Footsoldiers

 

 

 

 

 


They are all gone into the world of light!

And I alone sit lingering here;

Their very memory is fair and bright,

And my sad thoughts doth clear.

Henry Vaughan, 1655

 

 

I

 

There's a place in my yard where the grass is dead. I suspect it's brownrot: a dead, brown circle the size of a platter. But the spot never spreads. It has killed itself and just lies there where even toadstools refuse to grow. It exists throughout the summer as a sort of monument eulogizing a part of nature that has fallen from grace and cannot even procreate its own disease. But all around the dead spot my yard flourishes, and it takes a magnanimous commitment to keep it neatly trimmed and presentable.

Often it is easier for me to excuse a cluttered house and study than a nasty, unkept yard. But I have begun to use the dead spot as a reason for not mowing, for allowing the surrounding grass to dissemble the dead circle. Yet recently I found myself in that rare mood when my reserved but unavoidable retentiveness dragged me outdoors to groom the yard and reacquaint myself with that odd satisfaction of following a lawnmower paving my yard into a putting green. Fortunately, my yard is small, otherwise I'd miss out on its maintenance by paying a local boy to sweat behind the mower instead of me. But as a result, he'd probably do a better job and call to the whole town's attention the dead spot that I have allowed to be.

It's a good thing my place is small. Small jobs I can perform most expertly. So when the grass begins to flower and stray dogs hunker down in my yard as though it were the Serengeti, I'll dress down, resignedly enter the garage and again measure my exercise and perspiration against the smell of freshly cut grass and Valencia 's refreshing breezes.

In spite of my lawnmower's blue-collar image it can do something magically aesthetic. In a messy, smelly, noisy, Machiavellian way, the machine betters nature; it improves that which is wild; it removes the ferality of my yard and the raw aspects of Valencia 's landscapes. The machine converts the valley into a Mecca of alternative perspectives: a haven of man's nature, not God's. And even though the machine is beastly in its own right, it still beats swinging a scythe or grazing a bunch of goats in my yard—undeniably the more natural, peaceful means to an ends. Machiavelli wins again. He'd have loved my lawnmower.

But when the winter months, the brooding months, end, summer comes daily delivering nature's favors, fulfilling her winter promises. I pull and push the lawnmower around my curb and driveway, trying to realign the nature of God and man. Summer fever is the antithesis of winter fever— cabin fever. Valencia is bursting with freedom and the exciting motion of work and play. People don't think as much in the summer; the season is too vibrant and distracting. The library is less studious; its crowds are too happy. But for me the summer still has winter's brooding presence that threatens each morning with its eventual return.

In the summer, I think less about the carnal dimensions of nature and more about the carnal dimensions of man. On those rare yard maintenance weekends, mowing the lawn becomes tedious. The chore becomes didactic since I tend to mind walk, as I call it, questioning in an undirected but heuristic way as to why I exert so much effort adapting to the elements of life and nature. And afterwards, once the mower is swept off and put away, I'll sit in my backyard alone brooding about my struggles with life and nature. Meanwhile, the town square will be bursting with energy, and my backyard will be recovering from my lawnmower's scourging. I'll sit in my lawn chair and stare at the yard freshly groomed like a child just rising from the bathtub, toweled dry and tucked into bed with a soft toy. His mother will open the window just a little and both of us will fall asleep to the same far away barking of a dog.

 

Everyone in Valencia is a walker this time of year. Even a pair of tourists have discovered the footpath along the creek; I had seen their colorful clothes through the bamboo. From the artist's window, I watched them pass behind the house. And on my way to work this morning, I saw a neighbor speed walking, dressed in athletic garb as new and colorful as the tourists' gift-shop wardrobe. I knew him from the print shop. At least thirty pounds overweight, he looked entirely out of his element there on the trail, speed walking in a bright orange and purple jogging suit still creased from its packaging. He probably got it for Christmas and only this morning tore off the store's sale's tag. The winter kept him locked up and it took the summer to coax him outside, to begin a new summer habit. New Year's resolutions don't begin here until June. The rainy winter postpones a lot of things and our resolves do not dehibernate until we do. But most of the time, the path and the creek are mine.

