The throughway is slow and packed, edging forward reluctantly, like the road would really rather swallow us up and keep us here than let us out at the next exit. The gas tank says “E”, and I wonder if that means “Empty” or “Even though you think you have 20 miles yet, I will give up on you if you don’t feed me right now.”
My babysitter used to talk about filling up the gas tank that way. She’d pull up into the gas station with those too-long ruby red nails and turn around with a big smile to say it was time to give our car a drink. I imagined our car, with lips as red as her nails, puckering up for a big swallow of gasoline.
There’s a crack in my windshield, the kind that started off as a speck and grew arms on a cold day, arms that burst like a fire across the frame. It’s like a mark, I think, (because what else am I really going to do with my time right now but think?) on my car and my heart. It’s like arms that lay their claim on me, because maybe the air outside this car is too rich to breathe and my windshield is my last wall of protection. Maybe I’m running out of time to find a way to beat it.
Because that’s the way I feel, really. Like I’m running out of time. Time to answer all these questions, time to take my firehose and drown out all these doubts. They’re pressuring me, like the air around this car, and I’m stuck in a jam with nowhere to go, running on empty with nothing to do but swallow the fuel.
That’s the way life is, maybe. At least for me. I run back and forth, solving problems, creating busyness, and trying to do “normal” things like texting, like working, like watching movies when all around me insane things are happening, things like first breaths and last breaths and world rotations, germs, blood circulation, marriages and swallowing. In this car, now, looking at my dusty dashboard and reminding myself to clean it before I see my parents again, I wonder, what are the thousands of things happening in my brain to make me even think this thought right now? And, now that I’ve paused, taken a break from the “normal” things like being on my phone and computer, all of these insane life things are suddenly seeping through the windshield crack, and here I am trying to make sense of the fact that I am breathing and wondering why, between Facebook, computers and public school, no one thought to tell me I am living.
Because wouldn’t it have made a difference, to know that? Wouldn’t it have been something to know that the miracle of life is that we fall asleep at night and wake up again in the morning? Wouldn’t it have meant something to know that life can grow inside of bellies, seemingly of their own accord, that they can start off a seed and end up a screaming, real, nine pound baby? That a starfish can be chopped into five little pieces and regrow itself five times over, that the sound of blue whale can be detected from 500 miles away?
There are questions, I know, that don’t have answers. Questions that even in my, normal, regulated life, follow me and stuff themselves in my purse until I’m sitting alone in a car in a traffic jam, where they unravel and fill the air so that the inside is suffocating while the outside air of amazing factoids threatens to break my windshield.
What happens when you die? Why do little boys get cancer? How come humans can’t fly? What do you do with a broken relationship? Why does the thought of space give me vertigo? If Jesus is real why doesn’t he show himself in person, because we’re all getting a little thirsty here, and I’m about ready to drink the fuel.
Did you know that the average person breathes 11,000 liters of air each day? That turtles have a built in GPS to help them reach the Galapagos? These things I try to forget weigh on this windshield, these reminders that above an employee, a student, a writer, a wife, I am a human, a living, breathing, fragile thing that will one day breathe my last and then what?
How are memories formed? If Jesus said to love our enemies, why are wars permissible? Why are some of us born into extreme poverty and others into extreme wealth? If God is sovereign, why does it matter if we pray?
There are questions, perhaps, that have no answers, questions that maybe none of us can answer, though we walk around with chests puffed out and argue each of our cases. Questions, maybe, that must be explored and pondered, and then eventually just lived. I don’t know what keeps these lungs breathing, but as long as they are I know I’m living, and that my life cannot be contained to screens.
I hide from life because I am afraid of it, because it awes me and terrifies me, keeps me up at night and above all, makes me feel real. And my skin is so raw from pampering and sheltering that I wonder if being real will also break me like the Velveteen, and I’m not quite ready to lose my soft fur.
Alone in this car with my questions, I imagine the windshield breaking. I imagine what would happen if I let the amazing things in, if becoming aware of all these tiny miracles would somehow shape my soul. If I didn’t drink the fuel, but learned to live with thirst and longing.
I imagine my questions remaining, but their coats of fear being blown off and away with the wind, so that finally, I can face them without feeling afraid.
I imagine, in short, being able to both live and be aware that I am living.
“’You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out— perhaps a little at a time.’
‘And how long is that going to take?’
‘I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.’
‘That could be a long time.’
‘I will tell you a further mystery, ‘ he said. ‘It may take longer.’”
–Jaybur Crow, Wendell Berry