My Teva sandals have a distinctive tread on their soles and when the summer sun softens the tar patches along the lane the little kid in me can't resist pressing my foot's pattern into them. Then, next day, I look to see if my footprints are still discernible. They almost never are of course. By the time the sun has left the lane and the tar has cooled, they have long since been obliterated by tyre tracks.
Yesterday, though, I found one. The boots of those few others who had passed that way had missed it and, since it was near the centre of the lane, so had the vehicles. I felt strangely pleased.
I detest graffiti. Yet in a way I understand the impulse to leave a mark. So would I step in wet cement? No I wouldn't, out of consideration for others and because I would feel terribly guilty afterwards, just as I did when I was thirteen and carved my name on a beech tree. But I would think about it. I would imagine doing it. The temptation would be there to make a mark and then come back later to look at it as it set into that which, in this world, passes for permanence.
What is it about us humans that makes us so keen to leave our mark? Is it the ego's denial of mortality that urges us to create something that will outlive us even though we know that whatever it is will, like the statue of Ozymandias, eventually follow us along the path to oblivion? Nothing is eternal. Permanence is an illusion. Everything changes in every instant. The quantum universe is nothing but a vast, restless dance of energy and we and all our works blink in and out of existence like fireflies in the dark of unimaginable space.
I know that. I know that in another decade or two (or less probably) I shall be gone. Oh I shall live on a bit longer in the memories of those who knew me, particularly those who loved me. The books I have published will remain in print a few years maybe, and some of my traces in cyberspace might even persist till after I am dust. But as that which constitutes this separate me dissolves back into the All-That-Is, it will soon become just a faint outline, like yesterday's tar footprint, and eventually it will be as gone as a cup of seawater tipped back into the ocean.
Since some of my books were written with a helpful purpose, I hope they will remain a while. But apart from that, does any of this really bother me? Well, not so much, any more. I think I am learning at last the futility of trying to make a permanent home out of today's evanescent reality. And here is where I think I differ from the kid with the spray can who scribbles his tag on the wall and scuttles away. Because for me, as well as the tactile pleasure of a sandal pressed into soft tar, it is not so much about longing for permanence as it is about coming back and looking again. It is about wondering what will be different tomorrow. It is about noticing and being fascinated by— and yes honouring—the inevitable process of constant change and unpredictability that lies at the quantum core of everything. Even if the looking makes me sad.
Here's a sonnet I wrote thirteen years ago that seems to fit well...
I am so old that I remember green
grass hillsides where now mushroom villas crowd;
blue, endless space, and rising skylark seen
dark silhouetted, singing to a cloud.
Behind neat privet hedge, hydrangeas bloom.
Video library. Fast food for sale.
Car parks and garages. No longer room
here for the spinney, or its nightingale.
Yet the old beech still stands, and in her bark,
carved long ago by thoughtless, teenaged hand,
my name, scar-tissued to the faintest mark,
may just be traced. At last I understand
forgiveness. Fifty uncomplaining years
the tree has waited for these healing tears.
'The Mark' © Marian Van Eyk McCain, 2000