"Who else is going to bring you a broken arrow?"
February 06, 2021
Writer's prompts are magical. There is a section in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in which the protagonist is remembering a moment with a college student struggling to write well. I won't get into the philosophical discussion of what 'writing well' means; we'll assume she's lacking the ability to see.
Phaedrus tells her to go to the courtyard, pick a single brick from the wall of the building and just look at. Just look at it until she has something to write, look at it until words fill the page. I believe this took all day, possibly more than one day. I read this book a very long time ago, and it's a tough read. There are a number of passages that stand out in sharp contrast. This is one of them.
A writer's prompt, the thing of it, is almost never what you think it's going to be. Using a prompt requires getting outside of yourself. If I already have a story about a brick, that is all I'll ever see. If I set the story aside, or if I'm fortunate enough to have no story at all, sometimes magic happens.
I recall her frustration but mostly I remember the breakthrough when she started to write about what she saw... the thing that unfolded on its own, right in front of her.
I don't know if we're ever told what she writes. I don't think it matters. That she wrote, that she chose to see a thing, or things she didn't believe existed was the point. The book is full of beautiful moments. If you're trying to read it like a novel, you may never see those moments. If you choose to read it as if you have put your own 'self' aside, the philosophy examined within the book is something else. I can feel my point drifting away just now. I want to fall back into examination of the self; such an easy and impossible thing to do.
Relationship, such and easy and impossible place to live.
I cried a while this morning, looking at this photograph that is a representation of commitment. That's my story. Her story may be a little different, but not all that far off I think. I'll admit that my own story is still in the room; that my idea of their story is in the room. I am aware that these stories I tell myself thinly veil other possibilities. But that's OK.
I cried because I have lost so much, not as a victim but by choice, which doesn't make it any easier. I cried because my underlying story about relationship is that I will always be alone because I can't find a way to be in a sustainable relationship.
How has your marriage lasted, I once asked a friend who'd been married close to thirty years. She was joking, but not exactly. She was leaving out the vulnerable part and hard parts when she said, 'mostly we've gotten through with pure inertia. You know, you're in a thing so long it takes too much effort to get out of it.' I did not think to ask, but what is it that allowed that sort of inertia at all? It took twenty years to equate 'inertia' with 'continuity'. That's a loss we can't really understand as we prepare to exit a relationship. We don't know it until we see the severed artery on the other side of the canyon we've made.
When I was in my early thirties, I heard this: What are you more attached to? Do you want the relationship, or do you want to be right? What does that even mean?! I was furious. I was in the process of ending my first marriage and upon leaving said, 'listen, I'm just tired of being wrong all the time so I can be as wrong as you need me to be but I'm not going to do that here'.
That was twenty-five years ago. In many ways I am still broken from that loss.
I asked, somewhat publicly, 'would you rather have the relationship, or would you rather be right?' I was talking about the state of the United States; not just our government, which is a direct reflection of ourselves. I was talking about stepping out into the 'aisle' that separates the black hats from the white. I was talking about meeting the man in the black hat that stepped forth, hand extended. He was not asking forgiveness, he was not asking the white hats to forget. He was offering at least part of a broken arrow.
The US Government uses the term 'broken arrow' to mean a number of things, depending on the circumstances. None of them are good. Essentially the term communicates: I am broken. The message sent by the Capitol Police sometime around 1 PM on January 6 meant, We are down and we need help right now. Sometimes it's used in a nuclear context, best left alone for now. But that's not what it always meant.
Go back to a time before we were here; a time before we owned the earth. Go back to the nomadic tribes of North America who hunted and fought with arrows. An arrow was broken when one village or tribe chose to make peace with another. You can't break an arrow and set it at the feet of a warring chief without understanding that you may find yourself alone and most likely dead if the gesture is not received. But this is a thing to remember:
A broken arrow is a peace offering; generally offered without the good faith knowledge that it will be accepted. A broken arrow is a vote for the relationship over being right. And look what we've done with that metaphor. It hurts my heart.
The man in the black hat stepped into the aisle and held out his hand. The people in the white hats stepped back and said, oh no, you've done too many bad things to be trusted. We can't work with you. First you must acknowledge and then you must pay. First, hear our rage. The man stood in the aisle long enough that the other black hats started to get nervous and then the nervous sparked the angry, hurtful flames and the man stepped back into the shadows.
He's stepped into the aisle a time or two since, but ever so carefully. I try not to look these days because that also hurts my heart.
This is a relationship, a thing outside all of us that requires enough of us to keep it whole.
It's not about you. It's not about me. It's about Us. When the Us part becomes less important than the You and Me part, the US generally dissolves.
I stopped asking about a mid-aisle handshake because the white hats got so very angry. They yelled and screamed and demanded reparations. I stopped asking if anyone was listening to the black hats but all the white hats could hear was: 'do you agree with any of this?'
I don't know any moment in history that a broken arrow is placed on the ground prior to negotiations for peace; for the details of peace. That's not how it works. That's not how it works in any relationship.
The image at the top of this page is of two very different hands. The colors are what struck me first. Blue and Red. Cold and hot, smoke and fire. Which is better, which is right, or do they just accept the differences because they are more vested in the whole of those two hands?
I've been walking around with this question since the man in the biggest and darkest black hat stepped into the aisle. Those hats on either side, who is wearing white, and who is wearing black? Do you know what I think? I don't think there aren't any black hats. Not really.
My friends, Heather and Gary wear white hats. And you know what else? I think they know.
Much love to you both.