The pigeons are gone.

They lived here for years, getting in and out through a hole in the roof; often, I’d be at my desk before they woke and, as the sun rose, I’d hear them stirring, cooing, a sound I liked.

The dust that sifted through the slatted boards and settled on the furniture wasn’t just unaesthetic, it turned out, but unhealthy — no kinder to the lungs than cigarettes — so now the roof’s been fixed and the pigeons are gone. I sit here, smoking a cigarette and listening to traffic. Progress.

I smoke about a pack a week — usually when I’m at work, with coffee, my other prop. This is what I did 15 years ago, on my first newspaper job. How much I’ve changed, and how much I still work hard for the wrong reason: to feel good about myself. I wear my work the way some wear money or fame; coffee and a cigarette enhance the aura. I don’t need an audience, but I listen for applause. Is that my dead father clapping? The Puritan fathers? My Father in Heaven? No, it’s me, toughest boss I know.

And what happens? The work keeps me from me; my imagination drops anchor in the shallows of the practical; I become a bureaucrat of the inner life, ordering myself about with such purpose and pompous regard for my own priorities, missing the snake on the path, the shimmering air. The traffic in my head — big plans like trucks, new ideas in the fast lane — drowns the Mother’s gentle summons, her rustling and cooing and tinkling of bells. Impatiently, the Mother snaps her fingers — I’m working, go away — then angrily she claps. Mountains heave in me and tall trees snap like pencils. It’s not the applause I wanted.

“The way to do is to be,” says Lao Tzu. It’s true — the kind of truth that sifts through the mind and settles on the heart like dried pigeon shit. I’ve turned over the droppings of great men for years — but the dust of words isn’t their truth. The truth is they learned to fly. How do I rise from the floor of my own ambition, discover a different ground, a different sky?

— Sy