Early last evening when most folks were clearing the dinner table I walked undisturbed northward along the creek. Just south of the cemetery, I stopped to rest upon a giant tree stump nearly four feet high. It was split down its center to about knee level and then cut horizontally making a rather comfortable high-backed chair. It faced the creek and up the sloping bank into a family's backyard. I could not see far beyond the bank's plateau, but aside from the creek trickling southward, I could hear from the stump a small group of boys engaged in a football game. Their hollering and thunderous footsteps rolled down the slope and to the stump where I intercepted it and tried to watch by climbing onto the stoop and leaning forward almost to the point of falling off and into the creek. I saw only three boys but heard about six or seven voices. One boy wore a headband that covered his eyebrows and the tops of his ears. I'm sure I've seen him and his friends around town but they looked unfamiliar, behaved differently here in their own environment, their own element. They were consumed by the game. The boy with the headband was the quarterback for one of the teams. I could hear them break formation and spread across the yard, each one hoping for a pass, hoping to make the big play. I could see more of them as they raced toward the end of the yard. But not wanting to be seen, I squatted back down upon the stump, rested against its curved back and listened.

I enjoyed being a spy for those several minutes. The unique privilege that only the invisible have excited me. I was certainly out of my element during the game, sneaking peeks at the young players now and then and eavesdropping on their banter, occasional cursing and crude impromptu behavior that boys are more guilty of than we generally suspect. Not realized in their element, I was invisible to them; I was comfortable belonging nowhere, belonging only to the space around me, belonging in a space that could see, hear and feel without being discovered, without being disappointed in its own transparency and solitude. I was the proverbial fly on the wall, undaunted and unaffected by the presence of others around me.

The boys played hard, running sporadic patterns in the grass, trying to avoid their opponents, trying to find that one open spot on the field. A thin, red-haired boy was the quarterback's favorite target. He always caught the most misdirected passes and suffered the most brutal tackles but arose almost immediately after hitting the ground. He was unaffected by the violence of the game. He was too thin, compact and wiry to feel pain—there was nothing about him to hurt: no muscle, fat, gut or mass outside of hard, uncrackable bone. Always the slowest to rise, the tackling boys congratulated each other on a fine tackle but said nothing to the artful receiver. But nature now and then dispensed its ironic mercy as the tackling boys winced more than occasionally from a bruised neck, arm or shoulder.

They played well into the night. The darkness intruded as it always does. And the red-haired boy dropped more passes and received more scolding for doing so. The group needed someone to hit and the boy with the headband needed the honor all leaders receive when a subordinate accomplishes the impossible. But the thin one never blamed the darkness. The darkness remained unnoticed by everyone but myself and the thin boy too determined to defy it and overcome his own noble handicap. The ribbing from his friends seemed more punishing than the tackles. But he remained stoic I noticed in spite of the responsibility he accepted for disappointing his abusers. But that is the game boys play I suppose. It is the game we all play, the game many of us find so engaging. It explains why lovers cannot love without control and stipulation, why friends cannot befriend without compromise and condition, why foes cannot fight without embracing suspicion and retribution.

Eventually the darkness won, and the boys dispersed. I could not tell where they disappeared to, I just noticed the silence. But the darkness didn't stop the creek. It kept tripping over stones and other such traffic in its way southward past my house, the mission and the town square. The creek traveled in all types of light: moonlight, starlight, twilight, sunlight. It made no difference and didn't change the way the creek sounded or the way it traveled, only the way it revealed itself. It had options after all. Like a miniature army, it carried to the bay bits and pieces of everything it passed, everything less inimitable than itself. Without waves or sloping hills pushing it southward, it trickled slower than I walked. I dropped a twig in its flow and watched it lag behind me. I waited on it several times as though I were walking a dog, putting up with its dog-minded distractions.

