Duct Tape

(for Crystal)

Once I'd got in from the Portland airport and set in motion the search for my missing suitcase, my mother started to make me at home. She proudly produced the air mattress she'd bought years ago, when she moved into her own apartment. It would let me sleep on the floor of her study, instead of on the pull-out sofa bed in the living room, which is not particularly private.

It was a nice idea, the air mattress. It came with its own built-in electric air pump: plug the pump into a electrical socket, push the button, and ta-da! the thing was inflated in under a minute, to the precise desired firmness. When it came time to deflate the mattress, there was a good big air outlet at the other end from the pump, with a plastic cover that snapped shut with a tab closure.

But the tab closure had broken, so that you couldn't seal the air outlet.


I thought of trying to rig a harness of wire or twine to strap the outlet cover shut, but that proved, on quick inspection, to be a non-starter. Very well: duct tape it would have to be. We dug out the duct tape, and I started layering it on. A few strips should do it.... but under pressure, the air leaked under the sides of the strips. More strips to stop the leaks. More strips to stop the leaks under those strips. And so forth and so on, until I had a four-strip-deep mass of duct tape covering an eight-inch area of the foot of the air mattress, strapped from underside to overside and left to right. I went away and checked my e-mail, and when I got back, the mattress was maybe 15% inflated. Maybe 20%. Just enough to look puffy, anyway. So I pulled off the duct tape patch, rolled up the deceased air mattress, and went to make up the sofa bed.

It reminded me, this duct tape, of an old woman I once knew who lived in a tumbledown house with terrible plaster. All that was holding the plaster together in many places were layers upon layers of old wallpaper; touch the wallpaper and you could feel the plaster shifting behind it like a bagful of old bones.When the wallpaper started to give out, the woman went out to her shed and found some old vinyl roll-down blinds, and she unrolled them and glued them up over the bad patches, and then she wallpapered over the blinds. And behind it all, the plaster continued to crumble.

This memory, in turn, reminded me of marriages I have seen (and been in) and of individuals who seemed to me to be just barely put together with duct tape and old vinyl. It's amazing, what we think we can pull off by dint of sheer blind determination. There's no brokenness that we think we can't fix with enough cleverness and patience and good old duct tape.

We bargain with ourselves, each other, and God that we'll tough it out... and of course, sometimes that's exactly what's called for. Few parts of life don't seem to need a certain amount of Rao's Law ("the only way out of this s**t is straight through it".) Each and every marriage, or reasonable facsimile thereof, has times that stretch the patience and good will and basic _caritas_ almost (or sometimes well past) the snapping point. The same can be said for friendships, parent-child relationships and just about any other situation any two or more people can get themselves into, convent life most especially included.

But that's a different matter from trying to finesse the impossible. "I'll just get through this somehow" may be the right thing to do, but it is well to remember the old Native American saying, that if you find that you're riding a dead horse, the first thing to do is to dismount. If you're doing the personal equivalent of strapping vinyl shades over your own psychospiritual broken plaster, you are not being brave and self-sufficient; you are in good old-fashioned denial. If you are toughing out a killer relationship, it behoves you to consider whether, perhaps, you are insisting on keeping together what God hath set asunder. (It does happen.) Duct tape could not fix that air mattress. Nothing could. It was *broken*.

Part of it is that we all hate admitting defeat. To acknowledge that you have stuff to deal with that you just can't handle--that the air mattress really is shot, and the plaster can't be patched --is accepting that you really aren't a wonderful person with a few trivial faults; you really are broken and in need of help, and that is a terrible belt to the ego. So is walking away from an awful relationship that you've invested a great deal in--and yes, there is so much to mourn. It's not surprising that we hate doing that.

It's so easy to understand why we all try to jury-rig a problem that we don't think can be fixed, or that we don't want to give up on. The old woman with the vinyl shades really couldn't face the trouble and expense of getting her house wallboarded. Sometimes the problem looks so huge and irresolvable that about all we can think of is how can I fix this so that it'll hold till Thursday?

But at the same time, sometimes we work like crazy at salvaging (say) a particular relationship *in order to avoid* dealing with our own stuff. If we turn the relationship into a Problem, something that requires our frantic, devoted, impassioned work, then we don't have to face our own real problems. It's really just another type of duct tape.

Don't get me wrong. I think duct tape is marvellous stuff. I believe firmly in working hard at relationships. I believe, in addition, that relationships need a goodly shot of that other universal panacea, WD40: the lubricant of courtesy and friendly common sense, the rust-dissolver of ordinary forgiveness. Any guy knows that what really makes this world go round is WD40 and duct tape, and there is such a thing as male wisdom, as well as the female version. (Guys! IS JOKE! IS JOKE!)

God, keep us all attentive to your will, even when that takes us in directions that we don't want, or imagine right--and sometimes those directions are, strangely, from death into life, from prison into freedom, from patching over brokenness to opening brokenness to your healing grace.

We do have to throw the old air mattress away, I'm afraid; a pity, because the pump still works, but it's too intimately bound with the dead mattress to be salvaged. My kid sister is going to drive us to K-Mart and look for a new air mattress and an electric air pump. A separate air pump. That way, when the air mattress dies --and they all do!--at least we can still keep the pump.

Copyright © 2001 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 06 Oct 2001
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