Stepping on Glass

A young man was walking to the village when he stepped on glass. It cut him and stuck in his heel, causing him pain. It hurt and he bled. He pulled out the glass, then turned back to hobble home where he cleaned the wound and wrapped it in linen. He remained off his feet for several days while it healed. Stepping on glass was so upsetting that he remained inside for many years, thoroughly sweeping his floor three times a day, fearful of ever stepping on anything ever again.

In those years inside his tiny cottage, as his hair grew thinner and grayer and his face more gaunt and sickly, he had little to do but ruminate on how perilous the world is for having broken glass on the road. He ruminated over the memory of that pain, since he had little else to ruminate about. And he found it tempting – a temptation he gave into from boredom – to elevate that memory of mere pain to one of suffering, for suffering made him feel more noble than having merely encountered and endured pain. It made the experience of stepping on that glass far more grand, even close to mystical.

And he found in his solitude a nagging, dull and chronic anxiety that he mostly attributed to that injury from years before. He told himself that if his anxiety had lingered for so many years, then stepping on glass must have, in fact, been far more traumatic than having simply been injured. The trauma had, after all, produced that persistent anxiety that he couldn’t easily expel. This anxiety was, then, a nagging form of prolonged suffering, he concluded, and, through all this, convinced himself that such a hostile and callous place as the world of broken glass was one to be avoided and that men who willfully subjected themselves to the dangers of broken glass were fools.

But, over time, vilifying glass alone became dull, so he then began ruminating over the perils of nails and the potential of things falling on his head from above. He deduced that he could easily be struck by lighting or walloped by a falling limb. He noted how those things certainly happened. He could be bitten by poisonous spiders or snakes. Or he could even step in holes hiding in shadows with appetites for twisting ankles and breaking legs.

Through his window, the Inside Man had, for many years, seen another man wandering in and out of the forest that lay beyond the brook. Some days he caught this man stealing glances of his cottage. Then, one day – on a humid, July afternoon- this wanderer waved from across the brook to Inside Man, beckoning him to come outside. The Inside Man reluctantly stepped to his door. The man from the forest crossed the stream and approached the cottage, stopping at the foot of its porch.

The Outside Man introduce himself by name, then said, “Friend, why not come out for some fresh air and sunlight today? It’s beautiful and much cooler in the shadows of the forest. But you probably know that already.”

The Inside Man stood barefoot in his doorway. As before, he noted by way of dress that this man on the outside was likely of the trades class. He’d noted the workman style of hat and pants and shirt and, in the cooler months, his workman’s overcoat. He’d noticed all that from his window before, but only in generalities. But this day the man stood before him in particulars that the Inside Man still paid little attention to. Maybe he’d seen him in the same shirt and hat every time. Or maybe not. But neither seemed of any importance to him then or now.

“Can you feel the breeze?” the man on the outside asked.

The barefoot man in his doorway replied that though the air and sunlight outside may feel better, they are composed of the same thing, whether indoors or out and pretending otherwise is simple romanticism.

The man outside stood, saying nothing. The Inside Man presumed him dumbstruck, offended or maybe confused.

Sensing he may have vexed the man outside, the man in the doorway added, “I went out there once and stepped on glass. I don’t go out much any more.”

“Did you get the fever?” the Outside Man asked. “I stepped on a mean thorn once and got the fever. I couldn’t eat. I lay in bed trembling and sweating for a week. My leg swelled up to the knee and turned all shades of red and purple. There was some talk I might lose it but the doctor made it alright. I can walk just fine now.”

The Inside Man just stared, then replied, “No. I didn’t get the fever.”

The Outside Man looked at the bare feet of the man standing in the doorway.

“Then surely you got shoes after stepping on glass?” he asked.

“No,” the man in the doorway replied.

“After that I got shoes,” the Outside Man said. “See these?” The man gestured to his shoes by looking at them. They were brown, pointed, flat and well-worn. The wrinkled leather made them look soft and comfortable.

He lifted a foot to show the bottom to the man in the doorway. “I’ll be needing a new pair soon,” he added. “Soles are getting quite worn.”

