Say Something in Response

A number of years ago, I was driving in to work on a deserted country road, elevated above agricultural fields about 10 feet below; on each side of the road was a dirt birm that sloped down at a 45-degree angle toward those fields. It was a crisp, November morning, and there was black ice on the road. The sun was just coming up, and I was going about 50 miles per hour. In the middle of the road, I suddenly came upon a bird. It was just standing there, looking at me. I swerved so as not to hit it. Then the car began to fishtail out of control, and I realized I was about to go off the road — at 50 miles per hour.

If you’ve ever been in a similar situation, you’ll know that there is a moment of spaciousness that occurs at such times, when you begin to lose the reference point of the self and things just open up. Time slows down and everything is crystal clear. I was very calm with the realization that I could be in very serious trouble.

I did what one is never supposed to do: I slammed on the brakes. I figured that, if I were going to go down the birm and into the ditch, I might as well do that as slowly as possible. Fortunately, there was nobody else on the highway, and my car exited the road at a 90-degree angle to the pavement on its way to spinning backwards. The car slid down that birm, still going backwards, until it came to rest about halfway down the embankment. Somehow, it did not flip or roll. I then realized that I needed to get out of that car, lest it begin to roll, but the weight of the door at that 45-degree angle I was now sitting at made it hard to open. I thought about exiting the passenger-side door, but realized that, if the car were to roll, it would then roll onto me. I got the driver-side door open, got out, and called a tow truck. That was my response, and I waited for an hour and a half for the tow-truck driver to find me.

Last night, I went to a talk by a Zen roshi, a Western teacher in that East Asian tradition. He was giving a talk about koans, the pithy, often paradoxical statements used in the Zen tradition to disrupt normal, discursive thought. He used the following koan as a springboard :

A student asked Yunmen, “What is the teaching that lasts a lifetime?”
Yunmen said, “Say something in response.”

He then began to talk about mistakes, and the potential that these have to awaken us in our daily lives. The mistake itself is not the problem, but rather our reaction to the mistake: if we can simply embrace the fact that we screwed up, and just genuinely be with that situation, then it all becomes very workable. As a practical example, he gave an anecdote from his life that struck me as very familiar:

One day some years ago, he was driving down a deserted highway at a pretty high rate of speed. He was just enjoying the act of driving, and the fact that he could go along at a pretty good clip, since there was nobody else out there. Then, up ahead, an old man in a big old car (I’m thinking of one of those Buick Skylarks, or something like that approached a stop sign at the side of the highway, which out in this stretch lacked the normal on- and off-ramps. The old man went right through the stop sign and entered the highway at a very low speed, and began to accelerate — slowly. Seeing this car enter the highway, the teacher hit the brakes and tried to swerve, and ended up spinning in circles on that highway. The elderly man in the old car just trundled off, oblivious to what was going on behind him.

When the car stopped spinning, the teacher ended up backwards on that highway, but unharmed. He then put the car in gear, turned it around, and kept driving. That was his response.

We all make mistakes in our lives, some of them bigger than others. I don’t think I’ve ever made a blunder quite as huge and with such life-altering potential as the blunder my wife has made with her adultery. Not only that, it is such an enormous mistake that it has engendered a succession of further mistakes: errors in judgment, improper behaviors, lies, obfuscations, and so on. It truly boggles the mind what can happen when it gets bogged down with ego and its endless need to justify.

So it is that Saturday has arrived, and I have still not seen my dog this week. As I wrote earlier, my wife never delivered the dog on either of the days that she was in town. So I had to say something in response. I’m not going Zen here, or trying to be philosophical, but I did have to say something. I called her, and it quite predictably went straight to voice mail. Then I emailed, with simple question: “Where’s [the dog]?” Her response came back fairly quickly, and in a very offhand manner she said the dog was with her, and that she hoped I was doing well.

Avoidance. That’s exactly what this is. She does not want to see me, speak to me, or deal with me. Not only that, I think that my look into the crystal ball was probably right. That grizzled geezer who visited them last week up there at Camp C-S probably advised her to do exactly what she’s doing: blow him off, don’t give him the dog, make him understand that this is “for real.” If that’s true, and I suspect it is, I can only say one thing in response:

What a jerk.

Well, actually, that’s quite judgmental. It would be much more fair to say, “What a sadly confused human being.”

I did respond to this email, asking her to call me. Predictably, she did not. I gave her an entire day, and emailed again this morning, again asking her to call me, and offered to facilitate that for her if there were (absurdly speaking) some problem with her phone. I’d give it 50/50 odds at best that I get a phone call; more likely than not she will email with some sort of half-baked, blow-me-off-again reply.

The point here is that there needs to be a response to this action. The simple response is how I feel when she does this: I feel violated. My trust has been violated, again. The bigger response incorporates the need for us to talk about the dog. She is a sentient being with emotions and memories. Pets are often adversely affected by marital problems, and my wife’s proposed solution of alternating weeks of “custody” just isn’t working out. She told me that she thought it wasn’t healthy for the dog to be shuttled back and forth between our home and some officially still-undisclosed location, and I agree. But I think it is equally unhealthy for the dog to be housed in one of those two locations without both of us present. It simply isn’t fair to the dog, who doesn’t understand why her “pack,” an association that was imprinted on her very early on, is broken up.

I’m not sure what signs my wife is seeing, but I’m sure she is seeing some. She probably chooses to ignore their significance. The signs I see are clear: when the dog comes home from Camp C-S, she goes to her bed in our marital bedroom, and sleeps for eight hours. This is a very deep sleep, that seems to be occurring as though it were in response to a protracted trauma. I can understand that, as she gets taken to a location that is not her home, and is forced to spend time with a person whose motives she doubtless can sense are impure. Then, the rest of the week that she is here, she will walk around the house at least a few times a day and cry. She’s not crying because she’s hungry or wants to go out. She’s crying because my wife is not there. My wife does not see this and likely will not understand.

At any rate, issues cannot be tabled forever, and this is an issue that does need to be addressed. Of course, the point could be moot if my crystal ball musings are accurate: her parents could call her and clearly object to all the things she has done and continues to do. Were that to happen, the walls could come crashing down in the next few days.

Then I’d have to say something else in response.

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