Tristan Marajh is the 1st-Prize Winner in The Stratford Writing Competition and a Winner in The Scugog Arts Council’s Ekphrastic Writing Competition. His fiction and poetry appear in The New Quarterly, Existere: A Journal of Art & Literature, The Ekphrastic Review, Blank Spaces Magazine, Dreamers Creative Writing Magazine and others. He resides in Toronto. He has kindly allowed The Miramichi Reader to reprint “The Lesser Man” here.
If you were to ask Kwame Abara how his commute to work went, “Wind” is what he would tell you. You might, for a moment, think his answer strange – and think him strange for saying that – but then you’d think a bit more. “Yes,” you’d reply, “it was indeed a windy morning.”
Kwame would smile at this – more so to himself – and you’d assume that he was agreeing with you: yes, it was a windy morning.
Kwame, however, is not only agreeing with you, but disagreeing as well. That disagreement is why he’s smiling to himself.
You likely didn’t experience the wind that morning like he did. You didn’t feel the breeze washing upon your face like cool water after a spell of dryness, getting in your hair, presenting itself in abundance to your nostrils, refreshing you for another new day. This is what Kwame’s commute to work is, on his bicycle, cycling on Highway 48 with cars rushing past. You might have been driving, or in, one of those cars, only knowing it was windy because the weather report on the radio said so. You might even have felt the same wind Kwame did when your car’s air conditioning system recirculated it. But you didn’t feel it like Kwame did and that’s why he smiled that way.
If you didn’t see Kwame cycling on your way, that’s likely because he hit the roads before you did. If you’re a colleague, you likely don’t know all that he got up to once he got to your workplace early in the morning. Do you sense something mysterious? Let’s go back to Kwame on his bike; or rather, when he stopped and parked it in the parking lot of Stouffville Public Library, where you are both employed, walked toward the nearest tree and embraced it.
If you had made it early and were in your car in the parking lot – perhaps eating breakfast or listening to the radio – and you’d witnessed Kwame embracing the tree, you might consider him insane. But he is considering something else: that the first time he’d embraced a tree, he was a lesser man. He was jobless: he had been let go from his former job. He was homeless: he could no longer afford rent and spent his nights at a shelter. He was aimless: he walked upon arising from the shelter and then walked some more, without any destination. He was faithless: he no longer believed in the job he was fired from, even though he had spent years of his energy and efforts believing otherwise. The institution he worked for, a law firm, was a large part of who he saw himself to be, and he regarded himself as an integral part of it. The firm, however, had seen money as an integral part of who they were, and Kwame wasn’t cutting it, and so they cut him.
If you noticed Kwame walking the streets back then, you would simply see him as a man walking about, looking lost and forlorn, taking in his surroundings. Salvation wasn’t in his former job, but in looking at birds that hopped upon the grass, in looking at squirrels that hustled upon the ground and on trees, in looking at the large geese that ambled about, chicks in tow; even in looking at the earthworms that wriggled on the pavements. Kwame found a sound measure of peace and on one of these aimless walks, he felt exceedingly grateful and walked over to the nearest tree, deeply moved, and embraced it. Life resonated, pure and essential, and every day since, Kwame Abara has never failed to daily embrace a tree. All throughout his daily walks, his time spent volunteering, his return to and progression through school and his return to employment, trees – lush and leafless, thin and thick – have been warmly embraced by Kwame. He was, he wrote in a journal, a lesser man now, stripped of unimportant extraneous frills, concerned now only with living and giving, as trees live and give. Now Branch Librarian at Stouffville Public Library, Kwame found a way to make his concern a calling. You recall, indeed, that a library patron once referred to him as the Olive-Branch librarian.
Let’s go back to Kwame at the library. As he enters it, all lights are off and all blinds are drawn over all the large windows. No one is present; stillness pervades the building and Kwame settles in the central seating area to prepare himself for the day. If another colleague were to mention they did “morning preparations”, you may say: ah yes, morning preparations – paperwork, responding to correspondence and organizing one’s desk. Kwame, however, views it as preparing himself, organizing his mind and not, so much, his desk. Pulling out his journal, he looks at the notes he wrote to himself during his period of Earth-connection, that time of revelation that caused him to describe himself, in his journal, as a lesser man. He starts to read. You, one of his colleagues, would not be aware of your Branch Librarian’s morning routine. If you were, you’d consider Kwame a self-indulgent person, either too full of himself or with too much time on his hands – or both. Kwame, though, is considering the idea that as much as he is doing this for himself, he is also doing for you, his colleagues and all library users.
