I sat in the car this morning, stopped in traffic somewhere between home and work, surrounded by so many trucks and sedans and SUVs. (Seriously, where do they all come from? Where the heck are they all going?) Despite the lovely coffee next to my right hand and Bob Edwards’ voice brightening my intellect, I still found myself searching for entertainment.
And so I scanned my surroundings while nestled in my metal-framed gas-guzzler, side-by-side with countless (okay, I suppose I could have counted them) other humming engines, until I looked in my rearview mirror, and I smiled.
Maybe I should explain.
I commute to work every day. What does “commute” mean, exactly? I’m sure it means different things to different folks, depending on where they live. Some people live within ten minutes of their entire world: work, home, family. Others ride trains across state lines on a daily basis. In my case, I spend over an hour in the car, between our younger son’s school and my office. An hour-plus in the morning, and again in the afternoon. And while I’ve met others who log just as much travel time, I also meet many people who are downright appalled when they hear about my drive.
So many sympathetic, “Awwww”’s have come my way, with a few “Oh dear!”’s, and even some blank stares, complete with raised eyebrows and mouths shaped in a wordless O.
While there are times I really need to hear kind words (like “Awww, is your coffee cup is empty already?” or “Oh man, I’m sorry Dunkin’s run out of chocolate glazed again!”), there is absolutely no need to pity me because I commute.
This is what I try to tell the people whose hearts bleed for me. “Seriously, I don’t mind,” I say. But I’m not sure they buy it. That’s okay – I know they mean well. They just don’t understand.
What, you ask, don’t they understand?
For one thing, the commute to and from work is the most peaceful part of my day. It’s my alone time. My time to catch up on the news, to sip coffee without interruption, to sit still without the guilty knowledge that I’m within easy reach of eight chores that should’ve been done last month. There’s nothing else to do, in the car, but sit. I could call it heaven.
Of course, I still make use of the travel time. I couldn’t shake the multitasking bug if I tried. I eat my toast (crumbs decoratively collect around my stick shift like powdered sugar on a doughnut), catch up on the news (because I’ve gotten rid of cable and every time I open the laptop I ignore the news sites and start typing something… like how much I love driving), or dive into an audiobook (because otherwise I have about 0.32 hours per day available for reading).
Or sometimes I call my mom. She knows me so well that she picks up the phone and immediately says something like, “So did you just leave work?” (Come to think of it, I’m now hoping my kids commute someday – maybe I’ll hear from them more often…)
But it’s not just the Me Time that draws me into the car. It’s the moving, too. The excitement of going somewhere new. The promise of change.
Really, some of the biggest events in my life started in a car.
One fall weekend when I was seventeen, my parents drove me around the state to look at colleges. After visiting a few, I clearly remember driving up the hill to one school. I’d never been there before, and from the back seat of the car, as we first entered the campus, all I could see were trees and the corner of a building. It was right then that I declared, “I’m going to go here.” And I did. And it was wonderful.
One random evening, during one of those college years (junior year? I can’t remember), my boyfriend and I went for a drive. Descending the hill in his little Honda, we decided to get lost on purpose, and then to find our way back to school. After many twists and turns on dark roads, we arrived at a Perkins around 2am, and discovered we were in another state. We made our way back, of course. It was fun. Our first adventure together into the unknown, and we survived.
Now we’re married, and we’ve driven toward the unknown several times, packed in a U-Haul, kids and cats in tow, from north to south, south to north, east to west to east to west to east… you get the idea. Each time we set off for a place we don’t know. And somehow, eventually, after hours or days, we find our way home.
Driving. It’s the movement I love. The peace and quiet of the car shelters like a cocoon, and eventually releases us, lets us out into something new.
Is driving in my blood? Maybe. If I must blame someone, maybe it should be my Dad.
I don’t know if this happened only once or a dozen times, but I remember him waking me up early on a Saturday, asking me if I wanted to drive to Duluth for breakfast. That’s a couple hours from where we lived. I got up, and eventually we were sitting by the river, watching the big Duluth bridge raise for passing ships. I don’t remember what we ate for breakfast, but I remember Duluth. And the drive. Sometimes we’d ride in silence. Or my dad would get on his CB radio (anyone else remember those?) and go back and forth with the truckers. I think his handle was The Silver Hammer.