It was dark on the trail and I could not see the moon. A floodlight had been screwed into a pine tree and illuminated the trail for several yards. Bugs of all make and model were already consumed in its energy. Thousands perhaps, not one more dominant or prominent than any other, fluttered around the light. Some buzzed around me, crashed into me, tangled themselves in my hair. Some fell onto the path and crunched under my feet like the dirtclods in the flower bed around my mailbox. I tried to avoid them but they were too numerous. I suppose some suffered under my feet while others drowned in the cool creek. And a chosen few suffered the ultimate climax: burning into smoke in the middle of the lamp. For a moment everything seemed to suffer: the boys playing ball, the piece of stick I tore from a bush and tossed into the creek, the junebugs unable to free themselves from my hair and my heavy boots. How much happier we'd all be if the lamp were broken, I thought, if its abusive light were gone out, if it were solely accountable for everything it punished.

The lamp removed all romance from the creek. Its lurid charm brought death to the insects around it and darkened the ambient color that I was used to and had come to expect. The creek's florid coloratura died in the lamp's copper light, unable to resound a single note in the electric buzzing and the drumming heads and shoulders of battling beetles. The entire scene was a mess. Shakespeare's walking shadows crept from every corner, into the light and against the black trees; Banquo's nightmare played out that evening along the creek where all color and tranquility vanished. The lamp was the dead spot along the creek, it was another of nature's monuments eulogizing a part of itself that encircles and announces ugliness and despoils the complexion of man and earth's original designer.

I jogged the rest of the way home, washed my face in the kitchen sink with handfuls of cold water. Mangan's Sister watched me seemingly disturbed. I scratched her head, assured her that all was well and then sat up with her and Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek at the kitchen table with only the porch light bleeding onto the pages through the window. Within a chapter, Dillard redefined my entire journey along the creek and reminded me of the brutality but naturalness of nature. By the time I went to bed my arrogance had surprised me. I didn't immediately realize that earlier I had defined happiness for every creature along the creek, that I had quantified life's purpose for the junebug, the red-haired boy and his friends and even the green twig I tore from a willow. Yet I didn't stop to wonder that if the light had been stronger, warmer and more familiar, would it have been more or less alluring and perilous? Maybe, I wondered, it would have been like that warm, celestial light we've been told will come to us in death's tunnel leading to God, leading to everlasting peace.

 

 

II

 

I've worn my own narrow footpath along the holly hedge against the old mission. Instead of walking up the sidewalk and then turning at the curb, transferring to another sidewalk and then continuing in the opposite direction toward the front door, I just cut across the lawn. I walk quickly beside the hedge, hoping to cross unnoticed. But the damage has already been done, the path looks older than I do. I doubt that grass would regrow itself without someone first reconditioning the soil, turning it and then reseeding the dead trail and encircling the fresh sprouts with electric fencing. Then, I'd stick to the sidewalk.

Most of the time I get to my office by cutting through the grass and walking along the chainlink fence to the northwest corner of what is now the playground. This is where I meet the mission's side door and the spiral staircase leading up to the library. The lot's original cast-iron fence surrounded the mission graveyard but was replaced when the graves were moved and the site turned into the school playground. The lot is small and once held a dozen or so corpses. It now holds a swingset, a decahedron of monkey bars and a couple of slides. The northwest corner raises a few feet at the entrance to the ossuary. Its granite steps have never been replaced and are almost completely covered with moss and clover. I have a key to the ossuary's iron door which is so heavy that I doubt it would be accessed even if the key hung from the door latch. I've only been there a few times, when I've felt like praying, when I've had enough faith to believe it would do any good. And even then, I'd only stay for a few minutes and then leave assuaged of nothing but my need to pray.

The ossuary has been empty for more than a generation now. Today it is just an empty tomb no larger than the average living room. But there is an energy and spirit in the ossuary that is as prominent as the spirit and energy coming from the artist's upstairs studio. It is the energy and spirit of art and experience—experience becoming the ultimate art. And it is there to the ossuary that I go when I am tired of living.

Soulful human temperance: a median balancing love, hate, lust, jealously, envy, rage, sadness, joy, fear, compassion and mercy has remained there even though the bones have long since been removed. So much patience exists in the damp and unfurnished tomb that I have forced myself to remain there even after the urge to stay has fled. The founders' remains are gone and their spirits sleep elsewhere, but their dreams are unbearably awake still vividly alive under the school playground. And every dream is as impressionable as every experience. No matter how deeply I am buried, I cannot ignore their dreams. They are so haunting that I cannot visit their underground dimension for long.

