Lying Flat in the Park
(A One Act Play)
[Lying Flat (tangping; 躺平) is a social movement happening now in response to China’s post-industrial period. The movement grows out of youth protest against a brutal work culture, often referred to 9-9-6, from 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week, by not participating in it. By “lying flat”, you are physically, literally, and metaphorically detaching yourself from the demands of late-stage capitalism. A fascinating synopsis can be found here. The following is a monologue, an introspective journey, flowing from thought to thought, on the exegesis of academia and the viability of its future through the act of Lying Flat, as our protagonist acknowledges the pain in his upper shoulders, in one act]
MANUEL, a loose anagram for the word “nameless”
ECHO, in the voice of MANUEL
SCENE: A park, populated by Querces and Magnolia trees, their leaves on the verge of turning brown, and a community center made of several buildings, enclosed in black iron gates. It is late in the afternoon, with the sun in position to set in several hours, surrounded by scattered clouds. The clouds are not lowering the temperature precipitously, but a light breeze is adding to the temperature drop. Manuel, often referred to as Manny, is lying on a plaid park blanket in the park, with his vision pointed towards the tress above him, periodically rocking his head back and forth, laboring to prevent himself from vocalizing the internal exchange he is having.
MANUEL: So why am I here? Focus, focus…
(the sun moves one minute closer to sunset)
MANUEL: It’s cold. The ground is a lot harder than I anticipated. I’m trying to isolate myself from all of the noise. Yeah, this is good- there’s greenery, there are birds chirping. All of my problems should just melt away.
(the sun moves three minutes closer to sunset)
MANUEL: NOTHING IS HAPPENING!! This is infuriating. No…wait. No, it’s good. I’m trying to be mindful. I’m here, and everything is quiet. The answers should just pour out of this experience. (a light breeze coming from the northwest passes) It’s colder than I thought here. Okay, just focus…why are you here? Why did you come here? I came here to…my back hurts. So goddamn much. And I don’t know why. (Manuel shifts his head to the left, nose pointed towards the ground) I don’t know what I’m doing. And I don’t know how long I can keep going. Towards a place I don’t want to go.
(the sun moves one minute closer to sunset)
MANUEL: Think of a metaphor. Try to think of a symbol or something to really hone into how you are feeling. It’s like…it’s like a guy who has worked his whole life towards a goal that was always in this ephemeral state, and as he gets closer to reaching it, the goal becomes more and more elusive…Wait- that’s not a metaphor. That’s you. Described exactly by you. DAMNIT. Gotta think….what works? No, wait, just be honest…how do you feel?
(the sun moves one minute closer to sunset)
MANUEL: I feel like….I need to do something different. But I can’t figure this out. It’s because I’m stuck. I’m stuck in this mode where my choices are no longer mine. I feel like….I’m no longer passionate about what I do. What happened to that spark? What happened to that thing that made me want to do great things? What is this weird thing I do? I write, and grade papers, and read what other people tell me to read. This is no longer fun. This is no different than the menial labor I was trying to get away from. I don’t want to be a cog in some wheel. This isn’t for me. There’s this- (a rustle is heard about twenty yards away) What was that!? Christ, I’m really on edge right now. No, it’s worse. I’m at the edge of this pit, where everyone’s hopes and passions get dumped into in order to keep marching along in their routines. I don’t want to be on this ledge. This isn’t good for me. What is…this?
(the sun moves thirty seconds closer to sunset)
MANUEL: I feel like…if I roll over, I’ll fall of a ledge, falling into an abyss where I will no longer be myself. This abyss where everyone’s hopes go to evaporate. I’ll end up in some job I hate, paying for a house I can’t afford to live in, trapped in a cycle of expenses, becoming invisible, a shell of myself, to the point where the words I say lose all value. I’ll no longer use language. It’ll be a code that communicates solely designed for what I need to buy. I’ll be reduced to a robot that works at an Amazon warehouse, built for getting things based on a list of things someone else decided I needed. I’ll be detached from my body, seeing it work, completing tasks, shutting down at night, powering up in the morning to complete a new series of tasks. My body will no longer be my own. I don’t…like…feeling this way.
