The Doing and the Being
The writer, who was suffering from disillusionment, sat on a polished wooden chair in a noisy café, surrounded by the mundane. He drifted between two obsessions: the creative attempt to pound out the perfect metaphor and the isolating hopelessness of having no readers. His ambition for proving his greatness to the world was slipping away, like waking up to remember and then immediately forget the previous night’s dream. He was getting to the point where he might even hear on social media about some artist’s book signing or award, and for a moment he would recall a snippet of that old feeling — the charge of anger, regret, jealousy. It used to last for days…the seething. But lately, it would disappear in 30 seconds. Poof! It was gone. Was he giving up? Did he just no longer care? He would think about a colleague, a real go-getter, and think a) about the amount of arduous work it would take to be in his place, b) the inevitability of his own failure, (which had always proven to be the case), and c) the kind of postpartum dread he would feel almost immediately after any small successes he might have. Finally, and this was most important — there was another feeling … a kind of far off wistfulness about. a “greater purpose.” That was the one that really bothered him, that last one.
Though he was indoors, he felt like wispy clouds were moving over his head. It was the kind of feeling that would come and go quickly, like air — as if he were catching a waft of his ex-wife Irena’s scent, as she walked from one room to the next, wet and freshly showered. Elusive, confusing, flowery. It was like being close to an idea that was above his intellectual pay grade. He contemplated only certain elements of the concept, but not its whole. He couldn’t even comprehend his own belief system. The writer was intelligent, well-educated, and “really into self-reflection.” Why wasn’t he evolved enough to know what this feeling was? He knew he was being awfully dualistic in his thinking, black and white you know, but he couldn’t actually SEE the other way, so he couldn’t define it and knew this meant he would take no action at all. Was success possible without angst?
The writer drank the last of his cold, bitter coffee and wrestled with whether or not to exchange the current pen which was running out of ink for a new one…it was so early in the day. Pens can be expensive, but computers were for transcribing for publishers and editing, not for real writing. Writing was best done with a black inky pen on paper, bold and thick, leaving smudges on the fingers.
The writer noted the sciatic pain in his right rump on the hard seat. With one last glance at the crowd of twenty-something’s (who seemed to choose to be absolutely running after the most plastic life possible — what a waste!), he knew the day would be unfruitful. He was sluggish and grumpy, his usual countenance. He picked up his notebook and left the activity of the coffee bar, exchanging its smells of espresso and hipster cologne for the stale air of his decade-old Volvo.
The writer certainly did not plan on going home to an empty apartment, but he had no other destination in mind. The air was warming in the morning light. He rolled down the window exactly four inches and purposely allowed the compressed air to tug on his eardrums before opening up the sunroof. He turned off the radio to listen to the wind and empty his mind. At this point, Time decided to slow down. There were no other sounds…other than the rushing.
Driving past his own neighborhood in a kind of autopilot stupor, up a long stretch of road, the writer stopped recognizing the scenery. Houses turned to trees and small boulders alongside the gravel pavement. In front of him, the long road curved up a straight stretch and then, as the crow flies, into the horizon. Schedules were not important to the writer today. No one was waiting for him. He was not a part of the world anymore, not really, not in so many connections. Not since the divorce. Not since she had given up on him.
As he drove the car further away from what he knew and towards his line of sight, he reached the crest of a hill. He looked down upon a new world with new eyes. He saw a valley of unrecognizable charm. The air seemed to shift. The light was made golden, as though sunset had decided to come before noon. The unfamiliar valley below was speckled with many houses of different sizes, colors and shapes. Each house had a large yard and there was a center building, large and circular, in the middle of the village. Pausing at the crest of the hill only briefly, the writer drove down a winding narrow road towards the village with both a lack of curiosity and yet a healthy dose of fixation, as if his hands were only resting on the steering wheel, his foot gently laying upon the gas pedal. As if the car had decided to take him there and the writer had no further part in its decision-making.
This was not the golden hour which photographers speak of, but it felt like it. The writer found himself in the middle of unfamiliar territory. Maybe it was the foreignness of the setting, but he couldn’t help but imagine that the colors on this side of the hill were different somehow…unique. The yellows of light bouncing off everything were that much cheerier. The green of the grass was almost Technicolor. The red of a tricycle on a front lawn like a maraschino cherry. The soft peach hue of pleasantness and nostalgia could be felt all around. There was a shimmering quality to everything. The writer didn’t know how this could possibly be, but the magic of the colors seemed to influence the sound as well. Were those tiny tinkling bells in the distance? Or was that women singing? Both? And yet, underneath, there was perhaps a purer silence than he had remembered since childhood…like a farm at night, far away from the buzz of town. It was the sound of stillness. Here, everything vibrated with stillness.
