Pale, gauze-like sheers hang in front of the outside window like pantlegs a size too long, dragging uncuffed on the floor. In the afternoon, I will part them to sterilize the room with light. But I am not ready now. The morning mustn't be rushed. In Valencia , the morning is slow, cool, quiet. On Monday as the sun begins to pull itself up, I'll sometimes sit out on the back stoop before dressing for work. I'll listen to someone rolling a bicycle out to the curb. I'll listen to someone else closing a door and school children playing around the bus stop. And I'll wait there on the stoop until I hear a few voices from the resident birds, the neighborhood's original neighbors, before washing out my coffee cup and preparing for the day. The backyard, mostly in shadow, is cold. But the shade will eventually recede and it will be warm again.

Doubt, worry and duty do not bully the day's most virtuous hours. Coffee must brew—not for drinking, but for smelling; nothing must be allowed to hurry thought and contemplation. The room must not be tidied but left alone to face the morning honestly. The morning must be allowed to inspire. The morning must invite one to smile, to exhale, to nap if so inclined—or reclined. The morning, if we let it, will in real time share with us its wisdom.

But I must admit that often I dawdle away the morning's wisdom scratching a toenail or pulling protruding feathers from a pillow. I prepare to receive the morning's inspiration and when it comes I trade it for a few magic beans. I spend time like loose change. But the good side to dawdling is that dawdlers can become adept at explaining things, at justifying causes and rationalizing their effects. In many ways I consider my routine as a mere decimal point—something more absolute than it ought to be, something too little to have all that authority and control. So I explained to myself that by the time the average working man parks his car, drinks a cup of french roast, hangs up neatly his topcoat, ergonomically repositions his desk toys, reads the headlines, considers his need for a haircut and sharper jawline, I have plucked an offensive hair from my ear, shaved an old juice stain out of the carpet and followed a floating leaf along the creekside. Settling down to work I contend takes an awful lot of settling.

My study is a private extension of the library. The library, like my study cell, is an asylum of dawdlers. The verb: to dawdle, however, can be non-transitory like the verb: to be. The verb: to be, implies a mood or state of being. To be happy is problematic since no one clearly understands how one can do happy. One can appear to be happy just as one can appear to think, ponder, contemplate...or dawdle.

Mr. Soals is the library's master dawdler, aside from myself of course. He retired several years before I moved here and has for years supposedly been writing a book discussing the gestation processes of the fresh-water clam. For years he taught ninth-grade biology at Valencia 's school and now comes to the library almost daily. He'll sit at a table for hours as though he were waiting for a flood of students with a flood of queries on the motherhood of fresh-water clams. I've often caught him staring out the window onto the balcony. Before coming regularly to the library, I've been told he'd spend hours at the teacher's lounge in the school downstairs, working on the same book. I've been told he spent most of the day staring out the window onto the street. I suppose for hours he'd sit there waiting for something to happen, something inspiring to write. I see a great deal of myself in Mr. Soals. I wonder when I retire from the library if I'll hang out in the teacher's lounge staring out the window, watching bicyclists cruising down the sidewalk or gauging the frequency at which the stoplight changes colors on the corner. I wonder if I'll have a book of my own to write.

Regardless of the weather, Mr. Soals arrives wearing the same tweed sportscoat and tapping upon the ground an old wooden umbrella that he raises in greeting upon entering the room. He brings with him a black plastic lunchpale as though he were on his way to work at the quarry. He carries under the same arm a rolled-up book of crosswords and a spiral notebook. For hours he'll sit at the table, staring out the window while spinning a ball-point pen around his thumb and catching it in writing form between his thumb and finger. I've practiced this little stunt for years and still cannot do it. And as long as I've been practicing, I have yet to see a page of Mr. Soals' manuscript. Between the crosswords and gazing out the window, the old man passes the time scraping a cuticle or tugging at a hangnail. Now and then he'll bite a finger and then wipe it against a hip while popping a knuckle and readjusting his chair. Sometimes a couple or a threesome will sit nearby talking amongst themselves. Mr. Soals will appear not to notice. He'll remain attentive to his fidgeting, never bothered by the distractions of others. Yet I have noticed him eyeing a few boys who had wandered into the library to use the drinking fountain and then the bathroom. Each boy toted a skateboard and looked as though he had just finished repaving the highway. Mr. Soals may have recognized them from school and was curious as to what young boys did in their free time. Perhaps he was asking in his own way for suggestions on what he could do tomorrow.

