Sunday, November 30, 2008

Yin-Yang, Opposition and Balance

I recently helped my eleven-year-old son on a project. He had been studying religions of the world, and his focus was to study Taoism for school. Isaac had already written a short paper on what he learned about Taoism and drawn a map of where it is practiced. The assignment now was to make a three dimensional object which characterized Taoism. He chose the Yin-Yang, black and white figure so many of us are familiar with.

In our garage, he found an old solid wooden wheel, which we had found at the dump and which I believe had been originally used as a platform to hold a candle, for a reddish wax had hardened on one of its sides. Isaac cleaned the wheel of the wax, and used sandpaper to smooth the wood and remove the splinters. I watched my busy bee of a son in the garage, his sleeves rolled up, perfecting the wheel before he started painting it white. I gave him a can of white primer from our basement, and held the wooden wheel as he painted first one side and then the other. Outside, a granular sleet had already covered our driveway, and I could see my breath in the garage.

Once the wheel was white, Isaac drew the curvy S that separates the black and the white, with pencil, adjusting the curve so that he got it just right. He had to erase his work several times before he was satisfied with the symmetry of his Yin-Yang. Finally, I gave him a small bottle of black enamel paint I have had in my desk for years, which I believe was originally used by my wife Laura to touch up the frame to an old mirror she loves. With the care of a brain surgeon, Isaac colored his Yin-Yang black, following the S curve with an amazing precision. He also took a yogurt container and drew the dots of the Yin-Yang.

I mention this minutiae of our Thanksgiving weekend, because watching my son work reminded me of several important things. Work bestows pride on the worker, for his accomplishment, for his product, for his craftsmanship. Isaac beamed when he placed the finished Yin-Yang on his desk, away from our pesky, but affectionate cat, Ocistar. He could not wait to show his class what he had done.

When you are working hard on a project, when you feel you have the skills to accomplish something on your own, you lose yourself in your work. Time becomes irrelevant in a way. I feel the same way when I am working on a story. I have written stories before, so I feel I have the skills to do a good job. Perhaps, as with a story I am working on now, I have written half of it, and I have not thrown out what I have written, but I don’t quite yet know how it will end. So the ‘good product’ is not a foregone conclusion. It may in fact be a story that is never told, because it was never a ‘fully formed story’ to begin with. Whatever that means, and it seems to mean something different for every story.

But the point, at least for me, is the work. The work to finish the story. The work to lose myself in the quiet I steal away from my family obligations and daily responsibilities to try to write. The work is what matters, even if you don’t end up with a good representation of what you imagined your ‘story’ to be, as you wrote it. Because this moment, when you say this is a ‘story,’ instead of saying this is garbage I should throw away and forget about, is a moment that is probably impossible to pin down, to regularize, or even to explain clearly. Yet it is a moment that becomes easier to appreciate the more you work at writing stories. The more you work, the easier it will be to have that judgment, like Isaac, to tell when your work is done, when you have in front of you what you imagined you wanted to create.