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Lions Roar : November 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2011 38 section at the grocery store. He waved and called out loudly “Hi, Professor, how are you!” Greeting friends or acquaintances with flamboyant waves, shouts, or hugs is not the Chinese way. My husband says in China people would think you were not right in the head. But here in America customs are clearly different and my husband overcompensates when something feels unnatural by trying extra hard to conform. His grocery store greeting may have been a bit exuberant. I’m only guessing, I wasn’t there. His arresting martial physique combined with his dishevelment of scholarly stress and expres- sion of dazed goodwill may have thrown the man off balance. “What are you doing here?” the teacher asked. My husband, obliquely registering the gruff tone as unfriendly, answered cheerily that he was buying food, although he thought this should be obvious. Americans can be so strange. The next day the director of the paramedic program summoned my husband to her of- fice and demanded that he sign a piece of paper called a contact report. His teacher had filed a complaint that my husband had stalked him into the grocery store late at night and startled him in the meat aisle in violation of an article in the stu- dent code of conduct stating that students must not approach a teacher outside of the classroom setting. My husband, thinking the director was accusing him of being a violent person, politely refused to sign, which made her even angrier. She gave him twenty-four hours to consider the seri- ous consequences. He returned home, stricken— and that is how I found him. He had already been in the two-year degree program for more than two years. He was going down and—as his shaky academic tutor and clueless social coach—I was going with him. Whether the situation was the result of a fail- ure of understanding, a failure of greeting, a failure of avoidance, a failure of handbook in- terpretation, a failure in the ratio of reality to ambition, or a failure of the entire world order as it existed at that moment, I don’t know. We had not achieved desired ends, had fallen short and ceased proper functioning, and he had failed the test. We were not prepared to sing a song or write a transformative poem about it any time soon. Failure first wounded and then lured us down, contracting into ourselves. The other peo- ple probably felt bad too, wherever they were. I sat on the floor with my knees up and my head hung low between them, making a kind of cave entrance to the place in my stomach that felt punched, even though nobody had touched me. I felt as if my bones were glowing while every other part of me rearranged. It seemed best to stay low. Failure, whether it strikes as an arrow shot from foreign woods or grows slowly from the inside out, is a private pain. We breathed for a long time. My husband looked as if he had been punched too. I thought of the words of the Dao de Jing: “Nurture the darkness of your soul / until you become whole. Can you do this and not fail?” (verse 10). Curled inside my body world, I didn’t think I could nurture the darkness, but the other choice, to abandon the darkness and not gather up what might have been abandoned there, also seemed impossible. My husband started by calling the professor and leaving a message apologizing for offending him in any way. The teacher did not reply, but the director soon withdrew her demands for the self-damning signature after receiving a call from another profes- sor who vouched for my husband being a sincere student and no threat to anyone. All players carried on, perhaps with equal measures of dignity and indignity, having contributed to a soup of misun- derstanding that was now to be our most promis- ing source of nourishment. My husband decided to take a semester off from school. He said we should probably have a party now that he had some free time. I overheard him making phone calls to his handful of tai chi students and our neighbors and friends inviting them to a party at our place on Sat- urday. Lacking any dependable inner sense of time, he told some people one date and others a different date. For one friend he simply left a message on the voice machine—“Please, come to my house!”— without mentioning time at all. That is how we ended up having four parties instead of one and ran out of party money. There had to be a middle way between the extremes of loss and abundance, a middle way defined by practical limitations. We soon discovered it. The middle way was tai chi and the Middle Kingdom was in our basement. There was a pe- riod of incessant hammering and sawing, mostly Even if failure doesn’t exist, I will tell you of a failure that knocked two hearts to the ground. Mine and my husband’s.