An Incident on Highway 31

  • It took three-and-a-half miles for my anger to soften. We’d worked hard to leave on-time: snacks, coffee, and water, already loaded in the van; the boys dressed early; the baby fed.

But then Arthur dropped his cheesy puffs as we drove down Highway 31, and we still had twenty-five minutes left to drive. No big deal. I turned onto a side street and hit the hazard lights. He unbuckled, got in the floor, got back in his seat and buckled again. No substantial time was lost. But before we’d even fully turned back around, Arthur announced that he’d forgotten his snack; he’d picked up a couple of toys, instead. So now I’m stopping again—still not too big of a deal—a minor irritation. That is, until two vehicles managed to slip by us.

The first was turning left. Traffic rarely lightens at certain times on Highway 31 in Spring Hill, so with this being a Sunday morning, the car in front had to wait a long time for an opening. I could feel the clock ticking now. It seems churches are always either starting services or letting them out at all hours on a Sunday morning, and for a town no bigger than Spring Hill, there are an unseemly amount of churches. A high concentration of churches in a suburb of Nashville is no surprise, I must admit, but why must they stagger their beginning and ending times in such a way? I know I’m being unreasonable; you don’t have to tell me. Certainly churches don’t consider their effect on local traffic when planning services.

Anyway, we were trying to get to our own church. And finally that first car had managed its left turn. But here’s the kicker. The other vehicle in front of us—the one standing between us and punctuality—was a pickup truck loaded down with junk, and when it pulled onto the highway, it refused to accelerate above thirty miles-per-hour. We were stuck behind it, with no chance of passing, for two whole miles. (Okay, seeing this in print makes me feel really petty. But at the time, I was enraged.) I had made a serious effort to get us out the door with as little stress as possible, to get us to church without feeling rushed, and now it was all for nothing. I began wondering why God didn’t help us out—why he didn’t honor my noble effort, thinking that if he really wanted us in church, he would’ve prevented some of these obstacles. Such is the occasional pettiness of the human mind.

Some would blame these obstacles on the devil. But I think that’s a not-so-clever way to excuse ourselves from responsibility—the responsibility of realizing that the movements of the world aren’t tailored to our egos; that the schedules of the thousands of other residents of Spring Hill are not designed with my need for efficiency in mind. It’s the price of the free will we so adore. Just as I was free to stop our van so my son could pick up his snack, the two motorists who stalled our progress were free to drive up that same street at the exact time that they did, passing us by with our hazards flashing. No one was in the wrong; no one was an instrument of either divine or evil will. It was just a thing that happened in a world that keeps moving, whether we’re ready or not.

25 November 2017 (British lady in a Starbucks)

 

“She was a complicated lady.” It was spoken with a British accent. I looked up from my work, and the tall woman with long black hair and bangs was smiling at my Virginia Woolf book of essays. I’d seen the woman in Starbucks before but had no idea she was British. Why would I ever suspect that? White people look the same from country to country, except for maybe those from Scandinavia.

Her statement about Virginia Woolf had the ring of authority, or maybe that’s just how I heard it, given her accent. But being an American makes me no authority on Henry James, so why should I assume such a thing of this woman. In fact, I was shocked to learn, from the only other British person I know in real life (i.e., not on social media) that English literary history is hardly emphasized in Britain’s schools anymore. So here’s this thing known as English literature, which I’ve idolized for years, only to find out it’s nearly neglected in its homeland. What the what?! Now I’m wondering whether my new British Starbucks friend has even read Virginia Woolf, or if she simply repeats the line passed down in idle conversation. Perhaps, for her, the name Virginia Woolf triggers the phrase “complicated lady” the same way that Meryl Streep’s name invokes “good actress” from people who never watch her movies—like the goal is simply to talk, whether or not the conversation has any substance.

Maybe I’m wrong. It could be that my new British buddy has a working knowledge of Woolf’s novels, after all—maybe even an essay or two. I will probably never know, because our interactions never transcend the smallest of small talk. Usually I’m so eager to get back into my work that I leave little room for anything more than a hello. And that is okay.

 

On Fishing

     At forty-one, I’ve learned to write sentences. But what of those musicians whose brilliance shines before thirty? Those painters on whom greatness rests like a marble monument? Those poets who chart human consciousness, leaving lights on the path for our senseless feet?

     I labor a line to death. I spool out and cast about, dabbling with different-colored baits; I let it rest, and then reel it in fast, mimicking the motions of life. But the monster is elusive–the opus, aging. She hides in the dark, beneath the log at the bottom of a book.