(the sun moves twenty seconds closer to sunset)
MANUEL: So how do I feel…right now? What’s happening on the inside? I hear…a lot of rain. And water. And wind. And violence. And everything is dark. (a breeze passing through the leaves of the tree next to Manuel, producing a rustling akin to the sounds of rain pattering on glass) There’s a boat. The kind you’d see in a history book from the early 1920s. It’s caught in a violent storm, with only one person steering and controlling the sails. As the ship tries to navigate the storm, the sailor has an expression that is a combination of angry, scared, and determined. The only marker of time is the clothes he’s wearing, worn down to scraps hanging from his body. He has a beard that is all but attractive looking, frayed and unpleasant to look at. He’s swearing at the Gods of the Sea at the top of his lungs, demanding an answer for these circumstances. But there are no responses. There’s no sight of land or other boats anywhere. It’s just violence, screaming, and the ocean.
(the sun moves ten seconds closer to sunset)
MANUEL: I’m really worried about the future. What options do we have in the face of corporatization? What’s the point of fighting an impossible task like climate change? Why work so hard for a future with no prospects? Is this what every person on the cusp of entering a new stage in life feels? Or is this stage of human civilization so awful, hope is now rendered meaningless? I seriously don’t know….and I hate not knowing. Like…what am I doing? Is this the right thing to be doing? Is this where Young and Idealistic Manny wanted to be? I wonder how he’d feel if he saw what this direction led to. I feel so detached from him, that it’s hard to tap into that mindset. It feels like I’m at the mall, and my kid, who I totally thought was holding my hand, suddenly isn’t, and now I’m frantically looking for him. Where did he go? Is he hurt? What’s going to happen to him?
Wait…am I the adult, or am I the kid?
(the sun moves four seconds closer to sunset)
MANUEL: I’m asking myself these questions, and I’m still not sure where the answers are. I don’t hate what I do, or think it’s pointless. I actually really like where I’m at. I think what really brought me here, and all of my questions, is being so goddamn exhausted. I’ve been here for what feels like hours and I’m still really tired. The kind of tired where you wish you can go to sleep, except even that’s difficult since putting yourself to sleep still requires effort. I got this pain in my lower back, creeping throughout my body. Laying flat feels good, but I’m positive it’s terrible for my back. The creeping leads to more questions. Why do this? Why do something that is so taxing on your body? How is it possible to love something when it’s the cause of so much pain? I’ve heard of people who get massages that dig into their muscles so thoroughly, they feel compelled to cry. Maybe that’s what my body needs right now.
(the sun moves three seconds closer to sunset)
MANUEL: It’s getting colder. I’m glad my body can still feel something. I came here to rest, but my muscles are so mangled, where just lying flat puts me in pain. I feel like letting something out. Some kind of scream. A most violent utterance. A yawp. But I have no words. I pull deep from my larynx, only to find my vocabulary exhausted. I keep pulling, pulling, like pulling rope through a winch. What happened to my words? What am I without them? What’s left of a writer when his cupboards are empty, leaving him destitute from his stories? Words were always my salvation, making sense of the senseless, curating the best sentences. My words are no longer mine. Where have they gone? My screams emit no sound. They are all sucked into the pit I’m overlooking, one nudge away from falling into. Falling into a space where sound does not exist…sounds pretty good right now.
(the sun moves three seconds closer to sunset, with a thick cumulus cloud beginning to block it out, dropping the temperature in the park approximately seven degrees Fahrenheit )
MANUEL: Yelling into a pit is a strange thing. There are no stenographers or scribes recording the words uttered. It’s just you and your echoes. Even the echoes are unreliable. They develop their own personality. Soon, they even interject with their own words. It’s a void where no notifications come through, no gossip, no judgement. I can say whatever I want.
EHO: So say it.
MANUEL: (slightly startled)….what?
ECHO: Say whatever you want. You’re in a void. What are you thinking?
MANUEL: What do you mean? Like….what can I say?
ECHO: You wanted answers. You have them. You just have to say it.
MANUEL: But I don’t…have the answers.
ECHO: Yes, you do. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.
MANUEL: But…like…it can’t be that simple.
ECHO: It is. Just say it.
