Something stirred deep within. He felt the first note of a new song. His heart was pumping a little faster now.
Sitting in the hotel room in Santa Monica, reading the brochure on Depression, Steve felt like he was a million miles away from everything. It was National Depression month, this October. But it was also his birthday.
The hotel lobby offered lots of information about mental disorders and illnesses. He had picked up a brochure not realizing how it would change his life. “I had no idea”, he said as he finished taking the test. “Seems like I have all the signs of a clinical depression”. That was not strictly true. His wife and another close friend had both hinted, observing his quaint way he was acting lately, “Seems like you are DEPRESSED”. It was just that it took more than their saying it for him to confront the truth.
He set out for a walk. The people walking down Santa Monica Boulevard were moving purposefully. Like they were going somewhere. Well educated, intelligent, once a University Professor, now an executive at a high-tech company, Steve had the outward marks of everything going well.
He was married to a warm, intelligent and beautiful woman. His daughter, 25, was doing well on her own and working building Internet websites. He had money in the bank. His job was secure. He had no idea what he needed more.
From what source was this “depression” emanating. He seemed to lack nothing and want nothing. Then something was missing. He couldn’t guess what it was.
Stopping to peek into an antique store window, he said to himself, “Maybe I do not need anything more. I have lost my oomph. There is nothing that is pulling me. No drive, no ambition. Just total burn-out.”
He imagined he could just walk into the store, crouch amid the clutter and just blend with all the antiques. Something to keep if there was sentimental value. Perhaps something that could grow in value with age, but right then was worth not quite a penny.
As he walked toward the beaches, he was sizing up the Big Blue, the buses that run up and down the boulevard. The Sun was drenching the town gently. Inside it was dark and stormy.
“Perhaps it is time to go” he mumbled to himself. “Perhaps I should end this all while I am on top. Quit while ahead.” There was no obvious path to recovery from this depression. If, when everything is so right, he could be depressed, then may be it was something that would never ever leave him.
Another Big Blue passed by noisily. The blast of wind that accompanied it made Steve stop dead on the spot. His mind sized up the possibility that he could deftly step in front of an oncoming Big Blue. He could do it, physically. For sure!
His mind wandered to one of his favorite TV shows The Honeymooners. He imagined Ralph Kramden driving that next bus. He saw Ralph walking crestfallen to Alice’s side, saying a man jumped in front of the bus.
Ralph was moaning about lengthy investigations, fault finding, defending. Alice only said, “That settles the fate of your long-awaited raise, Ralph”. “A-L-I-C-E!! Is that all you can think of at this time?” A faint smile crossed Steve’s lips. He realized that he could not do that to his favorite couple.
He walked down the long staircase on to the beach. Urban beaches have a feeling all their own. Always within earshot of the noise of passing traffic, buildings dotting the landscape all around, the beaches looked awkward.
Like some compromise between the greed of humanity that wants to grab every square foot for profit and the soul of humanity that would want to preserve and cherish nature in landscape that remained primal. A rather dismal, unsavory compromise at best.
Water was lapping ever gently in the bay. No big waves here. Steve realized that crashing and thundering big waves would really just have welled up his pent-up emotions. Gently lapping waves were reassuring.
Removing his shoes and emptying his pockets he put everything into the shoe. Facing the water, spreading his legs, his eyes closed , he heaved a great big sigh.
Without the visual stimuli, all the sounds seemed to be louder now. A gull was making shrill sounds as it flew nearby. Muscles were tense around the shoulders and his knees were feeling locked. He breathed deep, put his feet together and slightly flexed them.
His arms raised themselves, he dropped his hip bending his knee and held this pose. This was the way he would usually start his round of Tai Chi practice.
With the rhythms of the waves unsteadily guiding, he eased into a long series of movements from his Tai Chi practice. His eyes remained closed throughout.
Picking up the ball, gathering up the energy, hands circling the bass drum, flapping his arms like a bird, working the pulley and so on. His mind had become very still through this.