The facades of the little houses felt like coming home to a place he had never known…magical, like a paradise, but not a dramatic tropical island or a fancy castle on a hill…just a simple community of yesteryear, or was this the distant future? The house styles strangely mirrored his own neighborhood. He decided that he hadn’t jumped in time. No, this was so different and yet entirely ordinary. He had stumbled upon another dimension, maybe. Yes, that’s what it is, he thought, same era, different dimension. That was what he would’ve liked to believe, whether it was true or not. It’s something writers do, he self-reflected.
The Volvo had slowed to a crawl. The writer parked and started walking. He turned a corner to face the opening of the large circular arena. A crowd was entering through the arena’s gates. There was no ticket-taker, (maybe it was free), so he followed. A ceremony was underway inside and there were thousands in the stands. This village was obviously more populated than he had figured. People of every size, shape, color, and age cheered in waves of song and praise as their brightly colored clothing fluttered from the stadium stands. There was an electric charge of excitement in the air with smiles everywhere. Was this a tournament or game? People kept turning and smiling at each other, as though a secret joy filled the arena. Down below, a man and two women stood on a platform at the center of the stadium field, apparently receiving a medal from a panel of distinguished looking older folks. As each award was given, a great cheer arose from the stands. There was music playing in elation at each announcement. The writer kept bumping into dancing spectators, who would turn and laughingly cry “Isn’t it wonderful?! Ha ha! We’re so lucky!” In return, the writer smiled as wide and politely as he could muster, as if to say he was certainly happy they were happy but didn’t know how that affected him.
There were machines present on the field, technology he didn’t recognize. They were inventions of some sort, but the man didn’t understand. Obviously, the people on the podium were receiving awards for their innovations. He asked an old man to his left, who explained that these were just a few of the many contributions which had been made recently in the fields of science, biotech, and manufacturing and that these inventors and their companies were all being honored. The old man pointed to groups of scientists on the sidelines of the award ceremony, all grinning with pride and joy at their creations, waving to the people above. It was hard to imagine that the whole town had showed up for an industry award ceremony. Why would they be so excited? What did it have to do with them? Did they all work at the same place? The writer asked the old man about it, but the old man looked at him as though it was incomprehensible that the writer did not understand.
. “It’s ALL of us who benefit from this, don’t you see? We did it together, in a way. Of course, I’m no scientist. I wasn’t in any lab or anything, nothing like that. But we’re all together, it’s for all of us. We’re all growing, expanding! As a whole,” the man stammered, bewildered at the writer’s confusion. “The world is getting so much better, isn’t it? It’s exciting!”
“I guess,” said the writer, “but what’s going on here? I don’t get it. Who’s giving the award? Is there money or a grant or something?”
The old man chuckled, “I know, it’s like we’re all a bunch of crazy kids today, aren’t we? So delighted to be making this kind of progress, this kind of success.” The old man winked at the writer. “It’s inspiring!” He turned to face the festivities on the field below them.
“…Uh, well sure, I guess … I mean, I hear ya. I’d like to get an award too, but — “
“ — Oh no,” the old man corrected him, “that’s not necessary. Whether I get an award or not, I don’t care about all that. I haven’t done anything like this for years. What I mean is we’re really doing something here! … Oh for heaven’s sake! I’ve forgotten myself again. Getting old! Okay, right! You’re new, so you don’t understand! … Okay, okay. Well, so you see, it’s like this: We’re sharing, not comparing. This is a kind of cooperating, contributing to the Whole. All of our lives are going to improve because of these companies’ altruism, their offerings to the Whole. It’s the best kind of action to be taken in the world.”
“So they’re like donating this stuff to the city?”
“ — No…but everyone will benefit — “
Anxiously, the writer scratched his head, interrupting: “ — Do you share in the profits or something?”
“No,” the old man answered. The writer was confused again, as to how this group of inventions benefitted the old man and asked if he had a son who worked for one of the companies or something. The old man shook his head no again, smiling. “I don’t get it. Why are you here?”
“Because we did it, silly! We did it!” the old man howled and whooped and hollered. Others nearby mimicked him good-naturedly. They all had a good laugh; the writer was perplexed and his frustration was mounting. He wanted to pin down the old man and torture him until he got some real answers. He suddenly HAD to know what was going on here! “But you didn’t do it, you said. They did it. … So, what? You were just in the neighborhood and thought you’d stop by for the show? See if there was an open bar?” The old man laughed again, then grew serious. He looked at the writer, paused, then shook his head and walked away.
The writer walked up the stadium aisles to another section of seating, looking into faces. There had to be an explanation somewhere. He had always been good at people-watching, it was the meat and potatoes of the writer’s craft, human observation. The story was one of something akin to national pride. These people were genuinely happy for the successes of these frontrunners, without any jealousy. It was not a zero-sum game. They weren’t even bored sitting here watching the show. In fact, they couldn’t stop smiling. It wasn’t fake or some kind of glassy-eyed cult brainwashing. It was real joy, pride, collectively inspired. He started to think there must’ve been a massive DNA upgrade somewhere on his travels. The people were calmer and yet more joyful than he could fathom. This couldn’t be genuine. It had to be an act.