It is not as peaceful there as I always expect it to be. The room is full of Valencia 's passions, regrets and promises that every human in the valley has ever experienced and has ever resisted and has ever tried to manage. Their dreams are a hundred voices sighing at once. Each dream is a giant whisper sounding like a hundred orchestras tuning each instrument at once before the maestro walks on stage to direct them. And I can hear a hundred pairs of hands and voices applauding before the maestro raises his baton and the pianists lay their fingers upon the keys. Every pause is an infinitesimal rest. And the last few chords explain my ambivalence towards the music that is about to rest forever.

Each sound is the Ode to Joy played louder than before, and each rest resembles the deafness of its composer, resonating in the tomb when the last E sharp is played and soaks into the dirt becoming nothing more than the ghost of experience, the spirit of art. Each sound releases a vibration of an earlier generation. Each generation chants about the afterlife and their own odes to joy, odes to death and life: one the ultimate experience, the other the ultimate art.

 

 

III

 

Valencia recently celebrated its birthday. Local history claims that Russian colonists originally settled in the valley around 1831, twenty eight years before the territory became a state. Not long thereafter, the town was officially named after a sister missionary who fell against a bayonet while trying to stop a fight among miners on their way to Sacramento . The miners made it to California after a brief inquiry by the catholic church, the primary authority in the region. The sister missionary finally made it to heaven; or at least to the ossuary.

The town held a celebration resembling a low-budget fourth of July party. There were fireworks at night and during the day, the mayor dedicated a bench at the Arthur Winsper Memorial Park . The local children waved U.S. flags showing 33 stars and marched around the town square and down Knowles Avenue to the park's gazebo. Mrs. Brandis, from the civic improvement committee, gave a speech on the pioneers who first walked to the valley in 1836 from Missouri , Illinois and other points east. She paused in the middle of her tribute to the sister missionary for whom Valencia is named while the children prepared to finish their march and present to her a flag and a lei of lilies. A few boys at the back of the procession were obviously restless and Mrs. Brandis refused to continue until they settled down. Her marmish pause and the children's restlessness reminded me of the lyrics to a song I learned in church as a boy. I began humming it quietly to pass the time, "...and the pioneer children sang as they walked and walked and walked and walked...." I can remember repeating that phrase forever as a child, at least for as long as the piano kept vamping the same chord over and over. It vamped for eons it seemed as did Mrs. Brandis' pause. I felt like I was back in church, waiting for a flock of five year olds to fold their arms and reverently face their teacher standing as an example at the pulpit. But there was no piano at the park to take away the awkwardness of waiting, and Mrs. Brandis', I'm-teaching-you-a-lesson attitude made the celebration less tributary and more infuriating.

It was appropriate that the mayor dedicated a bench since so many of us felt like falling into it for as long as the boys continued to fidget or as long as Mrs. Brandis perpetuated the standoff. I wondered what Sister Valencia Delamort� would have done if she were there at her roasting. I suspect that she'd be more inclined to take a nap with the rest of us on the newly christened park bench. I doubt she'd be as annoyed as was Mrs. Brandis at the children's apparent lack of respect. But more than likely, I think, it was not respect that the children lacked but patience. And hopefully one day when they are grown they will understand the irony of discipline and its rigid duality, and that by then they will have learned to manage or to at least disguise their impatience. If not, I dread they will become like Mrs. Brandis—undeniably the only human in the valley to terrorize patience and to understand discipline more than people.

After the ceremony most of us ate hot dogs and drank lemonade, compliments of scout troop 322, and hung out until dinner time when the banners were taken down and everybody went home or to the grocery store or to the new golf course in Eugene. Mrs. Brandis however disappeared readily after her speech; perhaps so full of devoutness that she headed east to Pennsylvania , marching along the highway, singing proudly as she walked and walked and walked and walked.

