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29 April 2016 @ 02:07 pm
LJ Idol Friends & Rivals: "Tranquility"  
Tranquility
idol friends and rivals | week 20, #2 | 1816 words
Immanentize the eschaton! (Heaven on Earth)

x-x-x-x-x

I had lost so much by the time I first saw the posters:

Tranquility: An Experiment of the Soul

I'd been laid off a few months before, and the job-search had produced nothing—not even temporary low-paying work, where the wages plus a roommate could cover the rent. Right now, the rent was overdue, the eviction notice was on my door, and I had no friends or family to fall back on.

Maybe a little soul-searching was in order. What could it hurt?

I mailed notice on my apartment to my landlord (the cowardly choice, but it saved arguing about unpaid rent). I had clothes, books, CDs, and a hockey trophy from high school, but that was all. My whole life fit into three boxes. A guy from my old office let me stash them in his garage.

Bring nothing, the instructions for Tranquility said. I took a toothbrush and a comb, just in case. Two trains and a rural bus later, I was standing at Tranquility's front gate.

A brown-haired bearded man opened it. "Welcome," he said. "Have you come to join us?"

"Yes," I said. "I'm here to take part in your, uh, experiment."

"Excellent!" he said. "My name is Jacob. Come in, and I'll have Connie give you the tour."

The grounds were more beautiful than anything I'd ever seen that wasn't in a movie. Green plants, winding paths, soothing fountains. I breathed in the fresh, sweet air, already feeling calmer. Some part of me had needed this, maybe for a long time.

My room was small, just a bed, a chair, and a small desk, but it was clean and had everything I needed. There were clothes draped over the chair, a plain tunic and a lightweight pair of pants. I changed into them, and Connie showed me the bathrooms, the dining hall, and the chapel.

"I'm sure you'll be very happy here," she said.

"I'm sure you're right. Thank you for having me."

I looked around the room after she left, wondering what I'd gotten myself into. With the travel and weeks of stress, I was suddenly so tired that I lay down on the bed and slept until it was time for dinner.

I familiarized myself with the people and routines over the next few days. The food was good, especially the fruit—delicious. There was fresh-baked bread at every meal, and often fish or meat. It was simple food, but wholesome. I had been hungry those last couple of months, and the change was much appreciated.

There were daily prayer meetings and services for those who wished, offered in a variety of faiths. I attended a few, briefly considering Buddhism but ultimately returning to the Methodism of my childhood. Mornings, I prayed and walked through the garden. Afternoons, I sat under a tree and meditated as best I could. I became so relaxed, it was a struggle to stay awake.

After a couple of weeks, I went looking for something to read. At first, I thought I was mishearing the woman in the library, but in fact, I was not.

"Books? Oh my, no—we don't keep books. We offer the holy writings of many, many prophets and religions, for inspiration. But we've found that ordinary books are too much of a distraction for our members."

Well. I guess I should have known.

Soon afterward, I noticed I seemed to be having the same conversations day after day, the same empty uplifting platitudes:

This garden is just lovely.

It is such blessed day.

His love is everywhere.

Peace be with you.

I tried to inject something new. "This weather sure makes me want to go to a ball game," I told Alvin.

He gave me a blank look. "Oh," he said. "Gosh, I haven't thought about baseball in ages. I kind of left that behind when I came here. It all seems so unimportant now…"

I saw Helen out in the garden the next day. "So, do you think we'll get some rain soon?"

"No," she said. "It never rains here."

Why hadn't I noticed that? She was right—every day was the same, clear and sunny and warm. It never changed.

Kind of like time was standing still. It was a little unsettling.

I'd loved the food when I first got here, but it never changed either. It was nutritious, and I certainly felt good, but at the same time… after three weeks of that, I would practically murder for a French fry.

I asked Jacob about it at dinner.

"We only eat good things here," he said. "A healthy body leads to a healthy soul!"

"What about chocolate? Or popcorn? I've been here for weeks, and I haven't seen either of those. Where would I find them?"

"Oh, we don’t allow contraband here."

Contraband? Seriously?