The Indoor Man was already growing weary of this man’s talk of shoes and the weather. If ever drawn out, he’d have hoped for far more from what had been this enigmatic character traipsing in and out of the woods like some mythical woodland creature.

“We can walk to the village and get you some shoes,” the Outside Man said. “I know the cobbler. He’s an honest man and makes good shoes. I can see about getting these fixed or buying a new pair for myself too.”

“Thanks,” the Inside Man replied. “But I don’t need shoes. I only step out to pick up my letters. And I’m very careful to look about for sharp things.”

The man from the forest nodded. The sun hung above the cottage and shone in his face. The Outside Man removed his hat, pulled a rag from his pocked and wiped his bald head.

“If you don’t come outside, then how do you eat?” he asked.

“A boy brings me food. But he can’t come inside. Lord knows what he might track in.”

“If you don’t come outside, then what do you do?”

To the man in the doorway, it seemed presumptuous, perhaps even rude, to ask such straightforward questions of things quite personal, especially of someone he’d just met. But he sensed nothing sinister to the man’s queries. He attributed it to a lack of culture or social grace that he could easily enough placate.

“I read and think and write letters,” he said.

The man outside put his hat back on and stuffed the rag back in his pocket. “Think and write about what?”

“The world,” he said. “About how cruel it is and how it causes men pain and suffering. How it offers men a bottomless cornucopia of discomforts and discontents that keep him in a state of constant anxiety and misery. Sometimes he feels it. Sometimes he doesn’t. But it’s always there whether he chooses to ignore it or not.”

The man outside looked to the sun and squinted. He shaded his eyes by holding his hand before the sun. “Suffering and misery? Constant? How?”

“There is broken glass in the world. Or, I suppose in your case, perilous thorns. We step on them. We are cut or punctured. We bleed. We suffer.”

“It wasn’t good but I’d hardly call it suffering,” the man outside said. “I mean, I wouldn’t want to repeat it. That’s why I got shoes. But I’ve hardly thought I suffered.”

The Inside Man thought maybe he was too stupid to understand the metaphor. And maybe too dumb or his spirit too chronically intoxicated to understand his own incessant misery.

Unfortunate, the Indoor Man said to himself. For the man aware of the burden of his suffering is at least a martyr. He who is unaware of his suffering has only his suffering.

Then the man outside asked, “So who do you write letters to? A woman?”

This Outside Man is strangely shameless in being forward, the inside one thought.

“No. I write to my friend who was bitten by a dog once. We write about our suffering. We write about men’s suffering and what to do about it.” He failed to say that his friend only sometimes writes back and even when he does, his letters are far less voluminous than his own.

“I hope he didn’t get rabies,” the Outside Man said. “But if he did, I suppose he’d be dead.”

“No. Not rabies but maybe worse. Now he’s deathly afraid of dogs. He’s deathly afraid of anything that can bite.”

The man outside, still holding his hand against the sun, blinked, then kicked a pine cone.

“We could walk to town for your shoes,” he said. “If you don’t have the money, I can help you. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. And we can stop for a drink. We can stop to play some games or listen to some jokes or music. There’s a fellow at the tavern who tells fantastic stories.”

The Inside Man decided his companion must be desperately lonely.

“Thank you, but no. I’ve got the money. I simply don’t need the shoes or the amusements,” the Inside Man said.

“There are beautiful women in the village,” the Outside Man said.

By the Inside Man’s estimate, both men were of nearly the same age. The man outside showed his age with baldness and a weathered, sagging but slender face. He could see now that this man was once comely and his eyes still looked kind.

Perhaps he’s not lost all of his vanity yet, the Inside Man thought. That’s the curse of the common man. Always in search of vain and tawdry pleasures.

“Aren’t we both a little old for beautiful women? Isn’t it a bit lewd and lecherous for men our age to be leering at the nubile young lasses?” the Inside Man asked.

The Outside Man shoved his hands in his pockets, thought for a moment, then said, “What you call lewd I call an acknowledgement of beauty. There’s beauty in nature’s sunsets as well as the female form that nature also created. A woman’s beauty may no longer be for the carnal pleasures of men like us. Our time for that may have passed. But there’s no reason to resent their beauty. It still stands as a great work of nature’s art, if only to be appreciated like the sea or a mountain or the sunset – from a distance.”