The library, like most other working environments, is occupied by people dawdling, pondering and producing. In my case, I dawdle about as often and about as much as I produce. The amount of what I produce, I argue, generally equals the amount of thought or dawdling that is required to produce it. We produce a lot here at the library. We think a lot too, we consider a lot of nonsense I suppose, but we create as well an equal amount of substance, virtue and art—in an ethereal way at least.

 

The library has more or less become my own. The city council has more influence than the church in what volumes I am allowed to acquire. Thus I have fashioned the library after my own liking. It is, more or less, my only child. I have raised it from infancy, fed and nurtured it with my own tastes and experiences. It has become my prot�g�, my better self, my footprint. I have read nearly every volume and I read attentively excerpts and reviews of everything I purchase. My buying criteria is as stiffly defined as is my reading criteria. Donated materials that fail to meet this criteria are packed up and put in the storage room. Romance and formula novels, contemporary poetry, business and political texts, homemaking tips and advise and highly theoretical or pseudo intellectual propaganda is cornered, unboxed, beneath a sweating air conditioning duct not even noticed by the maintenance crew. And in due time, I'll donate it myself for recycling.

The library itself is still rather small, shaped a little more squarely than a shoebox. Novels, historical and biographical, fill the narrow south wall beside the spiral staircase. The longer north wall (the back one) holds nonfiction titles on nature, the outdoors, regional interests and travel. It more fully houses narratives, personal essay collections, creative nonfiction, criticism and several anthologies of American and English poetry and literature. Books on writing, painting and other creative trades are on the west wall. In the center of the room is a long counter for maps, atlases, foreign language texts, encyclopedias and research tools such as abstracts, registers and indexes.

Two overstuffed lounge chairs sit side by side in front of the research counter and are the first seats to be claimed each morning. The soft, thick backs fold in at the sides making a natural pillow and usually accommodate folks waiting on someone else. Sometimes it's a parent waiting on a child looking up events in an almanac or searching for an island on the globe or copying a report from the encyclopedia. Before long, mom or dad is snoozing quite comfortably in the chair, while child is dawdling in front of the bulletin board. If Mr. Soals came on Saturday, I'm sure he'd pay no attention at all. Or maybe he'd surprise me and lend the child a hand; maybe he'd show her around the place, point out useful tools on the research counter and the newspaper rack. Or maybe Mr. Soals would be snoozing in the chair, holding in his lap a manuscript or an empty book of crossword puzzles.

Against the east wall is the door to my cluttered study where the window is covered on the library's side by a poster of the categories of the Library of Congress, a history of the Dewey decimal system and a bulletin board announcing town meetings, picnics, baptisms and graduations. A portrait of William Shakespeare and a smaller sketch of Robert Herrick are on the study's side of the window. There is no card catalogue, just a few typewritten signs and the friendly librarian—me. Also against the east wall is the bathroom and a rack for the town newspaper and local publications. The large glass door to the stone balcony is beside the never opening cash register and the seldom crowded check out counter.

There is a long table between the reference counter and the back wall for visitors to settle in at. It's a narrow table like the one you'd find in a cafeteria. It is never crowded in the library so it's weird seeing two patrons directly across from one another. It's like witnessing coupled strangers at the marriage alter, unaware of what they are actually doing—testing the future more than each other. All twelve chairs around the table were obtained from dining rooms all around Valencia . All of them are comfortable, high-backed, but antiquated and mismatched like the people who occupy them. It looks like a fancy lunchroom in a soup kitchen.

There is an energy that exists in the library. It is a quiet energy like the charge you would feel on a dark and empty theatrical set. The stage and the library are places fashioned for people and their grand and little dramas. But here in the library the energy presents the sketches that play out in secret, in the shadowy places of a stranger's mind. As many who come here to read and relax, a considerable number of them gradually fall asleep to begin those dreams that we only see at the theatre.

I'm working on a children's section between the bathroom and the check-out counter. Unfortunately, there isn't a place here for children. Mangan's Sister sometimes accompanies me to work. I'm glad that the children have her to play with while their parents rush to find something they've been sent for, running an errand for someone else, bringing their kids in their unobstructed immediacy that upon leaving, only a jarring silence remains. It's like someone coming to visit the sick: they stay long enough to say that they came. The children bring a compelling rush when they come. They bring their little playgrounds with them for me and Sister to play in. I used to think that as an adult, I would exchange the vulnerability of childhood for the self reliance of adulthood. But of course nothing is evenly exchanged in maturity, and a vulnerable few cannot avoid that peculiar madness that comes with age, the madness that removes us from what is real and familiar and places us upon a stage. Our part, unprepared for, holds us in a drama never ending—a dream impossible to wake from. But it does, in some respects, subside momentarily in the presence of the mission's children. Without these children, life in Valencia would be without energy and verve. Everyday would feel like a sick day—dull and uneventful. It would be like having an infection that lingers, that will not kill. Visitors would come to say they were here and then go with an unobstructed immediacy, leaving in their place a jarring silence.