Finally, he swung around to do “passing clouds” and he allowed his eyes to gently open. What a sight he beheld! Some hundred feet away was a homeless man who was mimicking and aping Steve’s moves.
Steve slowed down his movement and waved to the man, suggesting that he come closer. He meant to say that in a friendly way. The homeless man’s face suddenly mirrored fright. The homeless man immediately turned away and fled in a hurry.
Something stirred deep within. He felt the first note of a new song. His heart was pumping a little faster now. Both his vision and hearing seemed to be clearer and brighter.
Gathering up his things and putting his shoes on, he gave the water one final look before turning back. He climbed up the long staircase on the cliff-side with lightness in his steps.
His mind was on the homeless man. Who was he? Where did he sleep? What did he eat? What kept him going day in and day out? What made him get up in the morning? Only questions. No answers.
Making his way to the 3rd Avenue Promenade, Steve walked slowly past the vendors and the street artists. After stopping to look at a couple of store windows, he was attracted by a man putting on temporary tattoos for a fee.
Thumbing through the display book, Steve saw several designs made of ancient Oriental and Indian symbols. There were Yin-Yang patterns, OM signs, and several intricately done Mandalas.
He struck up a conversation with the man, who turned out to be Laotian named Long. Two foreigners often seek to know things about each other like, “where did you come from”, “how long have you been here”, “what brought you here”, “how are you liking it” and so on.
Steve told Long about coming to the US from India nearly 30 years ago. They chatted about this and that. Steve gave him a business card with his own name and address.
The Laotian just about jumped from his seat upon looking at it. “You have my grandfather’s last name”, he said. “My ancestors left India nearly 300 years ago and came by Burma and Thailand to Laos. Grandfather’s family goes a long way. He remembers most of his ancestry and he has a record of all that. Perhaps we are cousins, after all, you and me. Fancy you meeting me here 10,000 miles away.”
Steve closed his eyes and felt as if a long rope tethered him. It stretched 300 years. A knot for every generation. There was a pole at the end. Another rope stretched out away from the pole and Long was at the end of it. They were gently swaying and dancing together. Breaking out of his reverie, saying good-bye to Long, Steve walked on.
He wandered toward a small group, about 6 people. They were gathered around an infant in a baby carriage. A clarinet player was amusing the child. The mother of this child took him out of his carriage and set him down on the pavement.
The musician seeing this, dropped down on his knees and continued playing close to the child. The child reached out for the pipe and stroked it several times. The man played as if the child was his only audience. The child played as if the music was all his. There was a communion.
They played together a long while. Steve went circling to see them both from all the angles. When the music ended, the child was gathered up and the crowd melted away.
No one gave any money to the poor clarinet player. Steve offered him what money he had but the guy refused. “This was an epiphany for me. Playing was reward enough. I am going home.”
Steve walked away, with the strains of the clarinet lingering in his mind. He pictured the child growing up with music enriching his life from this single encounter. A Big Blue bus swung by. It seemed more a friend than an ogre now. He climbed aboard the Big Blue and made his way to the hotel room.
The hotel room was dismal and lonely as before. The brochure that he held crushed in his hand and turned into a crumple that ended in the wastebasket. He had his journal out and was penning his experience. As he wrote the message came to him with remarkable clarity.
“The baby is HOPE. It is the FUTURE. My future. The future is held together by music. Hope is all sound and vibration. Long is my connection to the PAST. Long’s mandalas designs were all color and light. He showered me with a sense of history. I have been around for a very long time in many bodies and many lives. My connection to the past is deeper than I had known. The homeless man is the PRESENT. This Tai-Chi companion was COMPASSION. The present is gentle movements and flow of energy.”
Linking the past and present together this way, Steve closed his book. He looked forward the next day and resolved to fill it with MUSIC, HOPE and COMPASSION.
This short story was first published in Meghdutam.com (between 1999 to 2002).
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