Monday, October 19, 2009

A Weekend in Nerac, and Scorpions

I'm moving my travel blog/musings while travelling to this one. To read older posts, you can go to .

Well, my friend and I tried another week to get to church on Sunday in Agen, but it remains completely elusive. Phone calls went unanswered. Buses didn't work. Trains don't come to Nerac. Finally, we decided to resort to the last possible option and ride bikes there. Her bike broke down before we left the school....

So it was a frustrating weekend, made more so by starting it off with miscommunication. Why is it so hard to have open, direct communication? It sure would save on a lot of frustration later.

Most arguments seem to arise when both parties are assuming the worst intentions of the other. Because we can never really be inside the head of someone else, we tend to project our own insecurities into what the other is thinking. Its gotten me thinking, I'm sure once my thoughts are organized I'll have more to say on it later.

The poem I posted also had me thinking about the story of the Tortoise and the Scorpion. Is it possible for someone to actually change their nature? Or are we only fooling ourselves when we think that someone is different now? Thousands of battered women continue to return to abusive relationships because of this very illusion. Montaigne was very skeptical about the possibility of true change, which repentance would implicate. "Sure, he treated me like garbage before, but he's different now!" However, Christianity is built around the premise that fundamentally flawed people can be essentially transformed through the Atonement. Is it only through super-human means that a person can actually change what they are? And how easy is it to revert? Does this sort of change necessitate permanence to qualify as 'change'? Greed, selfishness, cowardice, rage, pride...When one's character is largely defined by any of these qualities, is it wrong to expect that it will ever be any different? I tend to be optimistic about human nature...Am I being naive to think that a tiger can change its stripes? I want to believe that a cowardly lion can find courage, that a tin man can grow a heart. My concern is not entirely academic. Like most people, I try to blind myself to my own flaws, but upon reflection I am aware of quite a few. If a self-centered person can become empathetic, can I, a proud man, achieve humility?

We tend to think of our strengths as indivisible aspects of our character, as much a part of what we are as our bodies and spirits. Wit, humor, kindness, courage...these aren't qualities that we merely possess, they define us. "I am brave", not "I have an abundance of courage". "I am kind" not "I have quite a lot of kindness". By the same token, then, are not our negative qualities intrinsic to what makes us 'us'? We view them as cancers on the body of our personality, parasites or flaws to be removed to make the organism healthy and whole. But aren't these traits part of the 'whole' as much as the positive qualities are? Do they govern us as much as our nobler virtues, and are they as difficult to ignore or amputate?

The tortoise blamed the scorpion for stinging him and drowning them both, but was it not the tortoise's fault in assuming the scorpion would stop being what its nature compelled it to be? Should he not have just accepted that, as many nice qualities that the scorpion may have, it is inevitably going to do what its nature compels it to do and sting? What are you thoughts?

These are the thoughts that occupied my mind this weekend, making me much less of an entertaining host than my friend deserved. But, even with me in my own world for most of the visit, we were able to see some interesting sites in Nerac. Henry IV's castle, a park created by Queen Margot, two impressive churches, and a riverside cafe with delicious ice cream helped to console our failed attempts to leave the city.

Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace
-David Rakoff

Nathan, at one of the outlying tables,

his feet tangled up in the disk jockey's cables,

surveyed the room as unseen as a ghost

while he mulled over what he might say for his toast.

That the couple had asked him for this benediction

seemed at odds with them parking him here by the kitchen.

That he turned up at all was still a surprise,

and not just to him, it was there in the eyes

of the guests who had seen the mirage and drew near

and then covered their shock with a "Nathan, you're here.."

and then, silence, they had nothing to say beyond that.

A few of the braver souls lingered to chat.

They all knew...

It was neither a secret nor mystery

that he and the couple had quite an odd history.

Their bonds were a tangle of friendship and sex.

Josh, his best pal once, and Patty, his ex.

For awhile he could barely go out in the city

without being a punchline or object of pity.

"Poor Nathan" had virtually become his new name.

And so he showed up, just to show he was game,

though, his invite was late, a forgotten addendum.

For Nate, there could be no more clear referendum

that he need but endure through this evening and then

He would likely not see Josh and Patty again.

Josh's sister was speaking, a princess in peach.

Nathan dug in his pocket to study his speech.

He'd pored over bartlets for couplets to filch,

he'd stayed up until three, still came up with zilch,

except for instructions he'd underscored twice,

just two words in length and those words were: "Be Nice"

Too often, he thought, our emotions and betray us

and reason departs once we're up on the dais.