 

Thinking about Sister Delamort� and the other pioneers prompted me to visit the storage room in the old mission where shelves and tables behaved more like charity drop boxes holding a variety of memorabilia that the pioneers hauled with them to the valley. Small tables, chairs and settees, crates and wooden chests filled with dishes, linens, small family heirlooms, and other personal possessions came in wagons while the settlers walked beside them. Pack animals generally carried immediate supplies like food and cookware, guns and ammunition and other trailside necessities. Some parties walked behind pushcarts laden with personal valuables and supplies across the great plains and through the Rocky, Wasatch and Cascade mountains. Settlements along the Oregon and Mormon trails were more like rest stops and provided the pioneers with as much rest and attention as modern day spectators do for marathon runners by extending cups of water along the avenues in Boston and New York . My own sacrifices seem petty by comparison, and I've since decided that next month after mowing my lawn, I'll complain less about pushing a wheelbarrow full of grass clippings.

Walking around the storage room is difficult and not always worth the effort. I found an antique Victrola missing its tuner arm and stylus. It's a pity it couldn't have been saved before its confinement in the room. Yet even in its depraved condition, it testified greatly of the sacrifice of those who carried it over the mountains and may have only destroyed it while finally unloading it from the wagon. Other antique treasures are buried under boxes of teaching supplies and religious props dating to the mid seventies. Aside from a few unrecognizable antiques, most of the stuff in the storage room is donated junk from locals not willing to pay the dumping fees.

On my second or third visit to the room I found a sterling censer in a cardboard box on a crate of broken china. The censer was the only thing worth saving from the box filled with shag-rug tapestries and tie-died dresses and kerchiefs from the hippie generation. The wadded up clothing and wall hangings of yarn and plastic beads within the damp box reminded me of the decade's natural moldiness. For the most part, Valencia at that time, was already beginning to separate from the world. Expatriates from mainstream society emigrated to the valley, seeking a simpler existence. But we didn't leave the world because of its politics, nor did we leave as a matter of protest. We hadn't the energy for social defiance; we hadn't the savvy for political debate—we left in order to rest, to retire and to find anonymity among the history of the valley and the experiences and forgotten art of its creators.

The sterling censer did however keep its religious mystique and now hangs from a coat rack in the corner of my study; it is one of many items I have recovered from the storage room and pirated from the church a little old-time spirit and culture. I don't use the censer any more for incense since the library and the study already smells rather old and churchy. The censer however is slightly smaller than a coconut and can hold up to three rolls of quarters, a pack of gum and the master key to the library, storage room, ossuary and most other places on church property. But in spite of its current use, I still notice from time to time while digging for a quarter the musty scent of religion and am reminded once again of the sister missionary who died for the church, or at least for her convictions of what it represented. The sacrifices of the founders are memorable here. Their experiences can be remembered in Valencia 's most removed places and during her most celebrated ceremonies.

 

 

Mangan's Sister curled herself around my neck and shoulder late that evening while I sat upstairs against the window. Looking at the trail and drinking my favorite bedtime toddy, I thought of the massacre going on up the trail around the floodlight. I considered its necessity as a principle of life and a consequence of the ultimate experience. The boys playing football, on the other hand, I considered differently. Their t�te � t�te, playful teasing and battling bodies mimicked nothing less than one of life's exaggerations confined to a grass lot and a definitive set of rules more manageable for young boys. Soon enough they'll become aware of another world burdened with adult responsibilities, conditions and consequences always more terminal than a bruised neck, arm, shoulder or ego.

It seems like very living creature in the valley is engaged in its own contest measuring its own value against its possible conquest by other species having comparative but opposing objectives. I suspect at times that we are all on the same journey at some time or another. We choose our destinations daily. We follow different roads perhaps, sometimes never knowing for certain where they lead. Sometimes I will travel caring for nothing but the journey; and other times I will move only concerned with arriving. But however I choose to live or wherever I choose to go, it will matter little in the end as I lay dying unconcerned with my past and where my decisions took me. I suspect I'll search at the end of my journey for the nearest bench. I'll kick off my shoes, lower my head and stare at my feet, apologizing to them for going the long way and thanking them for being so patient. I wonder if that day will be the last of all days. And if there is an afterlife, I wonder if art will be less difficult to find and experience more easily appreciated.