As the writer walked the aisles of the massive stadium of blissful citizens, he found himself eavesdropping on conversations. They spoke slowly, communicating purposefully and compassionately.
My God! It seemed that here, they had such high energy for each endeavor, the smiling and the cheering, as though the whole town was filled with joy like Santa’s elves who couldn’t stop giggling while they worked. All industry, inventions, business models, most every endeavor one could think of really, becomes motivated by a new purpose, a better way.
The writer remembered driving into town. He had seen shops and restaurants like any other town. The time period looked roughly the same. Here seemed a bit more quaint, perhaps, but nothing particularly special. No, it was more like a feeling than something to see. It was pervasive. It was in the air. A sensation washed over the writer’s countenance, misting him like a cool breeze on a scorched summer day. It was like the pleasant shuddering of walking through a ghost. A vibration. Electricity? A tingling sensation rose up from the ground and through his knees, thighs and pelvis. He had experienced this feeling at times in his past, especially as a young boy, aware of its creepy sensuality, its alien pleasantness. The writer had learned to just go with it. He let the stirring ride up and down his spine until it subsided.
The writer found himself standing still. He wasn’t walking anymore; he was focused on thinking, expanding his perception to include a new paradigm. Exhausted, he had to sit down with it, but the stadium was full of sound. He walked out through the arena ramp onto the sidewalk. He rested in contemplation on a public bench by a narrow river running the edge of town. The scene was beautiful in front of him, but it was the looks on the faces of those people which ran over and over through his mind — so much wisdom and generosity, so much superior intelligence. It was the eyes. Did he know humans with comparable benevolence? His writer friends were cads. They drank and smoked and cussed each other out, disguising bile as witticism. They asked themselves: when do I get mine? Where was the enmity, the intrigue, the prejudice? How could there be competition without tribalism? What was this strange ubiquitous harmony composed of? Where the writer came from, there were winners and there were losers. There were far more losers than winners, of course, like the poor. And the winners were winners in their domination over the losers in the social hierarchy. Here, however, there was really no pyramid at all.
How long had he been driving anyway? The strange thought of not knowing where he was right now paralyzed the writer like an opioid, lulling him into a hush. Was he still thinking or was he meditating now?
Suddenly, the old man he had spoken to in the stadium was sitting by the writer’s side, smiling munificently. “Ambition looks and feels different here, son. So does success,” he said.
A wave of tingling rose again on the writer’s back. Slumping down onto the bench with a thump, was the smiling octogenarian. “Ah, my old bones,” chuckled the old man. He picked up there conversation as though there had been no lull. “So! Here is what it is: Those bright stars among us, the winners of races, the success stories, the charmed, the elite, the wealthy, the talented, the famous, the Champions, the high rollers, all those who have made it to the top of their hills — they raise the rest of us up withthem! We’re together, you see. It’s all…one thing. We enjoy their successes as our own. No resentment. With their help, we’ve already won.” The writer stared at the old man in silence. The old man seemed like he really wanted the writer to fully understand. It was important to him. He was thoughtful about his words. “They’re with us, a part of us. We don’t feel smaller because of them; we feel bigger and better. Their light shines brightest on those around them.”
“It’s not just a platitude,” the writer said incredulously. “This isn’t the Stepford dystopia.”
The old man guffawed, choking on his own snigger. “No, it’s real. And it’s easy!”
“ — Bullshit,” interrupted the writer.
“I know it seems so from your perspective, son, but it’s just a tiny shift in consciousness to get here to where I am… to where we are,” said the old man.
The writer began to feel uneasy, agitated. It was all too confusing. He feared he would never understand. “Humans are notoriously lazy about changing their thinking. And besides, scum always rises to the top of the pond.”
The old man looked off into the distance and the writer thought he was going to say something profound, but instead he rose, turned, and walked away down the street.
“Hey,” called out the writer to the old man, getting up, “wait a minute! I just — I mean, hey!” The writer faced the river, then turned to the road, but the old man was gone. The writer ran in his direction, towards the village houses. He could hear the faint sound of bells ringing in the distance. The air was cooling as the afternoon warned of rain. There were tiny streams of smoke rising from chimneys. No sign of the old codger.
At this point, Time stopped again. The writer felt as though he had been walking all day. He slowed his run to nearly a crawl, looking around him. Toys on the front lawn. Modest houses. Nothing uniform. It was not plastic or phony. He had seen the massive party in the stadium, the jubilant dancing and singing, cheering and horseplay. The whole town celebrated. This was no Eden, and they were not placid, naked slackers. Nobody was sitting beside a lagoon feeding grapes to a blond Adonis. These people were busy. They worked. They created. They partied. They competed for awards and celebrated successes. But there was another side — a tranquil solemnity, as though a balance was at play in which the inhabitants of this dimension understood the duality of their humanness — a Yin-Yang equilibrium.