"But…don't you miss it?" I said.

Jacob shrugged. "Not really."

Meditation was harder for the next few days. I wandered aimlessly through the garden, too edgy to sit still. I'd realized what this place was, in essence:

I'd consigned myself to a monastery.

Sure, it was more laid-back and less austere, but I could do the math. Spiritual focus + self-denial + simplicity + quiet contemplation? Yep, that was basically a monastery.

Crap.

Well, it hadn't all been bad. I'd gotten some rest and I was definitely less stressed. I'd had food and a place to sleep, all rent-free. Maybe I could handle it the lifestyle that came with it—everyone else seemed to be doing okay.

I threw myself back into the routine I'd followed at the beginning—prayer, reflection, and meditation. I focused on peace and serenity, on letting go of the desire for things I didn't actually need. It went pretty well, considering I wasn't really the "rest and reflect" type.

But the people—with their glassy eyes and Stepford smiles—that part was just too weird.

No one ever seemed to get angry or worried or excited, and laughter was rare. Maybe they were truly all living in a state of inner peace? Or maybe they were all robots, and this was a test to see if anyone would notice? The more I thought about it, the creepier it got.

One morning, I decided I'd had enough.

I went to the front office. "Hi," I said. "How do I go about checking myself out?"

The woman on duty stared at me. "This isn't a hotel."

"Oh. So in that case, I can just walk out the front gate?"

"Well, no," she said. "When you arrived, you agreed to be part of the experiment, and you've hardly been here a month. That's much too soon."

"So, I'm a quitter," I shrugged. "I can live with that. Good enough?"

"I don't think so. Let me ask Jacob."

By then, I was wishing I had just grabbed my things and left, though I hadn't seen my street clothes since the first day. That probably should have tipped me off.

"Hello, Ben," Jacob said. "Sherry tells me you're having some difficulty adjusting."

"Well, it isn't that—I just want to leave. I've enjoyed my time here, but I've realized it's not for me."

"That may be, but you still have to abide by the terms of the agreement," Jacob said. "This is a long-term experiment, after all. Some of our members have been here for years."

"Years?" I said. God, how horrifying. Maybe that was why so many of them seemed like their heads were in the clouds—this place had driven them crazy.

"I'm sure you'll adjust," Jacob added. "Just give it time."

I went back to my room, wondering how much longer I could stand this place before I wound up climbing the walls—maybe literally. At dinner, everyone looked at me strangely, like they knew I wanted to bolt.

"Smile, and rejoice!" someone said as I left the dining hall.

About what? About being a prisoner in someone else's Nirvana?

Everywhere I went for the next four days, people urged me to smile. I must have been scowling as much as Scrooge at Christmas, but I wasn't like them, this group of plastic people who were never affected by anything. Maybe they'd always been that way.

I wandered to the corners of the garden, finding places hardly anyone else ever seemed to go. The beauty of the place seemed different now, Disney-like, artificial. My perspective might have been affected by my mood, but so what? I was starting to resent everything about Tranquility, including its perfection.

On the way back toward the main building at dinnertime, I spotted a robin in a tree. I thought about catching it and roasting it, just to experience something different—something forbidden. Which was sick, really.

One of the directors coming from the opposite direction looked at me nervously, as if he knew what I was thinking.

Boy, this place was really getting to me.

While walking around that day, I'd gone toward the edges of the grounds, trying to discover other entrances or exits. I didn't see anything, though. The front gate seemed to be the only way in or out. No wonder they kept someone assigned to it.

By then, I was long past caring.

I lay in bed, waiting until the moon crossed the middle of the sky. Then I got up and crept out of my room, real clothes be damned. I could replace them a lot easier than my sanity.

Quiet as I was, somehow Jacob was in the shadows next to the gate.

"I thought you might try something like this," he said. "Is it really so terrible here?"

"It is if you don't want to be here. I don't. So please let me through."

"Ben, please think about this for a moment. If you leave, it will interfere with the experiment."

I took a deep breath and tried to stay calm. "Or not. You can count me as a 'No'—that's definitely a data point. Look, nobody has to get hurt here, right? But I'll do it, if that's what it takes to get me out. So, let's not make this harder than it has to be."