As if on cue upon the thought, the library’s entrance opens and one of your colleagues comes in. She is the first of many to come with the same disposition: the harried entrance, bewildered smile and the too-quick “Good Morning” before entering the staff room to set down her things and gather her paging radio and name pin. In her wake is the preparation of family breakfast, packing of lunches for kids, rousing those very kids then driving them to school, all before rejoining traffic to get to work before 9:00 AM. More colleagues trickle in and after a brief morning meeting, Stouffville Public Library opens its doors to the public.
Hustle and harry continue; not customers’ nicknames but customers’ states. Harried parents with boisterous children, furrowed-browed students with looming deadline dates. Parents are relieved by the library’s Storytime sessions and activities, while students believe their relief will come in the careers that await them at the end of their studies. Kwame, watching the students scuttle for available tables and study spaces, recognizes himself – his past self – in them. More patrons, newcomers to the country, use the computers for job hunting, each posting seemingly promising a new life different from the ones they left in their previous lands. If they perused the shelves beyond the screens, though, these patrons would see that the worlds they left behind are closer than they thought: in books about war, the tumultuous creation of nations, the proliferation of different ideologies and the ever-occurring messes, mayhem and murder that result. They will find books on the steady, simultaneous industrialization and destruction of the planet, the dislike people have for one another, the luxuriance of material possessions in one part of the world and the lack of them in another. Or, for quick summaries, they just have to view the news playing on the library’s television screen in the lobby or read the headlines from the various newspapers that the library subscribes to for customers to use. The latter requires a wait, however: people, seniors specifically, sit with the newspapers for hours, poring over the reports. Kwame isn’t as advanced in age as they, but he is mature enough to know that people, especially at older ages, shouldn’t concern themselves with the drama of the world anymore. It is a world in pieces; let there be interest, instead, in a world in peace.
Kwame will on occasion say that out loud, and this morning you are next to him at the library’s front desk.
“Why get caught up in the world?” he says, out of nowhere.
As you check in items, you wait for him to go on, but he says nothing more. He walks away. As if by magical, conspiratorial coincidence, one of the books you are checking in is titled “Mindful Methods for Making the Planet a Better Place.” There is a Staff Picks sticker signed by Kwame on the front cover. As you wheel the completed checked-in items on a book cart to be shelved, you ponder: is Kwame making the Planet a Better World? You open the book to a random page and read a random sentence: “to contribute to the world, it is necessary to view it from a state of detachment.” You smile wryly. If anyone is detached from the world, it’s the tree hugger.
There are a couple events taking place in the library today. In the meeting room, a speaker is giving a lecture to a rapt, attentive audience. His appearance, indeed, invites attention: he is dressed in swaddling clothes, he has a long, flowing gray beard and the smoothest skin of dark brown you have ever seen. His English is accented and expertly rendered. He speaks authoritatively and laughs as he makes sardonic remarks. You pause at the door to listen in:
“Exuberance of life can only be possible if you have absolute stability.”
“Do not try to fix whatever comes in your life; instead, fix yourself in such a way that whatever comes, you will be fine.”
The audience takes in the speaker’s words with an intensity you haven’t seen since university, when exams were nearing and students were fearing. In another way, people here are still being tested, and people are still desperate to pass.
“If you were to ask a tree how she feels to know that she’s sharing her fragrance and making people alive and happy, she doesn’t look at it that way. It is simply her nature to be that way.”
There’s a lot of love for trees today, you think to yourself, smiling a smile that, even though you don’t see it, feels like the smile Kwame would make. You realize that Kwame must have arranged for this bearded wise man to speak at the library. You search for him to commend him, and as you do you understand that the question you earlier posed to yourself – has Kwame contributed to the world? – has just been answered. Where, though, is the Librarian?
You don’t look in the library’s lobby, and that’s where he is. He has been conversing with a patron who was earlier poring over a textbook inside. Kwame has discovered the student majors in Political Science at university. It wasn’t even hard to guess: the student has furrowed brows as he speaks with conviction and blind idealism, dissatisfaction and outrage. Kwame is reminded of himself, again. The Breaking News on the television above the lobby doorway distracts both parties from their conversation. Breaking News from a broken land: two boys, playing on a beach, killed by crossfire in the Middle East.
“There shouldn’t be children playing on a beach when there’s a war going on,” says the student.
“There shouldn’t be a war going on when there’s children playing on a beach,” Kwame responds.
