Begin Part III
By the time I entered middle school life had begun to move much faster than I was used to. Where once we had but one classroom to report to, and the occasional art or music or gym class that we got marched off to, now we had seven or more places to be on any given day. Suddenly we had so many books and papers that we needed lockers in which to store them all. Of course those lockers had combinations to remember…, and care needed to be taken that they really locked after being closed.
Perhaps the most stressful thing about middle school, though, was the realization of the passage of time. I really was getting older, and getting older meant getting closer and closer to my day of reckoning with that jungle war overseas. It was something that I could almost put out of my mind as long as we stayed in the same school building year after year, merely progressing from room to room and teacher to teacher; but being in middle school meant that I was almost in high school, and high school was the last thing that stood between me and the war.
It’s probably no wonder, then, that the start of middle school brought with it a bout of nervous anxiety. I’d close the door to my locker, spin the dial on the combination lock, and head off down the hall, only to be gripped within just a few steps by a sudden and inexplicable uncertainty as to whether it was really locked or not. With each step my doubt would grow, and with my growing doubt came imaginings of my books and papers being strewn up and down the hall by one class bully or another.
Yes, that was something new, as well - the bullies. Oh, sure there was mischief and the occasional tussle out on the playground back in grade school. But everybody seemed to be about the same size back then. By middle school, however, some of the boys had grown manlier in stature, and a couple of them were not above taking advantage of their more robust physical stature on a more regular basis. In retrospect, they were probably dealing with some newfound nervous anxiety of their own – anxiety that could be assuaged at least to some extent by displaying power over another. Yes, we were all in the midst of creating the selves that we would become.
Anyway, my anxiety seemed to grow stronger and more frequent as the school year wore on. I’d try to ignore my urge to go back and check that my things were secure, but then I’d give in and hurry back – feigning as though I’d forgotten something. Invariably I’d find that all was well, but there were times when even checking didn’t make any difference. I’d make it down the hall again and wonder whether I’d really checked or whether I’d only imagined that I’d checked. Maybe I still needed to go back and check – again..., or for the first time…, or whatever. So I’d go back and check yet again – this time being especially mindful to pay attention to each turn of the lock and each solid metallic clunk as I pulled up on the handle in order to prove once and for all that all was well.
The cage of the self was closing in around me. Who was in charge of me? Who was in charge of my mind? Who was I, anyway? Was I to go through life jerked this way and that by an errant thought here and an inexplicable worry there? I needed to be stronger than that. I needed to be more in control than that. I wouldn't survive otherwise. And so I began to pay closer attention to “my” mind. I began to watch how I could pay attention and how I could let it wander away. And if I got down the hall and couldn’t quite recall whether I’d been paying attention or whether I’d let my focus slip away, I’d simply let it go. I steeled myself to whatever humiliation might result. If I should come back to find my books all strewn about the hallway, then so be it; for I was the one in charge of me. I was the one in charge. Except, of course, when I wasn’t in charge of anything at all!
It was sometime during those middle school years that I learned that I’d likely not be compelled to fight in that jungle war after all. If all went well, we’d be pulling out. The war would soon be over. Now, if I were an adult and I’d just found out that, contrary to my long held belief, I wouldn’t be forced to go off and fight in some war after all, I’d probably throw a party. I’d go out and celebrate! I’d mark and forever remember that day when my life was given back to me again. Strange, though, I simply stared out the bus window as it bounced and swayed back and forth, and life went on as it always had. Well, not as it always had. For so much in life was beginning to change so quickly.
My parents were looking for a new home for us. There were three of us kids by then and we needed more room. We might not even stay in the same school district. Soon enough I’d need to say goodbye to the Nursery. For some reason, though, that didn’t strike me as being for forever. I’d become a fairly serious bicyclist by then. I and my friends would ride miles to visit theretofore unknown parts down along Gravois Creek and out along where the new highway was blasted into the fossil-laden limestone. Just as easily as I went to places far away, I would come back and visit my beloved Nursery. It was too much a part of me to ever say goodbye.
Life happens, though. We did move away, and I never did return. Whereas I always thought that I’d go back and visit those neighborhood friends, I never did. They’d been different ages and went to different schools, and so when there was no longer the commonality of being neighbors, there was nothing left at all. Besides, we were all older now and life was moving faster than it ever had before. It wasn’t like it used to be when we could visit each other’s houses and call for each other to come out and play. It wasn’t like we had all the time in the world to wander and explore and simply watch what was going on around us. It wasn’t enough to simply be anymore. The world wanted something of us. The world wanted us to be something. If only I knew what that something was.
Grief can be a very strange thing sometimes. Loss can happen without us ever even realizing it, then to be followed by grief once we do. Just a couple of years after we moved, the Nursery was unceremoniously bulldozed and graded over in order to make way for an apartment complex. And in the moment that I first saw what was happening I felt as though I knew just a little bit of what it must feel like to live through a war. In war, nothing matters but the will of the victorious. In war, nothing is sacred. In war, life is valued only in terms of its utility to the victorious.
Never again will I run those Nursery trails, or climb those trees, or sit beside those ponds simply watching. But even though it’s now some fifty years on, I still return there almost daily in my mind. Something happened back there in the Nursery that made my life what it is – that made all of life worthwhile. I was that place. Yes, I was that place. Before self-awareness made me stand out from the seamless reality of all that is, I was that place.
Bulldozer in action via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:
Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank