Jack agreed with the need to make decisions based on educated judgments. If he blindly followed tradition, habit, social pressure or impulse, he would be no better than his animal nature. But, how can one be objective and unaffected by these influences? Is it better to accept moral codes provided by religion or follow intuition? What other choices are there? He planned to use his reasoning power to guide his life. But was he really following his own plan or had he surrendered his Will to some other force outside his mind?
Could he really influence his own identity, or would his "self" be dominated by the recognition he received, or wished to receive? He wasn't tortured by sadness, despair, frustration, anxiety, loneliness, bad luck, failure or too much success. His life was open, he could pursue any direction he chose. He still had the optimism of youth and enough energy to pursue any course.
The abrupt noise of a cheering crowd brought Jack to his senses. The television featured a live showing of professional wrestling and the crowd was making a ruckus. The sound was as much a taunt from a pack of bloodthirsty animals as it was any praise for human achievement.
"I gotta shut that damn thing off!" Jack displayed as much anger and authority as his youthful voice could muster.
"Suits me. I'm leaving anyway. What's wrong? You have a bad dream? Don't you like professional wrestling?" Jake liked to needle his brother. That's what older brothers are for.
"I think I'd like it if they were really wrestling, but it's too much like a circus side show. How can those people stand it? Don't they see it's all fake?"
The cheers resonated into a throbbing roar with each new crescendo louder than the last. The throng on the left was trying to shout louder than the gaggle on the right. Each new round brought more effort from the other side.
The announcer tried to restrain the enthusiasm by raising his hand, the crowd wanted its hero to make another obeisance. The applause mixed with stomping feet and hoots and shrieks that shook the very rafters of the building.
"People like the excitement. It's like being part of a mob. If you were there you'd probably get carried away too."
Jack roused himself from the lounging position into which he had collapsed. "Not me. I wouldn't cross the street to see that stuff."
The announcer in his tuxedo was beginning to belt-out the acclaim of the first contestant. He stood in the middle of a raised square canvas framed by large cushioned cables. A huge blond man slipped through the ropes like an acrobat and danced around the ring with his arms pumping. His massive, well-tanned torso was smooth and shining from the coat of oil he had just received. A moment later a dark figure wearing a black cape ducked through the ropes held apart by members of his entourage. The crowd jeered his arrival. He was obviously the villain.
"Then shut it off and quit your bitchin!" Jake scolded in a good natured way. His speech was affected by his association with other construction workers and though he had a heart of gold, he liked to talk tough.
Jack finally leaned forward into a crouch. He moved with a few steps and reached the switch as the dark contestant grabbed the other in a tortuous arm lock. He paused for a moment to see what would happen.
"See! Even you're interested so you shouldn't complain so damn much."
"I just can't get into that fake stuff any more."
"You've been out of the country too long. Why don't you come with us tonight? The music will be great, and who knows, maybe you'll meet a girl and get laid. That would put you in a better mood and you'd be easier to get along with." Jake showed a broad gap-tooth smile as he got up to leave the room.
"Thanks. But not tonight. I'm happy to baby-sit. I'll go tomorrow. Besides I've got something I need to do."
Jake paused with the top half of his bulky frame extending around the kitchen doorway. "What's that? Something I should know about?"
"No. I just want to get some of my personal stuff organized. Clean out some of my junk." Jack was being deliberately evasive.
Jake figured as much, so he didn't press the issue and left with a wave of his rough hand.
As Jack walked into the hallway the sudden silence imposed itself like a heavy weight. He was noticeably alone and stretched to remove the stiffness in his back. He proceeded toward the dark bedroom shared with his young nephew, now asleep.
There was a siren squeak from the unlubricated hinges as he opened the door slowly. He moved as quietly as possible and retrieved a grocery bag rolled at the top. The alarm sounded again as he returned to the hallway, pressed the door closed hiding the dim night-light. He touched his way in the dark along the wall toward the living room containing a fireplace.
The house sat on the edge of a hill in a suburb near Seattle, Washington. When Jack turned through the arched entrance nagging fingers of light from the city below caught his attention and scattered on the ceiling. Wild images jumped from the distorted prism of the window like sparks from the cutting torch he had used at work.
He stared with fascination as his imagination turned the vague flashes into remnants of a civilization ripped by internal tension. His perspective was distorted as the reflection flashed and swelled. The glass and steel community had dissolved into a molten, glowing haze of radiant energy discarding nervous shots of light. There was a pulsing, throbbing mass of orange and yellows...angry and destructive radioactive decay. The aura absorbed everything...digesting and growing closer...pulsing and fading...expanding and throbbing with an organic rhythm.
Jack's eyes came into focus when his shin found the edge of the coffee table creating a sudden pain. The source of the light was a vague, brass hew from the halogen street lights punctuated by occasional headlights jumping from behind the blackened outlines of distant buildings.
As his eyes adjusted to the dark, shadows became a table, chair, lamp and curtains. The darkness masked the wear and tear of the over-stuffed sofa and matted carpet but he knew these had suffered from abuse. The magazines on the end-table near the main window were in disarray defying the strict organization of the furniture. Three days of news was disemboweled at the foot of the table suggesting the room was the living center of an active home.
Again he paused to watch as a different vision captured his imagination. Streams of distorted light glistened off the slick pages creating a surrealistic montage of life. There was no balance of color or image...three dimensional edges were plane...the illusion exposed human nature in various positions...a message of desperation was reinforced by the blurred light. Jack blinked and illuminated the mundane photos of advertisements and colors from comic strips.
Jack reached down and scooped a handful of papers as he circled toward the fireplace. It suited his special purpose to be alone in the quiet darkness. The physical circumstances should not interfere with or detract from this ritual sacrifice. Even so, he felt strangely uneasy as he approached this solemn task.
He paused and gazed soberly out the window at the expanse of city. He looked far and near for something, for someone who didn't appear. He was still affected by the life he had long ago shared with Lucky. Jack's religious life was over in the same way. He had believed it was important to help people open their minds to new ideas that he gladly, even zealously supplied. Very few had wanted to listen. Now even he had changed his mind and accepted a life that more closely resembled Lucky's than that of a missionary.
As he walked in slow motion toward the fireplace, he recalled his recent actions. His flight home; a Church leader debriefed him to verify his safe and virtuous return; he visited his mother; completed his enrollment in college; took a fantastic train ride through the Columbia River Gorge then to Seattle. Jake met Jack at the train station then helped him find work as an Ironworker.
With a strong push, Jack moved the lone easy-chair to a position in front of the fireplace. The over-stuffed chair wore a grotesque clerical habit of red velveteen above short wooden legs. The frayed arm rests exposed a history of misuse as Jack settled into its portly center.
He placed the grocery bag carefully to the right side of the chair and cautiously leaned toward the mouth of the fireplace. He paused, crouched for a moment to rehearse the next impromptu movements. It was desirable to ponder the complexities of this esoteric event. Even the most subtle detail could contribute to the emotional impact. He mimicked the reverence he had displayed in the prime of his religious enthusiasm.
Jack found the bent, brass shovel near the low brickwork that skirted the gaping black cavity. Using this he rescued a distorted grate from the ashes and half-burned garbage. He piled the refuse on either side then hung the shovel properly in its bracket as a witness. The paper made good tinder under some kindling wood. He flicked a single match with competence and lit the fire. The flame grew quickly and a feeling of celebration invaded his body with the growing warmth.
He raised himself and reclined into the chair to relish the one essential ingredient of this service, fire. It was more than three years since Jack had made a fire. This was a pleasant reunion that followed a comforting logic. He appreciated the simple skill of putting the most flammable material at the bottom, add a few sticks and carefully place larger pieces of wood above so these would not fall and smother the eager flames.
The fireplace accommodated this protocol, although these secrets were not obvious to the uninitiated. The wretched metal grate allows the air to draft and serves as an altar. When a fire is attended to scrupulously, it raises even such a mundane acts to the level of art. The art is manifest as the energy output and benefit is seemingly greater than the crude input.
The radiance from the expanding fire created huge, new shadows and extinguished all other light. The natural beauty of the eager flames filled the vacant space with pulsing color. Cobwebs became lace, smoke stains disappeared and flat became round.
Jack looked up and was startled by the bright stars of the night sky. Flashes of light reflected from silver flakes embedded in the textured ceiling. This flamboyant decor had been fashionable, but the genius of the creator was in disrepute. Such ornate, ostentation was regarded as tacky. Jack relaxed and imagined an Eternity framed by gleaming stars and galaxies. Was Heaven somewhere beyond? Or was it simply here in front of the fire?
A sheet of energy mirrored from the window obscuring the view. This nimbus enveloped the initiate in a halo of purity. The sharp interior angles where the walls met joined the infinity described by the symbolic stars.
The hypnotic flames induced a new and surprising visualization. He saw the room as a box from the inside. Usually a box is seen as a cube with its angles, corners and surfaces from the outside, like a shoe box. Conceptualizing these lines and surfaces from the inside requires a strong leap of mental gymnastics. He could move his focus in and around that perspective with only a slight effort.
A house was a box and humanity created a whole mystery and science around building houses, cathedrals and office spaces. These are shapely boxes composed of coarse materials. Jack was inside a box of wood, paper and glass. This oversimplified concept stripped architecture to its foundation, designing and building elaborate boxes.
The beauty architects create, however, goes well beyond the finite scope of the materials. Functional, attractive spaces do more than satisfy the basic need for surface and shelter they create a beauty greater than the sum of the parts. The artistic aspect transcends the crass human needs in a thousand different ways. The creativity involved in forming new patterns of grace combined with utility gives birth to art.
The genius of the architect arises from the contribution they make to the art of living. They answer the question "What is beauty?" with hundreds of styles and modes. Each few years an original trend of art in construction emerges to fascinate humanity. Does this have anything to do with the production of boxes? In architecture the practical act of building shelter is trivial in comparison to the creation of art.
Jack realized that such a compelling mystery can be found in many parts of culture. These mysteries demand expression and create their own purpose for being. Participating in such pursuits was a sufficient motivation for life. Satisfying this motivation contributed to the art of living.
A spark from the fire brought Jack's attention to the round softness of his solitude. The vermilion flames reminded him of his purpose and the bag at his side. He was in no hurry to complete his task because the fire creates an ambience suitable for meditation unequaled by any other medium. Inside this domain of warmth it was possible to illude the troubled and perplexing world.
He stretched his legs toward the fire. His feet were invigorated by the intense heat. The tiredness of the day dissipated and the soreness in his legs, which he had ignored, faded. His body came alive as warmth accumulating in his feet transmuted by nature's alchemy into a rich, healing force. This may be the true elixir of life.
He remembered one event of the day that restored his confidence for longevity. He had been on a truck bed helping unload bundles of steel rods. The end of one bundle got stuck. As the crane and cables strained unsuccessfully he reached to force it free. The bundle came loose suddenly and swung like the end of a whip toward his legs. Without thinking or jumping he bent his knees and fell to the truck bed. He stayed in air long enough for the heavy bundle to pass like a jump-rope.
Jake was surprised Jack had not been injured when he fell with such a thud. If his body had not reacted instantaneously the bundle would have broken both legs and thrown him over the edge of the trailer. Instead, he bruised his knees only slightly and continued working uninterrupted. He was proud of his dexterity and almost flawless safety record. The brief incident was a good omen for a long life.
Jack's mind returned to the present as he added another stick to the fire. The flames grew enclosing a private temple. This was not the place for seances or evil intents. Flames thrive on the cares of humanity and fire can consume the concerns of anyone in its proximity. Only honest, rational thought, like the mental pirouettes of Rene' Descartes ought to be permitted in this nonsectarian temple. Only sincere and forthright ideas and good intentions will emerge from this chrysalis.
He sought inspiration for the metamorphosis he was undergoing. He needed a renewal of will-power, like a battery recharge; a rededication of self-discipline to achieve success in college and in life.
Jack let his mind drift to the rhythmic chant of his heart and lungs. This melancholy, nearly imperceptible sound resonated into a lullaby coaxing him toward a return to the womb. His strong inclination to action resisted this primitive state of meditation returning him to the complexity of life.
The memory of his missionary life passed through his mind. He recalled the years before his mission and tried to piece together the elements of his earlier motivation. The progress of his thoughts was not obvious, obscured by his most recent conclusions. But this step by step progress was nearly as important as the conclusion, in the same way that the questions are as important as the answers.
Jack had been enthusiastic and devoted to the search for Truth with a capital "T." That enthusiasm was exhausted. His searching mind ran hot and cold about his religious convictions, now he was completely cold. His doubts won an exhaustive victory and he felt a need for a sabbatical from this effort. All that previous struggle seemed trifling as time put distance between this fire and those events. But it was the process itself, the doing of it, as tedious and rigorous as it had been, that mattered most. The answers were of less importance than the questions and the process. He had to preserve the questions.
He could forget the pain, frustration, confusion, loneliness and sacrifice from this distance in time, but never forget having gone through the process. The reasons he stayed in Italy were fulfilled and he needed to make a formal end to it. He had the basis from which he could begin his new life and a logical system that would work for other people as well.
Most missionaries managed to grow in their own beliefs. That was expected. His experience had given him an independent confidence but not that which was originally anticipated. Not only had he lost his "testimony" he had gradually grown to reject all religious belief. His grandmother would have been very upset by that conclusion, so it was better he didn't have to confront her.
Amy Baker had been resolute and closed to any other ideas. Missionaries were supposed to make new converts not lose themselves. The Church teachings encouraged converts to close their minds to their heritage and outside influences, Jack could never manage to do that for himself. This self-righteous form of altruism was gone, in its place was a compassionate indifference, or is that a contradiction of terms?
He saw himself as a different person, but even so, there was an element of sadness in this decision. He was still the grandson of the idealistic pioneers. He could respect that connection and at the same time deny the dogmatic aspect of that tradition. Even as he contemplated turning away from The Church, he could not turn away from the nostalgia of his heritage nor deny the positive influence this had on his character.
Jack Lincoln's attention returned from his mission to the enthusiastic flames. The power of the fire was contagious and rejuvenated his strength for the solemn task at hand. He proceeded cautiously with the plan he had contemplated for the past several months. The idea first came in the form of a passing, vague concept related to his changing attitude toward The Church. A question developed, lingered and repeated itself during the busy days of moving from there to here: "How should I make an end to all this religious activity?" He wished to finalize his estrangement with an appropriate ritual.
This evening was the threshold of a new life without the ambivalence or misgivings that once haunted his actions. All that confusion and introspection which captured and imprisoned his mind no longer incumbered his resolve. He wasn't a rebel without a cause who challenged rules just for the sake of being obstinate. He was willing to submit to an authority he could reasonably accept. So Jack was pulled reluctantly into this very different world by his conscience responding to his own nature.
Jack opened the paper sack and took one of the peculiar, white garments. He had been wearing these garments since his visit to the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City. He placed the first on the bright fire and stared blankly as the flames coughed and wafted then lit green-blue consuming the cloth with a vengeance. He had ceased wearing these items during the last few weeks, acquiring more conventional apparel in anticipation of this ceremony.
He would always be influenced by the echo of the Mormon rules and moral constraints. Even if he could erase his memory, he would not choose to do so. In place of these constraints he found the freedom to make choices.
All this escape from religion wasn't just about being free, however. Freedom from morals is no particular blessing. He had been drafted by his own thinking process which created a different perspective. Jack was forced to fight his own ethical battles and compelled to let reason guide his actions.
If you concede that it is impossible to live without being confronted by ethical and moral decisions, and you concede that you are either supplied with answers by a religion or forced to answer such questions for yourself, then you have to accept the requirement to create your own answers once you leave the bosom of religion. When you discard these rules you are forced to exercise independent reasoning, willful discretion and competent judgement or suffer mental duress. This is not trivial.
The fire sputtered as the fabric disappeared.
It is a curious form of freedom indeed when someone is forced to be independent. Rules and moral codes provide absolute guidance and thus give freedom from the pressure of making decisions. So he traded one form of freedom for another. Living by fixed rules given by a higher authority is like following a recipe to cook soup. This is trivial. In the future when Jack made choices he would structure his own identity, any cause he accepted would determine who he was. Each activity and association would have to satisfy a rigorous set of criteria based on his challenging nature.
He was no longer a "returned missionary." He had been sincere and could easily explain the time he spent in Italy but it was not integral to his new identity. That introspective youth had grown into a strong, independent, capable, thoughtful adult. He didn't think he was noble as his friend Al Will suggested but that was a good ideal to which he could aspire. This event would solemnize his apostasy from The Church as a sign of both independence and integrity of purpose. Was that the first step toward nobility of spirit? In any case he was resolute.
Sitting in front of the fire he reneged a commitment to the way of life he had been leading. This was not something that could be done thoughtlessly or haphazardly. This was not a casual sacrament like so many he had performed out of habit. This was a personal and necessarily very private ceremony that would confirm a catharsis that had already transformed his life. The mundane fire was elevated from it's simple and ancient origins to a mysterious force with a complex symbolism.