The student is silent, looking at Kwame as if the librarian has uttered something ridiculous. He smiles tightly and goes back to his textbooks. Such blind acceptance of the policies of the world and the complications of human conflict. Kwame recalls a statement by Nietzsche: “Time is a flat circle.” It was one of the few insights from university that has stuck with Kwame; he hopes the student will stick with less. As a librarian, Kwame is aware he’s perpetuating policies gained in university, but short of checking out from society and checking into the wild, one would be hard-pressed to evade said society. What one must do, then, is usher in compassion and empathy where one can; it need not be as palpable as via the government of a nation, but instead in the moments of one’s life, through what one does. Kwame has prioritized bringing in speakers such as the gray-bearded man to speak at the library, he has reserved a space for daily meditation for patrons, he has scheduled regular conversation circles for newcomers and the lonely, he has hosted documentary screenings in the meeting room, and he has included carefully curated media into his library’s collection. He has also emphasized the best that the library has to offer: research databases for a wide variety of areas, language-learning software for easy instruction and smartphone apps for those preferring mobile endorsement.
Despite these, Kwame’s best contribution, were you to ask him, is his conversation and exchanges with fellow colleagues and patrons. He has, over time at Stouffville, learned the geography of their lives: what they and their children, family and friends like to read, what they do, where they have been or plan to travel to, their careers, academic paths, daily concerns, routines, routes, revelries. He knows of deep struggle revealed only through brief mention in a single sentence. It is enough; he does not need to know an excessive amount, just enough so that he might touch upon a person’s life without burdening them with interfacing. For everyone so far, it is indeed enough, because in that encounter they perceive empathy that is seldom found among those even more closely knotted up in their lives. As such a patron had said: the Olive-Branch Librarian.
If you consider checking items in and out to be mundane, you’d find other tasks in the library’s operations even more so. But, in the same mindful way that he inhabits his interactions with the patrons as they check their items in or out, Kwame inhabits moving from one end of his workspace to another in order to get a rubber band, or to write down a number for a cart to be shelved, or to find a colleague without choosing to radio him or her. Purpose, Kwame finds, is in these otherwise-considered trivial pursuits because they are purposes in themselves, as well as part of the larger purpose of library operation. Kwame, within these moments, affirms inner equilibrium; or equilibrarian as he likes to call it.
At the end of the workday, library staff exit with the same bustle as they did when they entered that morning. Kids wait at home for dinner, there is traffic to avoid, errands to tend to. Only Kwame remains, and another workday begins for custodial staff when they come in.
Kwame engages in conversation with the small family of three: a man, woman and their son. Their English is not fluent, which might have made for an awkward interaction, but Kwame finds them a pleasure to relate to regardless: they’re courteous, humble and the greetings they offer and whatever they say are felt by Kwame as genuine. Language, to Kwame, is a luxury if you fluently speak one; those who don’t suffer when faced with an unfamiliar tongue. As the child of Yoruba-speaking parents, he would know.
Custodians are hardly given proper appreciation, at least not in the places Kwame has worked or previously stepped in. Behind closed doors at the end of a business day, custodians all over the world ensure pleasant operation of spaces and thoroughfares by seeing to the pristine state of these spaces, helping folks to focus in a valuable way. Who hasn’t made a major decision while in a washroom stall? From those decisions, whole lifestyles have been started. Some folk go into the stalls to shed tears, or to recompose themselves, or to catch their breath during stressful times. Many go to simply be alone with their thoughts. Upon exiting the stall, they will face the mirror and affirm their validity as a person in the world. “You are powerful,” they might whisper, sizing themselves up as they look upon their reflection, acquiring a countenance of courage. It is sometimes all they need to return to the situation they had to take a breather from – the difficulty of work, a conflict in relationship, a private pain – a situation trying enough for them to exit the world for a few moments. How much greater would their discouragement be if the mirrors in their space of refuge were stained or hard to see clearly on? How dismayed would they be at unclean stalls, that they cannot even have the small mercy of a private moment in a private space? How many more decisions would be delayed – and therefore lives held back – if those bathroom stalls caused aversion and dismay? Custodians not only make spaces clean, they help make slates clean.
The library, also, is like a clean slate at the end of the workday, after staff have left and the custodians are gone. Kwame gathers wayward items on his desk, arranges them neatly and goes to the central lounge. He sits and closes his eyes, inhales then exhales at length. Reopening his eyes, he looks around him, watching the books on the shelves, the ceilings high overhead, the signage displays, the pathways of the different aisles. He sees a spider slowly descend from a light, tiny dust particles are floating in the air. It is as if everything is now brimming with a pristine light, having emerged from under a haze that rendered everything only partially perceptible and indeed, only partially existing. It is almost too much for Kwame to bear. His mind quiets in an instant; his body as a whole, it seems, breathes deeply. There is a sensation that he is lessening as a physical body and merging with the air, merging with this institution he works for and with the very wind he feels when he leaves for the night. He is the lesser man, now part of a Whole.