Maybe Jacob was persuaded by that—or he gave up—but either way, he decided to let me go. Once I was out, I walked for miles toward what I hoped was the nearest town. I'd hitchhike from there, if I had to. Anything to get home, even if there was nothing but a few boxes waiting for me at the other end.

I must have been the first guy ever to bust out of heaven. Seriously, who else would do something as stupid as that?

Maybe I was a complete idiot. Or maybe I needed more time to evolve, or something. But whatever the reason, hey, if that was heaven?

Well. I sure as hell wasn't ready.


--/--

If you enjoyed this story, you can vote for it along with other fine entries here.

 
 
 
Lisameridian_rose on April 30th, 2016 04:39 pm (UTC)
If you can't get beer, steak, chocolate RUN AWAY! (meat is usually forbidden for those who conflate spirituality with bodily purity so it surprised me that meat and fish were allowed)
With no conflict, no change, with "perfection", what is there to do, to learn, to strive for? Life becomes meaningless and I think you illustrate that perfectly. It's one thing to choose to try and be happy, to be in the moment, and another to never let yourself be righteously angry or think about things in a different way.
But whatever the reason, hey, if that was heaven? Well. I sure as hell wasn't ready. Quite. Which makes it not heaven for them or many people, and why there are multiple ideas about the afterlife/otherworld :)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on May 1st, 2016 07:08 am (UTC)
Lack of chocolate alone should be reason enough to run!

I hadn't thought of the issue of meat, as this was intended to allow multiple faiths and some of them have no issue with meat (though non-vegetarians my find its absence harsh).

With no conflict, no change, with "perfection", what is there to do, to learn, to strive for?
You stagnate without change, and at that point you're not really "living" your life. You're inhabiting it, but you're not fully enjoying or risking it. Everything kind of flattens out.

and why there are multiple ideas about the afterlife/otherworld :)
Yes! Think of the vikings, with their Valhalla and constant afterlife battles. Not many other groups would want to share in THAT, nor would the Vikings be happy with a heaven of quiet comtemplation!
whipchickwhipchick on April 30th, 2016 09:23 pm (UTC)
What a cool concept!

What happened to the toothbrush and the comb?

I'd die of boredom in Utopia :)

The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on May 1st, 2016 07:11 am (UTC)
The toothbrush and comb were abandoned, just like the street clothes. Not worth worrying about in the larger drive to Get. Out.

I'd die of boredom in Utopia :)
Me too! I fear boredom so much that since about age 8, I've been the person who brings books along anytime I think I might have wait. My husband usually doesn't bother. Even though sometimes it is hours. Gah!
cindy: misc fictsuki_no_bara on May 1st, 2016 04:35 am (UTC)
there's some nice slow creep in this, and a bit of commentary about some people's idea of heaven. tranquility is peaceful and calm and healthy and pleasant and boring. i'd want to leave too.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on May 1st, 2016 07:15 am (UTC)
A lot of people's vision of heaven is definitely what I'd call boring. Of course, at that point, human conceptions of what is important may be irrelevant.

But in a regular on-Earth version, one person's tranquility is another's "Kill me now" experience. Great in the short term, but long term? You wouldn't even want to be conscious to experience it. :O
Pika the Brazen Ninjaporn_this_way on May 1st, 2016 09:11 am (UTC)
Busting out of heaven because it's boring as hell. This is most definitely a concept that speaks to me (can't imagine why :p )

Reminds me of the goofy jokes that are just like - if Hell's got all the scientists and rock stars, sign me up for that one plz! Not that this POV is even really a goofy joke. Sounds totally logical to me.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on May 1st, 2016 06:14 pm (UTC)
This is most definitely a concept that speaks to me (can't imagine why :p )
Hahahaha-- me too. Boredom is death. And imagine if that were an actual afterlife-- you'd want to sleep through it instead of having to experience the slow, creeping eternity of sameness. Urk.

kick_galvanic, zagzagael, skull_theatrebleodswean on May 1st, 2016 02:23 pm (UTC)
Wow, K! The pressure of writing two entries in one week and your initial dislike for the prompts really and truly pulled some amazing work out of you this go-round! This is just as wonderfully done as your other entry! I'm so impressed! You painted a strong visual with this "heaven" and kept your narrator in-character throughout. How can such tranquility be so boring and tedious??? Hee!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on May 1st, 2016 06:16 pm (UTC)
Oh, I hated those prompts. I kind of still do!

