One Foot in the Spirit World


By Chris Sullins (November 16, 2009)


“This is going to sound kind of funny,” began my wife as she massaged my bare feet as I lay stretched out on the couch, “but your feet smell kind of sweet.  Did you put some lotion on them today?”


“No,” I replied as I reflected first on a rather long day before thinking back over our nearly too decades together and the fact I’d never heard her make a comment like that.  Truth be told she had sometimes stated the aromatic qualities of my feet were quite the opposite.  However, much had been on my mind over the last few days and I added out loud “Maybe they’re sweet for a reason.  I’ve been walking through this life with one foot in the spirit world.  Maybe more so than usual recently.”


“Why?” she asked as my feet rested on her lap.  “Is something the matter?”


“No, it’s nothing new,” I said.  “Not something that’s bothering me or burdening me.  It’s just this time of year.  It’s when I remember the medic I worked with who was killed in Iraq, then coming home only a couple weeks later and demobilizing over Veterans Day weekend.  Just a lot of things I remember and how I see things differently now.  How I know our world could be different for people if they saw things –if they really saw things -- and simply chose to act differently from that next moment on.  But then I realize that few things have really changed, that the majority of people haven’t had life changing moments of true insight, and the changes that I wish for will probably not happen in my lifetime.”


My wife was silent.  It occurred to me a few seconds later that I had probably missed her intent for a conversation that was standing more stationary in the present.  But, I had noisily wandered off on one of my introspective and well-traveled footpaths in the fallen leaves of the past while searching for the distant mountains of the fabled future.


She had sat through many of my longer rambling monologues, especially with my far less than sweet feet on other occasions.  My wife’s patience has been both a true testament of tolerance and a direct benefit to the longevity of our marriage.  If we could somehow bottle how this marital chemistry has successfully worked and give it to other couples, it might lessen the divorce rate of 85% for military officers and recent veterans currently being suffered nationwide. 


Many soldiers continue to wear their combat boots for weeks or months after returning home.  I did so as well until the following summer when the boots looked too out of place at the civilian office.  I still wear them when I hunt, target shoot, do outdoor work, or just to go around town.  Some recent veterans also wear a military belt with their civilian clothes, but you don’t see the military outdoor jackets worn by this latest generation of demobilized soldiers like the Vietnam generation did.  But, it’s quite possible over the next few years that economic conditions may force this nation’s former service members, and who find themselves increasingly homeless, to make expedient use of their issued clothing rather than worry about a possible fashion faux pas.


Veterans Day and Memorial Day were set aside for public remembrance for this nation’s military service members.  One day dedicated to the living still among us, the other day reserved for our honored dead.  However, for veterans and surviving family members, both days trigger recall of those who have fallen beneath the thin black line into the shaded place of memory.


Stored feelings are often shaken back into daylight and stirred with pain on those days.  But another long drag across the slow passage of time and the sharpest points on the serrated edges can be dulled again.  The veteran who has learned to adjust grit and spit on the whetstone can fall back on the familiar sense of stony fatalism; but we too still wonder how family members who suffered losses cope in the dark valleys between the sunny peaks on their personal roller coaster ride.


On those days, we speak or write our words, march together, and light our candles often alone in the silent evenings.  Whatever symbols or rituals we used were all important, but may change over time as well.  I remember the wreath I made from evergreen boughs tied with rawhide strips which I gave to a tribal elder to lay in the waters of the river.  It was helpful for me both to make and to give away, but just as helpful for the elder to place it in the water.  Everything had its place and everyone their role.  All of this was connected.


The veteran more than many others understands the connection between cause and effect when it comes to human life –that decisions can have fatally permanent consequences.  The separations and losses, both downrange and at home, while on a long deployment cause irrevocable changes physically, mentally, and emotionally.  People who have recently returned from a deployment often have yet to realize their idealized home of the not too distant past has vanished like smoke from yesterday’s campfire. 


Today’s veterans and family members are actively encouraged to step into what is called the “new normal”.  If they try to crawl back for a lost past, they may soon find themselves shackled by an ankle on an increasingly shortened chain.  They have yet to learn there is no way to go back and recycle the old normal.  More pain will be in store if they can’t move forward.


The Native Americans and other tribal societies from around the world once had purification ceremonies for their veterans upon return home from war.  It was understood and acknowledged that a change had taken place.  Modern psychologists research this and try their own version of collective reprogramming and community reintegration, but they will miss many of the necessary symbolic elements.  It’s not that they fail to listen to the modern warrior, but that the modern warrior like those from the past may have little to say at first. 


But what can a veteran say when wars have yet to end and evil continues to evade justice.  The youthful veteran who asks what more can be done may continue to serve in uniform, put an individual life on pause, and if necessary sacrifice that life.  The aged or weary veteran who has meditated upon personal revelations and seen historical cycles repeat may do little more than wonder what his society as a whole has learned and fear for its future.