Once or twice a week I stock the top of the research counter with fresh flowers, glasses of iced peach tea and a tray of store bought cookies which produce more crumbs than flavor. Committees and reading groups require that sort of thing. They come talking about their families, their own particular afflictions and how busy their lives are. I believe they come to satisfy their own curiosities. They come to placate their suspicions about each other. They come to share their family news, their incurable but tolerable maladies and to assure one another that their week has been unusually busy.

 

The library is many things to many people. People of all types come here for a variety of reasons. They personalize the library as much as I do or have tried to do. Just as reading tastes vary, so too varies the function of my little haven. Sometimes the library, in foul or fair weather, becomes a shelter and I its patron saint. People don't always come to read, write or study; they don't even wander through the room as I expect them to do. They come to escape or hide or simply rest. They think, or dawdle, while staring out the glass door or reviewing the rows and columns of books. Sometimes they stand on the balcony gazing at the gardens below. Maybe they drag out a chair and sit in the shade of the Russian Olive that has been here since the beginning. Maybe they sit in the sunlight, close their eyes and nap, or rest while discovering, barefooted, the sandy texture of the balcony's foundation. I do not know why they come. But the library does. The library becomes the everything to everyman. It serves as a place to read, a place to not read; a place to be alone, a place to not be alone. Sometimes the library is a place where people just end up. They may wait by the maps or the novels for a cab, a friend or an attractive face to approach or pass by. Sometimes the library catches them following the stone walkway from the patico below. It may be the X on a treasure map or just the random spot where one ends up to think random thoughts, to be random himself, to be a random color on a painting or a random digit in a math book or a random key on a piano. People come here to just happen, to just dawdle, to just be.

Debts are not paid here, nor consequences suffered. This is neutral territory, sacred ground, a sanctuary. Bankers are not bankers here, nor are teachers teachers. Once you enter, the library transforms you. You are not anchored, you are not furled, you are free. You are like the portrait of the potted peony—the still life—the ultimate paradox, the consummate oxymoron. The cement parapet around the balcony is guarded by two patinaed gargoyles facing the woods toward the morning. Anciently, they were created to ward off evil spirits, to frighten them, to mirror evil's ugliness. Every morning when I wake and drag my tail into the bathroom, the mirror there reflects my own dreaded ugliness. Cosmetics do what they can but it's still there watching itself, waiting for its reflection to lie, or to change its mind. Thank God for electricity. I can just turn off the light or leave altogether when the essential grooming is done.

People give a lot of credit to smiles. But the gargoyles never smile. I planted begonias on the parapet for them. In little plant boxes I bought at the hardware store, I have a few begonias and nasturtiums and placed them on the parapet that keeps the gargoyles from jumping off in the night when they come alive. The walls make fantastic plant ledges. And the stone is cool and comfortable to lean on after a spring shower. Between the four plant boxes, I sprinkled some seeds for the resident squirrels and birds. I'm not a bird person, but I can pick out the pair of cardinals from among the other generic-looking species living in the area. The cardinals live within a hedge of vetch and stitchwort; their blue spotted eggs nested where hands can't easily reach. The gargoyles don't scare the cardinals or the squirrels away, although something must be done to keep the squirrels from eating all of the bird seed. Now and then I throw some fennel seeds and cracker crumbs for the smaller birds. Tomorrow I'll put out some corn for the squirrels.

Begonia blooms earlier than nasturtium. That means bees come to feed as well. The begonias and flowers below the balcony don't attract an inordinate amount of bees. But if they did, I don't think they'd mind; bees aren't their predators and the begonias aren't really the prey. Once or twice during the summer a bee will fly into the library. It eventually finds its way back through the door but until then, it chases me around the room and into my study—a story it may tell its bee friends around the honey comb at night. Bees don't commonly bother me outdoors, but when they invade my indoor places they seem to fly more furiously, buzz more meanly. They blame me for raising walls and holding them under a roof. Their freedom is stolen and outside of their own environment they become different creatures, they cease being bees.

