The house looked like a castle. I’ve been there only once before, almost ten years ago, at Rodrigo’s fiftieth birthday party. It was a gathering of millionaires. Women dressed in expensive clothes and jewellery, refined food and drinks. Standing around the pool, holding their glasses with ice and in small groups, the men talked about their businesses. In one of them, the owner of a famous construction company revealed how he had managed to convince several congressmen not to veto a project that would affect a large environmental reserve in the interior of the country. In another, Rodrigo, who was a competent tax lawyer, talked about the legal advice he had given to an oil company, finding in the loopholes of the law the way to legalize the purchase of a refinery acquired from a state company. I went to a third group of young people who had barely left adolescence to enter adulthood, where I thought I would find a milder, more relaxed conversation. My mistake. They talked about how they idolized the older men on the circles next to them. They referred to them as gods, such was the idolatry they inspired.
Me, a stranger in the nest. No, absolutely not, nobody is better or worse than anybody else. However, each one lives as he likes, for the pleasures that brighten his life. “Understand the pleasure you seek and you will understand the sweet or bitter taste of your days,” Li Tzu, the Taoist master, once told me.
It was not a matter of judgement, but of affinity. When we judge other people’s choices, we made mistakes. The reason is simple. We understand the world according to the exact measure of consciential clarity that we possess. Still travellers and far from the light, our eyes are blurred by frustrations, sorrows, conditioning and other various shadows. So, while I cannot understand myself completely, I will be incapable of a perfect understanding of the other. Instead of judging, we should understand only what we want or do not want for our lives. Embrace everything that does us good and makes us better. On the other hand, impose limits to people and situations that displease us, without accusations or recriminations. And simply carry on.
I was determined to leave when I saw a little old man sitting on a wooden bench in a forgotten corner of the garden. Elegantly dressed in the old-fashioned way, wearing suspenders and a bow tie; he seemed oblivious to the party and was distracted by the multicoloured orchids nearby. When I looked up, he smiled at me. I approached him and asked if I could sit next to him. The little man gave me permission with a smile and a little nod of the head. To make conversation, I praised the party, full of well-dressed people and fine food. He looked at me for a brief moment and answered me with a question, “Can you smell it?” I wanted to know if he meant the perfume of the flowers that were beside us. He commented, “No. I am talking about the smell of decay”.
I found the comment peculiar in that he attributed a smell to decay. I also found it curious that he was talking about decadence because some of the biggest fortunes of Rio de Janeiro are gathered there. The old man explained: “Decadence has nothing to do with money. After all, everything has smell and also colour. This party smells of abandoned souls and of lives in decomposition and, as a consequence, the colour is very sinister”.
At that moment, Rodrigo called me. He wanted to introduce me to a businessman who was looking for a new advertising agency, as he was dissatisfied with the one taking care of his company’s image. The conversation was quick, because when he realised that my agency was a small one, he became disinterested in talking to me, but not before showing a hint of contempt for the waste of time that I, albeit involuntarily, had caused him. Immediately, I returned to the garden in search of the little old man, for I had been charmed by his words and manner of thinking. However, he was no longer sitting where I had left him. I looked for him everywhere, without success. Displaced and with no other interest, I left.
Time passed. I had never met Rodrigo again and that party was swept into my unconscious, the drawers where we keep the facts we believe forgotten. A lot had changed. My cycle as a publicist had ended and a new phase, now as an editor, had begun. Yes, the end of one story is always the beginning of another. Inexorably so. The financial difficulties were enormous, as was the learning curve. I had moved from a spacious house where I had lived for years to a small flat in a much less valued neighbourhood. I had to give up many comforts, such as reducing travel and avoiding some restaurants. I stopped having a car, a habit I had acquired many decades before. After the strangeness caused by the initial period of adaptation to a new lifestyle, comes the feeling of personal power. The less I need the freer I will be, the maxim of stoic thought is transformative for the strength it gives when applied to practice. Every needlessness when seen as a necessity becomes a burden and a prison.
Adaptability is also a great power when understood and used as a tool for transformation. Difficulties are valuable for leading us towards living in ways previously unthought of. This makes us discover new values for the conquest of the same noble principles, the plenitudes. The true search for love, freedom, dignity, peace and happiness does not depend on any circumstance in the world. Only on the improvement of the simple choices we make every day. It starts with a different look and is fulfilled with a new way of being and living, which does not depend on anything or anyone, only on maintaining the coherence of choices with the clarity of that perspective.
