If a man in a boat is crossing a river and an empty boat drifts along and bumps into his, he won’t get angry. But if there is someone in the other boat, then the man will shout out directions to move. …If a man could make himself empty, and pass like that through the world, then who could harm him?
Mark Salzman’s ebook The Man in the Empty Boat (Open Road Media, 2012), the author’s first work since 2003, is an honest, humble account of his own shortcomings, existential crises and how he makes sense of a world that doesn’t.
From page one, Salzman (Iron & Silk [Random House, 1989])draws in his readers with his telling of his “worst year,” when-plagued by writer’s block- his plan to be a stay-at-home dad doesn’t quite help him achieve his writing goals. When the writer starts experiencing panic attacks and his sister is stricken with a fatal case of pneumonia, it’s all the anxious, depressed and despairing Salzman can do to continue to be there for his family.
An avid lover of Chinese martial arts and Eastern thought, the memoir takes its name from the above Taoist proverb and provides Salzman with the allegorical framework for his own enlightenment. However, try as he might, the “empty boat” scenario doesn’t work for the author: “It’s a wonderful allegory, but it brings us right back to Paradox World: The harder you try to make yourself empty, the more full of yourself you become.”
Until, that is, the would-be animal lover spends a week away with the family dog. Sitting in solitude, with no other company than his clueless canine, Salzman’s unexpected cathartic moment transpires in the wake of the dog’s fart.
“then she farted a third time, and by then my panic symptoms were gone. That’s when I had the idea that changed the way I feel about humans: The dog’s not the only empty boat in this room. Count me in…Everything including my own thoughts, seemed to be driven by a kind of impersonal momentum, the way gravity drives the planets through their orbit or the way instinct drives birds to migrate according to the seasons…My lifelong desire to gain control over my own mind, and therefore my own destiny, had been as misguided as my attempts to make my book about a nun a bestseller.”
What makes this thoughtful memoir so poignant for me is the way Salzman is able to weave great significance into the mundane experiences of his life. We see these events come together at the end of the work, tracking right along with Salzman in the euphoric moments when we realize their significance.
Through his self-deprecating and frank storytelling, Salzman appeals to the insecurity and search for meaning in all of us. Even the author’s atheism, a topic he unabashedly unpacks throughout the work, adds to his spiritual quest to discover something grander than himself, if only that be the realization that he is not in control. Salzman “empties” himself onto the page, entrusting the reader with his candid and admittedly imperfect thoughts.
I am privileged to have experienced such a refreshingly humble yet hopeful take on human existence.
For more on Mark Salzman, visit his site here.