The begonias are no different than the bees I suppose. Although they are less threatening, less intimidating in an enclosed room or hallway, but if they don't escape, they will die there, they will no longer be begonias. They will become decaying components of what they were: chloroplasts, tracheids, plastids, dermal and vascular tissues—a cytoplasmic pudding. They will sink into their potted soil, becoming organic slag, dissipating into hydrogen and carbon dioxide, coalescing into nascent pieces of dirt: iron, potassium, phosphorus, nitrates and oxides that I sweep every weekend from the porch and sidewalk. Their environment is what makes them what they are. And for the begonia, the bee is an integral part of that environment. The begonia may look, feel, smell like a begonia. It may exhibit all the remedial signs or prerequisites of a begonia, but it is nothing more than a prototype, a representation of the real thing. It cannot come to life until a nearby bee flies into its garden, hovers over its blossoms, stretches into its stamen, and drinks. One testifies of the other; their environments let them live and their living explains what they are.

 

 

On my desk is a little that in some abstract way helps me concentrate. It's just a wind-up toucan the size of a pen cap that I found in my stocking one Christmas. And like the bee and begonia, the little toucan explains who I am; it represents the part of my environment that I have created to define me, to align me with my past and with who I believe I am. However, I don't mean to imply that I collect or hoard things, but I do have a few miniature toys in my study. Little plastic soldiers sit on the window sill and tiny spacemen, dice and matchbox cars lie on ledges and secret corners here and there among the room's various ordnance. It is all part of my personalized clutter. It looks as though I have lived in the study through an entire generation— like a child had come to visit but suddenly left without gathering his toys. Paraphernalia of my boyhood is evident throughout my work: my books, papers and essays. It creates a forum wherein the past can be represented. I like to think that this clutter makes me a better writer. It reminds me of what I was and of what I have become. By the look of my wardrobe and my accommodations, guessing my vocation is easy. But sometimes I'm not sure if who I am is what I appear to be. Most of us are only what we think we are. Others living around us are the ones who decide what we are and report our reputations. Is evidence of what we were, evidence of what we are? Do resumes and evaluations define us any differently that does our wardrobe or the way we arrange our rooms, or the way in which our peers and neighbors interpret us? Will the bee and begonia interpret each other in precisely the same way in a year from now? Will I someday interpret their co-dependence as something more synergistic? Or will their current reputations forever precede them?

My plastic toucan says more about my live in Valencia than my peers and neighbors do. I believe the toucan knows me better. But I am not responsible for my toy's assessment of who I am as I am for the opinions I create by the way I dress or the way I behave. I often misunderstand my relationship to those with whom I share my environment. I am not always a child at play with a ten cent toy any more than I am always a man of abandoned sensitivities. But there must be something about all of us, be it in our work or our dress or our environment that certifies us, that distinguishes us from others. Even on those lazy afternoons between chapters when the writer cannot concentrate, he winds up the toucan and watches it hop along the desktop. Sounding like a cicada or a maraca, the toy jitters its way to the end of the desk and falls, its feet still chittering while the spring-driven spool inside it unwinds. Then too does the writer unwind. Eventually I'll put the toy aside and get back to work until another thought passes or another paragraph ends and what remains of the boy within me emerges again to play.

 

Come see the hills from the balcony when the clouds break apart at the treeline and sulk around the valley as the day ends. Come outside and sit on the parapet beside the begonias now putting themselves away. Dusk on the balcony is less devout than morning on the stoop. But like the dawn, the early hours of the night cannot be rushed, cannot be allowed to come and go without talking back, without showing its frostiness. The sunset has an attitude unlike the sunrise. The sunset is more flamboyant, has more panache. The six o'clock hour flushes the town of old, worn-out business and buckles like a wave across the valley. I often wait for the wave to hit and roll past me while sitting on the parapet, hugging my knees. The night comes swaggering, comes smiling, not yawning like the morning. The night has that rolling in the hay with the leading lady kind of feeling. Anticipation ends, the day's little climax releases you, the purging leaves you hungry. Nothing sleeps or lies still—willingness to move precludes it.

Soon, while leaning against a gargoyle on the balcony, I will begin to notice the first colors of October blooming upon the hilltops, creeping downward draping the valley in the red, orange and copper commitments of the coming winter. Nature will prepare herself for the change and congratulate herself for completing another cycle, for coming home, returning to the nest. The bee and the begonia are together for just a season producing a long-term memory of their strangely embodied marriage. The morning and the night will never be together outside of that mathematical second: the decimal point. But tonight the gargoyles will come alive, and I'll wonder before going to sleep if they will feel that jarring silence when the dusk goes dark and the leading lady leaves for another roll on another wave beyond the valley.