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.



  1. Wow. On a number of levels. Just wow.

    You held more strength in your silence than he could ever manufacture in his words and actions.

    Powerful moment, Wendy. And powerfully told.

    1. Thanks, Sarah. Those are good moments. Even when they're not good moments.

  2. There is a veRy good reason why my best friends in life have been and wiLL always be women.

  3. I have known quite a few conversationally aggressive people. It starts like it is just about the topic, the issue. But it becomes about everything.

    This is wonderfully written. I can picture that moment--when he thinks he has triumphed, but when he has lost everything--perfectly.

    1. I always want to say "It's not about you!" And then, of course, remind them that's ALL ABOUT ME.

      When will they learn?

  4. Insightful and thought-provoking, as usual. I knew when I discovered you in that Victorian workhouse you'd make me proud.

    1. Steve, this is so much better than the workhouse. THANK YOU!

  5. Very evocative...quite the Tao moment! and I am glad he stepped on that snail!

  6. Lovely well - written piece, Wendy. Yay - for the snail!!!

  7. That little snail's life was sacrificed for the greater good.

    The battle of the sexes will go on until the end of time; men will always "think" they have won, however, women will "know" that men never came close.

  8. ugh...real winner the end i guess someone taught him that is what it took to be a man....nicely written...

  9. Great writing. To this day I wonder if your male friend ever grasped how he sealed his fate with one action. Glad I have found your blog. I truly like your writing style.

  10. You bring it all to a shattering level we can all understand. A couple of weeks have passed...I hope that you did call it quits.

    So well written.

  11. Hi. I loved this. It's so powerful. I really liked the way you used the image of the boyfriend crushing the snail to show how fragile the relationship between him and the narrator is and how the sometimes volatile relationship between men and women is still an issue for humanity. Wonderful.

  12. Wendy, I loved this. Nice writing. But I don't see a place where I can enter my email address and be notified of your updates. Am I missing it? Thanks! xo

  13. I really, really liked this piece. (I also like the poem, although I bet it would be even more perfect in Chinese where you're able to express complete thoughts without expressing every word).

    But I'm really surprised at how naive he was to think you would be impressed!

  14. I love this. A pivotal moment in a relationship that seems to be a small thing but is, as you said, everything. Very tasty indeed. Thanks for sharing it with us!

    :-) Anna

  15. Wow. This is so powerful - eloquent and sad. And, yes, I can see how it would be the end of things, the final sign. I'm glad you moved on.


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