And sometimes we’d talk. He’d say, “Whatchya thinking?” Sometimes I’d tell him what I was thinking, sometimes I wouldn’t. Either way, it was nice that he wanted to know.
We drove up and down Minnesota throughout my kid years, from The Cities (the Twin Cities, for you non-Minnesotan folk) to the wide open place we called “Up North” (translation: anywhere north of The Cities). We’d visit relatives, camp, and explore.
Dad always liked a good drive.
And he encouraged me to drive. Starting with the lesson on driving a stick. He left me a mile or two from home with the manual transmission car, saying, “See you at home.” I’m not sure if my response was friendly, but I did find my way home. (Okay, I’m sure there were a few lessons before that one, but teenage memories are always a little skewed, aren’t they?)
Heck, he even swapped rides with me for a couple of weeks, my senior year of college. He took my sensible grey sedan while I sped away from MN, bound for Southern CA, in his new car. What? Was he nuts? Unleashing a handful of 22 year-old girls across the country in a red sports car? What good would come of that?
Plenty of good.
I learned that when I drive up a mountain and every other vehicle starts passing me, it may be time to downshift. I learned how to dance while driving. I learned that when someone named Amy hoots and hollers because she’s just won the nickel slot machines, security guards will stop by to check her i.d.. (No, that wasn’t me. Ask the other Amy about that one…). I learned where to find the World’s Largest Thermometer (not knowing just how close to that very thermometer I’d end up living a decade later). And I learned that it’s possible to clean white paint off of a shiny red bumper, using just a squeegee and some muscle. Most of it will come off, anyway.
And now, a few very full decades after my childhood ride-alongs, here I am driving with kids of my own.
And I’ve driven them miles and miles on Saturdays. Duluth is nowhere around here, of course, but for years we’ve trekked north on the weekends for music lessons and visits to our favorite book stores and food stores, and hour and a half or two hours each way. Sometimes NPR entertained us, sometimes we shared our favorite tunes. And sometimes we talked.
There’s something freeing and safe about conversing while on the road, isn’t there? We can say what we think without looking each other in the eye. We sit just a couple of feet apart, stuck in a metal can barreling down the road, yet there’s still plenty of space between us. Space to say things, to unleash random thoughts and wild ideas. Or to lecture my scarily fast maturing teenager about the dangers of drugs and alcohol and intimacy and knives and doors and sharp paper edges and anything and everything else I can think of. Yeah, my poor teen has been lectured to my heart’s content. He’s a good sport.
And now our oldest is driving himself everywhere, to school, to lessons, finding his own way. I’m excited that he can navigate the beltway, that he can get himself lost and find his way back, that he can glimpse the power of possibility, in the form of a metal box on wheels. But I do miss our chats on our Saturday drives.
Still, we have two kids, and I now spend a nice bit of the day in the car alone with our younger one. And does he like to talk? Does a bear have fur? Can a rooster crow? Am I sipping Porto right now? (That’s a yes.) Man, he can chat from the moment that car starts, right up until the second I cut the engine in the garage. We were talking yesterday, in the car, about our many moves, living in one house and then another. He said he thought he liked our homes best when they were new to us, when there were things about the house waiting to be explored and discovered.
I think I agree.
And so, when I’m scooting through a.m. and p.m. traffic in the Judester (Yes, we name our cars. I suppose that’s another story.), even if I’m headed to familiar territory, like the desk chair in my office or the sofa at home, the motion still stirs up an excitement of going somewhere. Of new places waiting to be explored.
And while I know so many other people dread traffic and detest long drives, this morning I was reminded that there are others out there who get how I feel. This morning I looked in my rearview mirror saw a guy in a suit, sitting in a blue compact car, singing his guts out, and smiling all the way through it. I couldn’t tell if he was belting out country tunes or opera, but I knew he was having fun, on his morning commute. I think maybe he understands.