He'd witnessed uncomfortable moments where others had lost their way quickly,

where sisters and brothers had gotten too prickly,

and peppered their babbling

with stories of benders,or lesbian dabbling,

or spot-on impressions of mothers-in-law,

which, True, Nathan thought, always garnered guffaws

but the price seemed too high, with the laughs seldom cloaking

hostility masquerading as joking.

No, he'd swallow his rage and he'd bank all his fire,

he knew that in his case, the bar was set higher.

Folks were just waiting for him to erupt.

They'd be hungry for blood even though they had supped.

They'd want tears or some other unsightly reaction

and Nathan would not give them that satisfaction.

Though Patty, a harlot, and Josh was a lout,

At least Nathan knew what he'd not talk about.

"I won't wish them divorce, that they wither and sicken

or tonight that they choke on their salmon or chicken.

I won't mention that time when the cottage lost power

in that storm on the cape and they left for an hour.

And they thought it was just the cleverest ruse

to pretend it took that long to reset the fuse.

Or that time Josh advised me with so much insistence

that I should grant Patty a little more distance.

That the worst I could do was to hamper and crowd her

that if Patty felt stifled, she'd just take a powder.

That a plant needs its space just as much as its water.

and that I shouldn't give Patty that ring that I bought her.

Which, in retrospect only elicits a 'Gosh,

I hardly deserved a friend like you, Josh'.

No, I won't spill those beans or make myself foolish

to satisfy appetites venal and ghoulish.

I will not be the blot on this hellish affair."

And with that, Nathan pushed out and rose from his chair.

and just by the tapping of knife against crystal,

all eyes turned his way, like he'd fired off a pistol.

"Mmmhmm, Joshua, Patricia, dear family and friends,

A few words, if you will, before everything ends.

You've promised to honor, to love and obey.

We've quaffed our champagne and been cleansed by sorbet,

all in endorsement of your ‘hers and his-dom’.

So now let me add my two cents worth of wisdom.

I was racking my brain sitting here at this table,

until I remembered this suitable fable

that gets at a truth, though it may well distort us,

so herewith the tale of the scorpion and tortoise:

The scorpion was hamstrung, his tail all aquiver;

just how would he manage to get across the river?

“The water’s so deep,” he observed with a sigh,

which pricked at the ears of the tortoise nearby.

“Well why don’t you swim?” asked the slow-moving fellow,

“unless you’re afraid. I mean, what are you, yellow?”

“It isn’t a matter of fear or of whim,”

said the scorpion,

“but that i don’t know how to swim.”

“Ah, forgive me. I didn’t mean to be glib when

i said that. I figured you were an amphibian.”

“No offense taken,” the scorpion replied,

“but how about you help me to reach the far side?

You swim like a dream, and you have what I lack.

Let’s say you take me across on your back?”

“I’m really not sure that’s the best thing to do,”

said the tortoise, “now that i see that it’s you.

You’ve a less than ideal reputation preceding:

there’s talk of your victims all poisoned and bleeding.

You’re the scorpion — and how can I say this — but, well,

I just don’t feel safe with you riding my shell.”

The scorpion replied, “What would killing you prove?

We’d both drown, so tell me: how would that behoove

me to basically die at my very own hand

when all I desire is to be on dry land?”

The tortoise considered the scorpion’s defense.

When he gave it some thought, it made perfect sense.

The niggling voice in his mind he ignored,

and he swam to the bank and called out: “Climb aboard!”

But just a few moments from when they set sail,

the scorpion lashed out with his venomous tail.

The tortoise too late understood that he’d blundered

when he felt his flesh stabbed and his carapace sundered.

As he fought for his life, he said, “tell me why

you have done this! For now we will surely both die!”

“I don’t know!” cried the scorpion. “You never should trust

a creature like me because poison I must!

I’d claim some remorse or at least some compunction,

but I just can’t help it; my form is my function.

You thought I’d behave like my cousin, the crab,

but unlike him, it is but my nature to stab.”

The tortoise expired with one final quiver.

And then both of them sank, swallowed up by the river.

The tortoise was wrong to ignore all his doubts —

because in the end, friends, our natures will out.

So: what can we learn from their watery ends?

Is there some lesson on how to be friends?

I think what it means is that central to living

a life that is good is a life that’s forgiving.

We’re creatures of contact, regardless of whether

we kiss or we wound. Still, we must come together.

Though it may spell destruction, we still ask for more —

since it beats staying dry but so lonely on shore.

So we make ourselves open while knowing full well

it’s essentially saying, “please, come pierce my shell.”

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