What an excuse, the man in the doorway thought.

“I don’t resent their beauty,” he said. “I can even acknowledge it.”

“Yes. Maybe resent is too strong. Do you dismiss their beauty, then? Dismiss it like the weather?”

The man in the doorway stood silent for a moment, thinking about something other than the Outside Man’s question.

“So your lust is gone?” he asked. “That seems to me pitiable,”

The man took a hand from his pocket to shield his face from the sun again.

“I have seen drawings of the statues of Venus de Milo and Michelangelo’s David. Have you see the drawings?” he asked. “There’s even a photograph of David in the library.”

“No,” the barefoot man said. “But I’ve heard of them as great works of art.”

“Yes. I’ve heard the same. And I try to imagine the sculptures from the drawings and the photograph but I cannot. I can only imagine the true shape and form and the grandeur of the real work from a flat representation on paper. Have you seen either the sculptures themselves or representations of them in books?”

“No. But what’s your point?” the barefoot man asked. He was tiring of the commoner’s rambling. He had a pipe to smoke, a letter to write and man’s suffering to think about.

The Outside Man continued, “I should think now, at my age, I would rather see the masterpieces than lay with a woman. Not women in general, but any woman in particular that I might attain for a night at my age. Of course, in my youth, I would have chosen otherwise. But I don’t think so today. I have known a woman’s body enough to know what it’s like, which can be wonderful. But I know the masterpieces only through books. I am not as educated a man as maybe you – one who ponders the meaning of man’s life and suffering – are, but maybe there is some idea about Plato’s ideal forms in this way of feeling about the masterpieces. I’ve heard of that but I don’t know.”

The cynical, barefoot man smirked at his perception of his companion’s loftiness and pretension. Comparing your experience to Plato?, he thought. But the shoeless man’s smugness prevented him from realizing that his companion wasn’t comparing himself to Plato, only comparing his experience to something described by the eminent sage.

And all the while, even without the smirk, the Outside Man felt a growing shame at his vainglory, so, in the eyes of himself and the man he had addressed. he tried pulling himself back to earth.

“I find the fox to be a magnificent creature too. Sometimes I see a fox in the forest. And I’ve seen the vicious badger, though I keep my distance. Have you seen either in all these years of living near the forest?”

“No. I’ve seen them only in the books of children’s stories from my school days” the barefoot man said. “But I do not spend many an hours looking at the forest. I spend most of my days at my desk.”

“Well, the fox probably only comes out of the forest at night,” the Outside Man mused. “You should really see a fox though. No matter how great the artist, no drawing or painting or etching can’t do him justice.”

The man in the doorway wondered how many great works of art the man from the forest has ever seen. No more than himself, he imagined.

“There are at least books in the village library with drawing of foxes and badgers. Have you seen them?”

“No. As I said, just in children’s books.”

“My mistake,” the Outside Man said. “The books in the library don’t do the fox justice but they’re still delightful. They do wonders for the imagination.”

The imagination of a dolt daydreaming about foxes? The Inside Man thought.

The Inside Man went on to explain he hasn’t had the wind for a long walk to the village in many years. And that was likely true since he’d been living off the smoke from his oil lamp and tobacco pipe in all his years of thinking and writing. He added that his legs are weak, to which the man outside replied that to walk would strengthen them.

The Inside Man defended that he didn’t enjoy the merriment of most other men. And he found much of their public behavior abhorable, especially when drunk.

“Drunken men too often misbehave,” he said. “And they are often insulting.”

“We all misbehave,” the man outside said with a laugh. “That’s part of the fun. We can allow ourselves that from time to time. But in allowing it for ourselves, to be fair, we must allow it in others.”

The man in the door found all this fanciful talk in prophetic verse distasteful, especially coming from a commoner. He was feeling off-put by the man’s lofty pretension.

“I see you out there wandering around the forest,” the Inside Man said. “I’ve seen you for many years.”

“And I sometimes see you there in your cottage,” the Outside Man said.