How can such tranquility be so boring and tedious???
Tranquility implies a lack of "bumps" to me-- which means a flatness of events. Even if the components of the flatness are objectively "nice" and desirable... geez, living like that for any length of time would really wear me down. If everything is stagnating and unchanging, then in a sense... aren't you already dead? I mean, in a heaven on earth, emulating that situation, who wants to show up for THAT?

Edited at 2016-05-01 06:17 pm (UTC)
rayasorayaso on May 1st, 2016 02:50 pm (UTC)
No chocolate? Clearly, this was heaven masquerading as hell. This was not my idea of a perfect life either, although it would be tempting as a "time out" from regular life, especially if I'd lost my job, apartment, etc. At least with this Utopia, it was possible to leave. It seems that your main character put his contemplative time to good use -- he found that he didn't want to be here! This was an excellent story, and I enjoyed the details, especially the library without any books except religious ones. This contrasts nicely with you other story, which is also about finding a "good place," but in a more immediate, survival sense. They make a great pair!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on May 1st, 2016 06:19 pm (UTC)
although it would be tempting as a "time out" from regular life, especially if I'd lost my job, apartment, etc.
Yes-- I can see this being a nice way to renew yourself and your energy on a temporary basis. As a retreat, it could be lovely.

But as an ongoing lifestyle? Good grief. Wake me when it's over!
prog_schlockprog_schlock on May 2nd, 2016 08:40 pm (UTC)
There was a comic in the 90's called Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children and one issue was titled "What if this were Heaven? Wouldn't that be Hell?" The title came to mind while reading this (though not the story). Everyone has a different idea of what an ideal place would be - some people love peace and tranquility, other people are driven crazy by it. Some people just want to shut their brains off for a while, others couldn't shut them off if they tried. The idea that there's a "one-size fits all" world out there for everyone is ludicrous and yet (I'm on a real sociopolitical kick today) that seems to be what a chunk of the world wants - for everyone just to be the same. They can't understand why what they like can't be what you like.

This was the best song Bowie recorded with Tin Machine. The idea that Heaven is personal comes out pretty clearly.

The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on May 3rd, 2016 12:26 am (UTC)
that seems to be what a chunk of the world wants - for everyone just to be the same.
I think that's true. And what's strange is that, because we are NOT all the same... why would we necessarily have the desires and dreams? The basics-- food, shelter, love-- are usually common. But the rest?

I sometimes think that the more intelligent you are, the more likely you are to hate boredom. Some people can endlessly amuse themselves inside their own minds, and some can let the thinking "float" for awhile (tri-state it into semi-off mode). But others? Not at all.

My sister seems to want really intelligent dogs, as if that's an important trait. Well. I've had really smart cats and less-smart cats, and basically I just want a loving animal who obeys the house rules.

The smarter the cat, the more likely it is to be dissatisfied with the "now" because it knows there are other possibilities. And whatever "this" is, it isn't that other thing. So, let's prowl and yowl and be generally annoying because of that. :O

No thanks!
prog_schlockprog_schlock on May 3rd, 2016 12:41 am (UTC)
Hahaha @ smart vs dumb cats

Our cats are smart in different ways. Toby is very empathetic and knows how we're feeling and responds perfectly to those feelings (she will be the first to snuggle when you're sad). Moose is cat-mart. He's the cattest cat we've ever had. If you need an example of how to cat, he's your cat.

BB is the "too smart for her own good" cat. She knows the time of day, she knows what state everything in the house should be in and she knows that if another cat is doing something she wants to do it too. We love her, but she's the one who gets locked out of the room on weekends for being a furry alarm clock. :D