Many veterans have been far too humble to ask tough questions in public.  Likewise, many civilian leaders don’t ask them either as they hit one easy softball after another in the mainstream media.  Unfortunately, there are times in history when asking hard questions, seeking real answers and making the cold-blooded decisions necessary to unconditionally vanquish an enemy can be misinterpreted by a pampered public or purposely maligned by internally corrosive political factions. 


War was not, is not, and will never be glorious in any storybook sense.  Its description can never be entirely caught between the writers’ worn pendulum of boredom and terror.  The use of mass physical force, though applied in varying combinations of science and art, always approaches the vulgar rather than the eloquent in its display.  One who has seen both slaughterhouse and surgery in action understands the difference between monstrous tools, monsters, and the necessary actions of good people.


At some point in our journey though we ask what was this all for?  This was not asked in the sense of the expenditures of “blood and treasure” on the kingdom’s balance sheet.  That was never the sort of knowledge we as veterans and our associated family members sought.  At the end of it all when some sage puts pen to scroll or keystroke to screen, we just wanted to know if we made a difference and someone gave a damn about it after the last of us are gone.


What frustrates the hell out of us, though, is seeing the same tired patterns repeated of political games and infighting in the present tense.  Observers then act surprised when the rug is pulled out from under soldiers during the war and again later for veterans.  And sometimes living veterans and their recent wars can fade from public memory faster than the flags do at the military cemeteries.  More times than not someone who had no “skin in the game” (their words not ours) decided that the conditions needing security had changed and it was simply time for a cessation of active force.  There will be some inside talk of how the tools had served their usefulness when it comes to the soldiers and later this will turn to those same tools exceeding their productive service life when it comes to veterans.


Note that I did not use a phrase to imply an end of war or a beginning of peace.  Anyone around long enough knows there is no such thing as lasting peace when it comes to our worldly governments built upon the current human minds which want to play king of the hill.  Periods in human history known as peace have simply been lulls in hostilities as one or more sides re-equip their people with better arms.  The sides then re-engage from perceived positions of superior strength and try again to win more battles.  The best that might be achieved is a temporary sense of victory during that generation’s time of war. 


Given what sounded like my earlier ethereal call for peace and understanding, it may now seem that I took you the reader in a circle of roulette with a bouncing ball of personal paradox.  The main reason for this is that I have yet to see anything which indicates a real lasting change in collective human attitude; although I honestly long for it as indicated at the very beginning of this essay.  But, if you were looking for that warm fuzzy feeling seed planted by today’s green crop of sound bite motivational speakers, be advised you already slipped off the gore-spackled edge and planted yourself into what you might consider my mentally contradictory mix of crunchy charred bones and sticky squishy flesh.  Please wade with me a bit further.


I will try to illustrate this deep dimly lit place using an actual dream that I had a few nights ago right after Veterans Day.  Telling you the dream will be more important than me having the dream.  The dream doesn’t hold any mysteries for me.  I painted it.  However, it will explain the perspectives of a veteran, the struggle between generations over understanding the cycles of time which includes war and peace, and why in many ways the passage of time and the death of memory itself has been humanity’s main problem.


The dream goes like this:  You are sitting in a very dark room, but you can still see the floor around you and the chair you’re sitting in.  Your frail elderly father is resting on a couch not far away.  In the hazy light you see a scorpion slowly crawling on the floor toward you from the side.  Your first thought is to stand up and step on it with your boots, but you immediately find your wrists are securely tied to the chair.  The chair itself is also firmly bolted to the floor. 


The scorpion continues to slowly move toward you.  You yell to your father warning him there’s a scorpion in the room.  You advise him to immediately come over and untie your hands before it gets any closer.  There’s still time for you to safely stomp on the scorpion if he does this right now.  However, your father replies that he can’t even see you in the room let alone the scorpion crawling around somewhere on the floor.  Your father has sat up, but really can’t see his way and won’t leave his couch. 


Just before the scorpion disappears from your view on the floor to your left, you try to reach over with your foot.  The scorpion is too far away and leaves the edge of your view somewhere beneath the chair.  You and your father sit silently in your respective places for another minute.  You then see the scorpion crawling up your left bicep.  At that point you wake from the dream.


The understanding of that dream comes from walking with one foot in the spirit world.  If it’s possible for both of us to take the journey together without pain, then I would like to do that.  However, I suspect one of us may have to suffer the sting of the scorpion as long as one or both are unable or unwilling to take action at the right moment.


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Chris Sullins is the author of the strategic action thriller “Operation SERF”  If you’ve enjoyed reading this essay, please consider making a donation to the website.  Charles Hugh Smith has graciously provided space for it on his website for your reading enjoyment.


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