“You aren’t spying on me from the forest?” he asked in jest.

“No. I see things and sometimes they make me curious,” he said. “Things in the forest. Things in the village. Things in books and elsewhere.”

Again, the Inside Man couldn’t tell if his companion was naively simple or attempting to be coyly profound.

The barefoot man wondered what sort of curiosity he roused within this peasant. He wondered if it was the good kind or the bad kind, so he asked.

“From outside, you have seen me in my home. Have you imagined me as good or bad? Interesting or dull?” What he really wanted to know was whether the Outside Man had assessed him as a genius or a lunatic.

“Neither,” the Outside Man replied. “I suppose I’m finding out a bit about that now.”

“And your conclusion?”

“It’s far too early to judge,” the man outside replied. “It takes a lifetime to get to know a man. And even then, you never know him wholly. I suppose that includes trying to know yourself.”

More lofty pretense, the Indoor Man thought.

The man outside went on. “I suppose you’re curious because I might give you a novel perspective on yourself but I’ve discovered there’s something in giving yourself the perspective of looking at yourself from the outside. It’s hard and it will never be perfect but seems to be something worthwhile.”

What utter conceit, the Inside Man thought. I entertain his silly ideas and all this talk about foxes and shoes and Plato and he never asks me a word about man’s suffering. What an ingrate.

The man outside smacked at a fly on his arm.

“I have questioned,” the Inside Man asked, “when you’re out there all alone, aren’t you afraid of poisonous snakes or falling limbs or lightning or pitfalls?”

“No,” the other man said. “I’m not afraid. I just stay on the lookout for them. And I have the sense to seek shelter at the coming of storms.”

What a fool, the Inside Man thought. Ignorant of the magnitude of all the dangers surrounding him.

“And, out here every day, what are you looking for?”

At that moment, it occurred to the Indoor Man that maybe this wanderer of the forest was the lunatic.

“Nothing specific,” he replied. “I just like to see things.”

“Then excuse me for being curt, but that does seem like a waste of the time you could give to something else.”

The man outside stood silent for a moment. While shielding the sun with his hand, he reached behind himself with the other, pulling a book from his back pocket. It was a small book with a pencil stuck between the pages.

“I sketch,” the Outside Man said. “I come to the forest to observe and sometimes sketch nature. Well, some days I do and some days I don’t. It’s my fanciful indulgence. It’s a bit embarrassing to talk about. Obviously, I’m no Leonardo. I’ve barely received any formal training so I have no illusions of being a real artist. And its from this embarrassment that I don’t draw in the village, though it’s overflowing with fanciful subjects, especially the people – big ears, fat noses, ridiculous styles – each one unique. Sometimes I try to etch a person into in my mind for drawing them later at night but I simply can’t capture enough of their detail that way. And I believe people see me staring and they think I am either a madman or simply sulking and melancholy. Sometimes they approach me to see if I am either mad or melancholy, I suppose, and it’s a bit of an annoyance when I’m trying to study some person or thing. But I indulge them kindly, for, as much as they may be trying to learn about me, there is always something to be learned from them as well.”

“So you’re an artist,” the barefoot man in the doorway said.

“No more than any child who can write is or isn’t Shakespeare by their shared ability to put word to paper.”

In truth, the Outside Man hated having to divulge his secret pleasure in defense of the perceived eccentricity.

He put the book back in his pocket.

“And why did you summon me out today, of all days?” the man in his doorway asked.

“Why not? Does it seem strange to summon a stranger? As I said, much of the village likely sees me as mad or melancholy. Why should I care what one more person thinks?”

They stood, neither one saying a word while the man outside still held his hand against the blaring sun.

“Then you don’t care for what I think about you?” the Indoor Man asked. “Is that why you’ve yet to ask what I think of you?”

Conceited, the Indoor Man thought. Pure conceit.

“Mostly,” the Outdoor Man replied. “Respectfully, it doesn’t concern me much.”

“And why don’t you care? Is my opinion of no value to you?”