He peeked into the window of a modest, salmon-colored house and saw a woman sitting with her hands in her lap, eyes closed, a peaceful countenance on her middle aged face. She was sitting on a pillow on the floor, her face lit by the orange glow of a fireplace. Was this a cult of some kind? Were they aliens? Witches? Buddhists? Is it like communism or socialism? Is that it — the writer inwardly mused.
“ — No, definitely not!” the writer heard a chuckle. “We just love each other this much,” said the old man. The writer jumped. He found himself in front of the old man’s home where he was gardening … moving, gliding through rows of vegetables, elegant as a Tai Chi master. “We’re as excited by loving Us as much as we are excited about learning to love ourselves, you see. It’s quite possible to have both. You needn’t drop out of society to do it.”
The writer found himself without words. Gently,the old man said in the writer’s head. Just picture it first…in your mind. The writer remained soundless, unable to move. The old man was speaking telepathically. Words were no longer necessary, but the writer didn’t care because he suddenly found himself so curious for answers. There were too many potential problems with this concept. He saw it, but he didn’t believe it. It was too hopeful. It was like all of these collectively evolved souls had finally come to the same conclusion: this works better.
To anyone outside of them, the two men would have looked like statues, standing there staring at each other, not speaking. It was almost too much to bare. The writer’s frustration was mounting and he felt his brain would crack. He felt out of body, as if he was standing outside of his own comprehension. There was a sage in front of him and he was generously trying show the writer something important, but the writer wanted to run, to fly away home, to forget he ever came here. He didn’t belong, he wasn’t good enough. He was afraid to stay and terrified to leave, but he was suddenly aware of how vital this download was to receive. He took a massive breath deep into his lungs and tried to work it out in his head.
The other side of Doing is Being. Like a penny turned upside down to reveal its other side, he said to himself. Being must be equally essential to the paradigm.
Yes, the old man intuited subjectively. The writer felt very close to it now, like standing on a ledge with his toes curled over the edge. Doing is action. Being is stillness.
More silence fell between them; then the old man nodded and spoke aloud. “Stillness is a foreign concept these days of being busy for busyness’ sake. I bet you can’t really even picture what inner self-reflection looks like, but it’s the only way to figure stuff out.” The old man smiled mildly. “It doesn’t necessarily look like those meditating women you saw in the window, because everyone figures it out in their own fashion. It’s what some people call the Path. Each version is different. It could be meditating, it could be gardening! It is lived and understood in private. Simply to be on it, that’s the way.”
“It’s a choice,” the writer heard himself say, startled by the sound of his own voice. He nodded sheepishly at the beaming old man whose outline was bathed in sunlight. The tingling returned, the ringing of the bells in the distance, a long forgotten sound from his childhood. The writer was suddenly very happy to be standing here talking to this senior citizen.
Black wingspans of the crows crossed over his line of sight. The writer looked down at the old man’s blue overalls and the old man looked down at his mucking boots. They were quiet again. The old man picked a weed, returning it to the compost bucket beside him. In this moment, the writer did not know what to do or say, though he was intensely curious. He was like a cloud hovering far over his own being. A picture was forming in his head. As the old man returned to pruning his garden, the writer thought about a gardener’s relationship to his garden, as a man’s Path teaches him of the Self: This garden is his own. He tends it for himself, and he will consume its fruits. He moves with slow grace. With time and practice, he will see variety. He will benefit from this thing which he has chosen to do. Just as a man in self-reflection is utterly alone, no one is coming to tend this garden for him. He may seek counsel from a master gardener, or do research by reading a book, but this is his responsibility, his way. All of these gardens look a little bit dissimilar. How a man fertilizes his garden, whether he talks to his plants or not — nobody and nothing can tell him how he does it or why.
“The Being of the Path is also the Doing of it. That’s…the knowing?” the writer asked the gentleman gardener.
Now you’re beginning, the old man said without words, whispering inside of him. Crows and vibrations on the skin. Crows cawing above and tingling chicken skin below. The garden becomes the man. This is the wisdom of self-reflection. Not time spent in the pursuit of shameless narcissism, voracious greed. Takes time and humility. … Stillness. He smiled and the writer saw such twinkling in the old man’s eyes that it made him want to do something he hadn’t done since he was a child…to cry. He found that he did not have the strength to let himself go, to let his tears flow. He looked down at the black pavement. When he looked up, the old man was gone. He had gone into his front door.
The writer knew he would never see the man again and there was nothing to do but walk towards his car. He returned to the road and drove away from the setting sun…towards home.
“The Doing and the Being”
A short story written with you in mind.