There was no money left, but the days were joyful. Life was lighter. In the small publishing house, I had taken with me a concept I had learned in my last advertising days: to work alongside people with whom affinities were greater than differences. The criterion for the publication of a book was the intrinsic value of the work, not its commercial potential. Inspired by Loureiro’s experience, the whole editing process was handcrafted and treated with great care and attention to detail. The result was a work of art sheltering another work of art.
“The wise man acts without acting”, is written in Poem Two of the Tao Te Ching. I had never understood this expression of ancient Chinese wisdom until Li Tzu explained it to me: “It is acting without effort. A choice that is made with such clarity that the ego does not need to ponder, because it has germinated with the strength and purity of an acting soul. When we understand that a certain action is good but we do not have the necessary love to carry it out spontaneously, we need to make an inner movement for it to happen. The will needs to be created. This is very good. We do it because of the truth that is consolidated in our consciousness, like a seed struggling to break through the husk and overcome the stony soil in order to meet the sun. However, when love overflows in us, we act in such smooth synchrony with our principles and values that it is as if we have done nothing. The will is always ready. It is the acting-without-acting. This is perfect light. Consciousness and love in one same rhythm and purpose.”
Despite the enormous financial difficulties, in those days there was no regret for the choices and changes made. Joy has that power. Different from euphoria, a noisy illusion to mask escapes and emptiness, joy is born from the serenity allowed by the lucidity typical of when we clearly glimpse the wisdom of the cycles of life and the indications of the Way. Even if no one else sees or agrees, to remain coherent with this look is an unceasing source of joy. Euphoria is entertainment on the external world, joy is magic in the internal universe. Euphoria is an anxiolytic for every mismatch, joy is the sun of every encounter. Encounters and mismatches that happen in us. Euphoria depends on something; joy always dwells within you.
“Levels of euphoria or joy establish the decadence of our existence”, Li Tzu once told me.
I was at the airport in Belo Horizonte waiting for a connection to Salvador, where I was to take part in a Literary Fair, when I was informed that the flight would be delayed for two hours. I went to a restaurant located inside the boarding area where I was. To my surprise, I ran into Rodrigo, the tax lawyer I had not seen since that party at his house. He was waiting for another flight, which had also been delayed, and invited me to sit at the table with him.
Rodrigo wanted to know if I would join him for a drink. He had a glass of vodka in his hands. I asked for a coffee. Then he asked how the advertising agency was doing, if we had grown and got good accounts. I explained the changes that had occurred in my life; I spoke of the difficulties, discoveries and possibilities that lay ahead. I told of the books I had published and of others I would have the honour of publishing, such as MM Schweitzer’s Tales of Morserus, which I believed to be a milestone in fiction literature, such was the author’s depth and creativity. I explained that the publishing house was only a small seed, but I could see the tree hidden within it, and I, along with a few other friends, was like a daring gardener whose task is to make it blossom.
Incredulous, Rodrigo interrupted me to ask if at my age I would have the time and, even more, if I believed it was possible. I answered that I would not let myself be imprisoned by the difficulties, because my dreams were bigger. “Dreams strengthen the soul”, repeated the Elder, the oldest monk in the monastery. Rodrigo looked at me with disdain, as if I were an imbecile, and asked: “Do you believe in dreams?” I did not hesitate: “Of course. Dreams are the purposes of existence. Living them connects me to my core and, consequently, to the essence of life. They are fundamental, for they nourish my days with hope and joy. Otherwise, what would they be like?”
He answered me: “What moves the world is money. This is the only thing that really matters; this is the only thing that people respect, because it leads them to enjoy everything good that exists in life. Carpets are spread out, people bend down and wish to stay by your side. Advantages are presented and doors are opened”, he showed me the viewpoint through which he led his choices. I tried to offer my view: “Money is very important, after all we all have bills to pay and other issues that are indispensable for survival. I need it like anyone else. However, it is not a value for the conquests of the principles that govern life. Although it is an undeniable instrument of survival, it is worthless for transcendence, the highest goal of existence. There is no denying the possibilities of comfort that money offers and, I confess, I also like it. However, it is of no use to me to reach the plenitudes I so much crave. So, money is not at the top of the pyramid of priorities that I try to achieve. It’s a tool, not my final goal.”
