The entrance staircase
A few days ago the wind was blowing with hurricane force, even more than the usual windstorms. The new foliage was whipping around in bright sun so that indoors their dark shadows swirled around the rooms like bats trying to find their way out. To reassure myself, I invented a story. It’s sort of a Sunday story.
Travis is a sock puppet. I’ve invented him for my own purposes. His name really ought to begin with a J, like the cloud of characters who finally coalesced into John the Baptist and then Jesus the Christ. That is, he represents a force or cause more than a person. But persons can be the embodiment of a force or cause. I intend this one to be subversively progressive. Sometimes you have to improve life without giving them notice. For one thing, they are likely to oppose and destroy anything that looks like change.
Once Travis aspired to be a priest, either Roman Catholic or Anglican, he didn’t care very much. He avoided theory and air castles in favor of the Cathedral. But the Cathedral wouldn’t let him in. It was partly a matter of family prestige, but also money and education. Of course, those can be bought with family prestige.
So he shunned all three things: family prestige, money and education. His family, however, still clung to those, so he was in trouble with them. Since the Cathedral excluded him, he took up residence outside on the grand marble staircase of the mighty soaring structure. This was the part that was accessible by definition, by a process (climbing) associated with redemption but leaving the responsibility in the feet of the stair-mounter. Travis’ strategy was to draw young people higher out of curiosity and sensuality.
These qualities he provided via a small repertory theatre group, a traditional mode since the cathedral was related in history to the Greek dramas presented in front of doorways, while the audience sat on wide stairs in the bowl of a small valley. The troupe was small enough to have fitted into the medieval mystery play wagons that carried their message on the road between towns, but it was also small in another way. All the actors were children.
This was strategic in a number of ways. It meant the children had food and shelter of a sort, provided by the audience, and beyond that each other, which was the real necessity. Children are a burden that require energy and expenditures, so the authorities were pleased to be rid of them or at least to keep them on the stairs. Mostly they were between six and twelve, remarkably capable of learning lines, even the ones they didn’t understand, and they were tough, resilient, and natural gymnasts. Other than that, they were of all-sorts, sizes, colors and natures. They were the yarns and threads from which Travis wove the fabric of his plays.
You couldn’t really understand Travis from studying his plays, partly because of the practical reason that he never wrote them down, so it would have meant assembling the troupe — both the present and past ones — and getting them to recite their lines, but as they grew older, they forgot. Nevertheless, just talking to the children was revealing since Travis tended to include those whose lives were most like his.
Not that any two had reacted to the mystery and tragedy of their rather predictable way with any similarity to each other’s strategies. Some fought hard, some became poets, and some turned to accommodating adult sexual tendencies. From this, one could deduce that Travis was a fighter, a poet, and a whore. All three roles require staying low, in shadows, cloaked. These qualities do not lend themselves to the explication of a life, but mystery was on his side. At least it provokes curiosity.
Some like to pursue “absolute truth” and will spend a lifetime hunting through the brush after diversionary spoor, always announcing they were just about to find out everything and this would make them very wise and valuable. But most of the time they just rushed in circles, flushing out a lot of small animals and big birds.
Perhaps it is a better strategy to accept ambiguity, alternative scenarios, and transformations. In fact, this was the main secret of the little mimes on the staircase of the cathedral. They were more like homilies, metaphorical rather than sermonic. The children, esp. the boys but not always, wanted to have more sword fights and monsters. It was useless to try to satisfy them because there would never be enough.
Regardless of gender or experience, the little actors paired off, each in their own way of bonding. Sometimes they liked to perform obscenities, bad language and the pretence (they SAID it was pretence) of forbidden acts, usually sexual but sometimes excremental. Some could fart at will and other enjoyed exposure of parts normally concealed. The language was wicked. If it were funny and unexpected, it went down better than when it turned vicious and destructive. But the source was always idealistic, the unreasonable belief that there WAS a better life, a better way, better people. Or at least the possibility. But as I say, each had their own way of bonding. Some were more subtle and attractive, like holding hands. Some swatted hands away.
A human being is an emergent creature, arriving out of the guts of another creature (“Call the Midwife!”) and then, if it survives a couple of years, pushing along against the oppositions and opportunities of where ever it came to life among whatever people and whatever hills and valleys, beaches and fields. Things go by accommodations and happy happenstances, a mosaic of broken parts and wholeness.
But Travis didn’t like that. He wanted drama, grand gestures, and loyalty — a better story than what people created just by living as the opportunity struck. There was too much waste and cruelty. Maybe he wanted something like a new religion.
A religion is an emergent phenomenon, below awareness for a while, knitting together economics and aesthetics, trust and dance, until people wondered why they hadn’t realized it before and began to actually act on it. Before that happens, we are terrified. We fall in heaps on the cathedral steps and wail when the bells ring. Then someday the great cathedral doors swing open so we can go in. And we do.
But not Travis. He pulls up his hood and walks off with his staff in his hand. Alone. He wears thick warm socks and has another pair on a string around his neck. Maybe we could change his name to Jarvis.
Today the wind is gone and cumulus sheep graze across a blue sky from horizon to horizon. This story sounds a bit silly and I don’t really know what it means.