“If I went by the judgement of you and everyone in the village I’d never know what I was. A madman? A melancholic? An artist? Something? Nothing? That’s all. My ambivalence is nothing against you, my friend. But if it makes you feel better to tell me, then by all means do.”

The Indoor Man stood there thinking. There seemed to be some folk wisdom and courage about this peasant but to admit much of it would, in turn, reflect poorly upon the Indoor Man. But it struck him as spiteful to demean the Outdoor Man simply because his way of being threatened the value of his own.

“I don’t know what to make of you,” the Inside Man concluded.

“That’s fine,” the man outside replied. “I don’t know what to make of me either, and that seems fine too.”

The Outside Man removed his hat again, exposing his bald head.

“Sure you won’t come out? We can walk and talk about your ideas of the suffering of men. Or of foxes or badgers. Or sketching.”

The man in the doorway had already surmised the man outside too dull-witted to comprehend his ideas about man’s suffering. And to discuss foxes or sketching would be to indulge the boring musings of a man with nothing better to do than wander around a forest sketching for no good reason or stagnating in the village trying to forget the pointlessness of all his wandering with trivial distractions.

“I can’t. I don’t have shoes,” the man in the doorway said.

“You can try mine. I showed you they’re worn but, if they fit, you can wear them back and forth to the village so you can get fitted.”

“What will you wear?”

“I can go barefoot just this once. It think it will be fine.”

The barefoot man stood in his doorway thinking some more. He knew in his heart he didn’t want to go. And he felt he shouldn’t get too close to a fool who’d almost lost a leg to walking barefoot and was still ready to offer up his shoes. Ties with such an imbecile could only lead to trouble.

“They’ll think you’re peculiar walking into town without shoes.”

“I think they already believe me to be peculiar.”

Still, the Inside Man didn’t want to go.

“I don’t think that would be right, you walking to town without shoes. You might step on glass like I did. Or another thorn. You’ve had enough hardship.”

So the Inside Man politely declined, waving off the Outside Man with a false smile and a half-hearted thanks for their introduction. He closed the door, walked across his tidy floor, took a seat at his desk and lit his pipe. He failed to tell the Outside Man that is wasn’t only the glass he feared, it was also the village’s ridicule at his fear of broken glass.

The Inside Man puffed his sweet tobacco and began to think. First, he took some pleasure in knowing he hadn’t allowed the Outside Man to risk stepping on glass or thorns, though there was a benefit for the Indoor Man had he allowed it. The Indoor Man decided he’d forsaken shoes to keep the other one from jeopardizing himself.

Then he thought about all the talk he had heard about the simple pleasures of sunlight on one’s skin, of snow, of the smell of flowers and of the pleasing spectacle of the interplay between flora and fauna. But the man inside again rejected these as trite distractions from the grave and stark realities that could befall the man outside. He believed the man outside to be full of disillusion and suppressed anxiety, knowing but ignoring how he could be struck dead by a falling limb at any moment. He told himself the Outside Man ignores and suppresses his anxious inner reality with mindless walks and the frivolous sights and scents of nature. He elevates those nothings into somethings just to feel anything other than his anxiety. He suppresses and ignores and displaces it with games of chance and laughter and intoxication. The man inside considered himself the wiser for staying indoors, mostly free of the anxiety, conscious or not, of being struck by lighting or walloped by falling limbs.

Some say it takes wisdom to step outside. Others say it takes courage. Or maybe it takes both.

The Inside Man says it takes wisdom to stay inside. It even takes discipline to not be lured from his sanctuary of the mind and soul by all the follies and temptations of spiteful Nature. He says it is the greatest virtue to contemplate the reality of the dangers of Nature that others ignore in favor of the petty distractions of the birds and the bees.

The man inside tells himself there is no great virtue to wearing shoes or any exemplary courage in stepping outside. In his solipsism, he forgets that the man outside never made those claims.

Sometimes he sees the Outside Man still wandering around the forest. He assumes the man outside has yet to be recognized for his art, since he is still wandering in the forest instead of spending his days lapping the praise of the village. Sometimes the Outside Man looks toward the cottage and waves to the one inside. The man inside always returns the gesture even though the Outside Man has never returned to the foot of his porch.

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