We were in the middle of a long drive back to L.A. from northern California, somewhere just past the windmills near Tracey, having finally broken free from an epic traffic jam we had gotten caught up in getting out of the Bay Area. Now we were driving on what felt like an endless road that cut through neverending acres of crops and orchards, golden rolling hills in every direction, and a bright sun against a clear blue sky. The car windows were hot to touch; my AC blasted cold air into our faces and we sipped our cans of Spindrift sparkling water for something to do and played our music too loud, alternating between our favorites: Grateful Dead (my middle-of-nowhere music of choice), Fifth Harmony (Ellie’s), Simple Minds (Peter’s), and Ethan interrupting to share facts about gems from the book he was reading, pissing off his siblings every time I had to turn the volume down to hear what he wanted to say.
In the midst of what turned out to be a 9 hour drive home, I couldn’t help but notice how it felt like I was driving backwards. I try to be a mindful driver and leave a safe gap between me and the car in front. I’m not a granny driver by any means, but on the 5 freeway it is easy to feel that way with the number of cars that pass you doing about 100 mph. It’s always the same, too. The same recklessness. So much so that after a while you start to not take it personally even though they put your life in jeopardy. They do it to everyone, and many people do it. You begin to assume that there is something psychological about the other drivers’ impulse to pass cars, like the way a dog on a leash pulls to get ahead of other dogs, always wanting to be ahead of the pack. It’s primitive, and yet prevalent. The car behind you tailgates your vehicle, and then they zip over to the right lane to pass you. Inevitably they will then realize (somehow only after the lane change) that there is a big rig going much slower in that lane. But they are determined to get ahead at any costs, so instead of going back to where they were, they will squeeze between you and the car in front of you, despite the fact that there is no room. You then have to put on your brakes to accommodate their lack of impulse control, and hence the feeling that you are going backwards. It happens again and again and again.
I always feel angry that these people are putting us–my family–in jeopardy. I’ve heard too many stories about the gnarly accidents that happen on this drive. Entire families wiped out. A few weeks ago on the East Coast, an entire family except for the mother died in one car accident. I don’t know how I would continue living in that situation. Also, I’ve experienced the death of somebody close due to a car accident. It’s not fun reading the details of a police report that has eyewitness statements about a body flying through the windshield and a faint pulse when the person was found bleeding on the asphalt, but no signs of life when the paramedics arrived. Maybe that’s why I am particularly cautious about all of this.
During my road-trip-driving-vigilance, lost in my thoughts as the music blasted and the kids faded in and out of sleep, I remembered something my father told my siblings and me when we first started driving: you have the rest of your life to get there.
We used to think that saying was pretty hokey, especially coming from my dad. The homespun wisdom of Dear Old Dad.
But as the sun faded into the western horizon and darkness swept across the expanse of farmland on either side of the freeway and I passed signs showing that L.A. was getting closer, I mulled over those words. The rest of my life to get there. Not just in an actual driving sense, but existentially.
I am not in a rush. But I am in a rush. Why?
I used to think of “the rest of my life to get there” as being slow–deliberately slow. Dawdling, even. Like how my dad chooses to go the long way to every place he goes, no matter how many times we tell him there are faster routes.
In driving there are inherent dangers related to speeding and weaving in and out of traffic. It must also suck to live a life of stress to the point of feeling the need to race from Point A to Point B and not being able to enjoy your drive, listening to your music, noticing the lines of sunflowers that had been planted near the almond groves. What a way to live.
Of course, there are inherent dangers in dawdling and doing nothing too. Not in a physical sense, but at the risk of wasting your life. I balk at dawdling. Being aimless in my direction. It has always felt unacceptable to me. I perpetually feel like I’m running out of time and being productive makes me happy.
But maybe I wasn’t interpreting “the rest of your life to get there” appropriately.
Realizing that you have the rest of your life to get to a destination is somewhere between dawdling and racing, I think. It’s remembering the middle ground, being safe with oneself but still forward-moving and focused, and mindful to enjoy the journey.
There have been so many times when I’ve felt like I was failing in something. Not moving fast enough toward a goal. Not good enough. Falling short.
What if you told yourself, “Take a deep breath. You have the rest of your life to get there.” And maybe that simple phrase can alleviate stress and pressure and possibly free you to move forward with less obstacles.
Moving along at a pace that is right for you, enjoying the process and journey, without beating yourself up and going at a speed that is unsafe.
We have our favorite gas station on these road trips, and one is just past the grapevine on our way to Northern California. The kids know where the gas station keeps their display of Beanie Babies. They are allowed to choose one to purchase. They play with their beloved animal throughout the entire trip like they are the most special toys they’ve ever had. A koala for Ethan. A cat for Ellie. A dog for Peter. The kids go swimming with these “babies.” The toys get thrown around in the dirt and then washed off and dried and taken along for hikes and they sleep next to the kids each night. They are the sole object of each kids’ affection on vacation. But when we get home, the poor toys inevitably get thrown onto the heap of other toys that had once been sacred and precious at some earlier time too. Just like most things in our lives– amazing and then mundane. Everything in life is fleeting and impermanent. Immensely important one day, and buried and forgotten the next.
I know the rest stops and gas stations and fast food places and landmarks all too well on these road trips. I used to make the long haul every other weekend with Kenneth in the early years of our relationship. We would visit his son who lived 8 hours away. The long stretches of freeway and cow farms and orchards and slow-moving trucks hauling mounds of red tomatoes. There were hours and hours of conversation, usually something political or philosophical or about self-help. Kenneth’s favorite snack to buy was corn nuts, and he had his favorite Subways that he liked to patronize. Even though I enjoyed the time we had to engage in long conversations, I resented having to go on those trips, and having those trips lock us into rigid monthly schedules. Now, when I think back on that time that we had together pre-children and pre-his death, the memories feel fond and sacred. Those times went too fast. Our time wasn’t enough. Always too short–even when they feel long and stretched and laborious in the moment. I remember the homeless Korean war vet who set up near the fast food restaurants with his tent and signs. I remember running into a student at a rest stop just past Tracey. I can hear Kenneth’s voice, deep and pontificating about something important, maybe politics or school or both. His collection of CDs. I can hear Strawberry Switchblade playing or Francoise Hardy. I can see his black travel backpack where he always kept multiple flash drives in the front pocket, a first aid kit, a toy for his son, and a book he would have written notes all over.
I wish I could go back in time and tell that version of me to stop worrying about the things I needed to do next, and to just enjoy the moment. I had “the rest of my life to get there.” Yet I spent much of the time fretting about something or another. You race through time only to hit the wall of death, and then what? There is no rewind button in life. You get to experience time once.
And we have no idea how much time we have.
We don’t even exactly know where we are going. There is a fuzzy image in our head of what the road looks like in front of us, but we never really know until we drive past it. Where do we think we’re going?
The only thing we know for sure is that we have the rest of our lives to get there.
Whatever “the rest of our life” may be.
We might as well enjoy what time we have, as it happens.