September 7, 2012

The Nail in the Coffin

Tao Te Ching: Chapter 11
translated by Stephen Mitchell (1988)

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being
but non-being is what we use. 

* * *

In the summer we walked to the beach every day.  But now that I think about it, back then it was always summer no matter what month of the year.

I had a theory about men and women in California who always wanted plastic surgery -- in paradise you can't tell that time is moving forward. And one day you wake up and suddenly you're 50 and wrinkled and panic sets in.

But back then our skin was still taut and dewy. We glowed with a sunny optimism and the assumption of invincibility.

Every day my boyfriend and I walked to the beach. We'd walk down the steep hill from the house, hit the beach, run a few kilometers and then drag our tired asses back up the hill. During the walks down and back we had interesting discussions about life, work, politics, psychology, whatever.

One day in particular our talk was quite heated.  It was about men and women and the differences between them. My boyfriend was smart, opinionated, conversationally aggressive. His assumption was that he was always right unless it was proven otherwise. And there was never an "agree to disagree" -- in a debate with him it was either win or lose.  There was no such thing as a draw.

The sidewalk we followed was populated by snails.  They were a terrible blight on the landscape and ate everything in their path. We poisoned them, or picked them off and threw them down into the canyon. But it never seemed to matter.  There were as many the next day as the last.

At the bottom of the hill, my boyfriend huffed passionately and said, "You want to know the real difference between men and women? Do you?"

Punctuating his question he raised his foot and stomped it down hard on the snail in his path, then stepped back.

"That," he said, pointing to the slimy broken mess in front of us. "That is what men can do."

I stood in silence staring at the obliterated snail. I could feel my boyfriend staring at me, holding his breath in anticipation of celebrating his impending triumph at having made his point so powerfully.

There is no doubt it was a powerful moment. But not in the way he hoped. The argument about men and women -- who is stronger, who is dominant, who knows how to seize power and who doesn't -- shattered and the silence that followed was filled with the heavy realization that he had soundly driven the last nail into the coffin of our relationship.

And it wasn't the snail, I suppose. The snail was an unfortunate bystander in an age-old debate about men and women. It was ground zero of a blast that blew away any wisps of illusion, a blast that revealed the raw and naked character I hadn't paid attention to for all the charm, the beautiful words, the clever and impressive jousting.

I turned and began walking and he followed, mistaking my silence for surrender, maybe. He continued on, summing up his proposition in a tidy and logical manner as I thought about how much stuff I needed to pack, where I would go, how I would explain something he would never understand.

Because it was a small thing, a tiny moment, the slamming of a door. Nothing. But also everything.