MANUEL: But where do I…I didn’t know if…I can’t just-
ECHO: (frustratingly) Damnitall, WHAT DO YOU WANT?!!!!?
MANUEL: I….just…want to help people. (Manuel says this phrase, punctuated by a long sigh of relief)
ECHO: There we- see? All you had to do is say it.
MANUEL: I just want to help others. Be in service of others. I seriously just want to make the world a better place.
MANUEL: (with a slight tremble in his throat) Yeah?
ECHO:. Yes. Now…go do that.
MANUEL: Yeah…I think I can do that.
(the sun sets two seconds closer to sunset, with the cumulus cloud continuing to move, no longer blocking the sun, gradually raising the temperature up another three degrees Fahrenheit )
MANUEL: I just want to help people. I can feel my words rising out of this pit. I’m remembering where I’m at again. My eyes open, still covered in shades, as if protecting me from all of the truths I’m tapping into. I can feel the cloth of the blanket I’m on, down to the stitch pattern. I can feel the air on my face, carrying the scents of the park, a bit of dried leaves, fresh air, tree bark, a slight touch of dog excrement, all overpowered by the scent of the grass around me. I can feel the warmth of the sun on my face, reviving my emotional state from a cold blue to a blushful red. I can hear children running around, feeling the vibrations of their running from the ground, some stumbling, or sitting still. (Manuel’s gaze moves from the ground to the sky, rolling his neck, leading to a rolling of his shoulders) My back no longer hurts. I don’t feel exhausted anymore. All I had to do is say it. It really was that simple.
(the sun sets three minutes closer to sunset)
MANUEL: I think I get it now. I’m here to help people. This whole time, I’ve been building my own skillset, trying to make the most of it. I’ve met so many people, I’ve traveled, I’ve made money and had so many strange jobs. All that has been great. But it’s my skillset, to use how I see best fit. I want this skillset to go to where it is needed most. I want to fill a need where this skillset is best suited. I want to listen to the stories of those who really need to share it, of those who are one telling away from true catharsis. I want to help people tell their stories. The kind humanity really needs to listen to right now. I feel like all of life’s secrets are waiting to be shared, like small truth reserves. Maybe…my job then isn’t to go drilling for it, but if someone wants to share their story, I can help them with that. Yeah….let’s start there. I love my studies, and being a teacher, and reading, and listening, and writing, and helping others, and…there’s so much to love in the world. And I love all of it. I’m no longer waiting for the demands from voices no longer interested in helping people. I am grounded now. Grounded in a kind of goodness. I know what I want. All I had to do was listen. Or say it…Or…I’m not sure. But I like how I feel right now.
(the sun sets three and a half minutes closer to sunset, with the sky in the east increasing its shades of blue)
MANUEL: I think of the sailor and the boat. I can see him, no longer trapped in a violent storm. The waters are calm, the sky so blue, as if pulled from Van Gogh’s palette. He’s using a sextant to navigate the gigantic ocean. He still holds a hard grimace, except for a slight curl at the right corner of his lips. We’re all like the sailor, I suppose. We are all trying to figure out where we’re going, hoping for smooth waters, bracing for the next storm. We may not all be in the same boat, but we all live in the same ocean. If I see someone who needs helps, I have no problem steering my ship towards their direction. If I see someone polluting our waters, I will not hesitate to call them out on it. We all have our own compasses, our own star maps- it’s up to us to us to find our own ways. This ship has survived storm after storm, but is still at sea, still in search for its next dock. I have no idea when or where that will be, but the boat is very much not lost at sea.
(the sun sets one minute closer to sunset)
MANUEL: It’s a little colder now. But it’s okay. I’m ready to stand up. My back is no longer in pain. I feel like I’m ready to get up, walk, and do the work I want to do. I feel enthusiastic about my work again. I’m looking forward to the work, to do work I’m proud of. And I’m looking forward to engaging with the world, searching for the place I’m needed most. And I want to work. I want to put my hands to work, laboring away in the service of others. It’s what grounds me. I want to seek these places, wherever they take me. (blood rushes to the muscles in Manuel’s legs, readying themselves to stand). But not yet…I’ll go when I’m ready. Right now, I’m lying flat. (muscles relax)