Rodrigo looked at me with contempt and said sarcastically, “You’re not going anywhere with these kindergarten ideas. When will you finally grow up? The world is no place for dreamers.” I took a sip of coffee and expressed my thoughts: “Whoever is driven solely by money, whoever treats it like a god, becomes its prisoner. Those who make their choices with money as their main goal, live by fear. Fear of being who they are, fear of loving and not being loved. Fear of abandonment and misery. But misery and abandonment are not necessarily economic issues. But they are consciential. Nothing that is truly valuable and important, like freedom, dignity, peace, happiness and love, needs money.” The lawyer shrugged his shoulders and commented with undisguised irony: “Each one chooses the god he will worship”. I just closed my eyes before the uneasiness I felt at that moment and shook my head as if to say “of course”.
With clear repudiation, in an insincere invitation with the sole intention of provoking me and showing me what I was losing by insisting on my way of thinking, Rodrigo invited me to spend the coming Carnival in his recently acquired villa in Tuscany, a beautiful Italian region. He said it was a very old building and completely renovated. He opened his mobile phone and showed some photos. A very expensive property, allowed to few people. I thanked him, but declined the invitation. I would be at home during the holiday, taking the opportunity to prepare the originals of Morserus. Rodrigo looked at me with irritation and contempt. Without saying anything, I was aware that I was making a sincere choice. He also knew that I was being honest in my words; perhaps this was the cause of so much discomfort, I thought. We lived on the same planet, but in different worlds. Being and living are defined by the way we look and the way we walk. Then, pain and delight, light and shadow, each one becomes the helmsman of his own destiny. I put effort into taking possession of myself, while he owned many properties.
We remained speechless for a few moments. He emptied his glass of vodka, asked the waiter for another shot and was promptly served. Rodrigo emptied his glass again in a single gulp, said he had to go, it was time for his flight and, laconic, he said goodbye, but not before saying: “Be careful. No wonder people comment that you are decadent. In fact, I have seen you in better days.”
I said nothing more. I just nodded my head goodbye and watched him hurry away while I tried to understand the reason for his attitude.
I calmly finished my coffee and kept thinking about that meeting. We had been great friends in our youth, with many affinities. However, at some moment, at one of the many bifurcations in life, we went in different directions. There was nothing left in common. There is nothing wrong in this, and each one should make choices according to his or her interests and intentions. So, a question: why did my decadence bother him to the point of getting annoyed with me? I lived according to my choices and I did not for a second try to convince him to follow me. Specially because I wouldn’t do this with anyone. I just offered my perspective in counterpoint to his in a conversation that was supposed to be light and pleasant. Nothing more.
I asked the waiter for the bill when they announced that the passengers on my flight should proceed to the boarding gate. Along with my bill came four shots of vodka that Rodrigo had forgotten to pay for. I settled everything and as I approached the gate I saw that Rodrigo was sitting at another bar with a glass of vodka in his hand. I understood that it was not time for his flight, but it was just a pretext he used to get away from me. When he saw me, he frowned and turned away. I just moved on.
Sitting in the aeroplane seat, I was upset and trying to understand Rodrigo’s reaction. He was a rich, famous and sought-after lawyer; I was just a publicist whose career had ended and now an unknown writer and a fledgling editor. Unlike him, there was nothing in my life that people could envy. What was the reason for that aversion if I had never done him any harm?
After take-off, I took the Morserus originals out of my backpack. I decided to take advantage of the almost two hours of flight to work on the preparation of the text. As I began to read, not by chance, I came across a comment by Zemial, one of the protagonists of that fantastic universe: “At that moment I could understand how it had never been possible before. My joy unmasked the sadness hidden in each of them. They hated me, but in the poison of disgust they gave the game away. The loathing shown for me was only their way of hiding the loathing they had for themselves.”
It was strange, sad and true. It would be hard for Rodrigo, one day, to admit it. Perhaps it would take a long time, as the pain was still in the unconscious disguised with the masks of pride and vanity, distracted in dancing balls of euphoria. As for me, I needed to learn when a no meant a yes. For the rest, all that was left for me to do was to carry on.
I closed the text and my eyes. In silence, taken by deep serenity, I thanked the stars for the wonderful synchronicity offered between the reality of my life and the fiction of Morserus. Synchronicity is a cosmic instrument always available to our transformations.
On the landing, mixed in with the many people who came and went, a little man dressed in old-fashioned clothes, with suspenders and bow tie, was watching me from afar. As I fixed my eyes on his, he moved his lips slowly so that I could read: “Now you get it?” I continued walking with the feeling that I knew him from somewhere. I remembered in the next split second. It was the little old man I had talked to many years ago at Rodrigo’s party. Immediately I came back. I really wanted to continue that conversation. But he was no longer where I had seen him. However, this time I was not surprised, I just let myself be enchanted by that encounter.
Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.