The fiery hue of the sunset exploded across the skyline like the remnants of a blazing volcano. I exhaled, closed my eyes for a second, and opened them just in time to see the stoplight turn green. With a renewed sense of calm, I pushed the gas pedal down just as a series of honks ripped through my moment of serenity. I’m all for a quick courtesy honk when warranted, but this was something different. I tried to give the driver the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps someone in the car was in labor, or late to a second job interview, or needed to pick up their son from a school play. With a newly-spiked blood pressure, I sped up, begrudgingly happy to oblige. The car surprisingly didn’t zoom past me as anticipated and instead we both caught the next red light. This time I was a few cars back from the front of the line, but within the nanosecond of the light turning green, the stream of fast-paced honks ensued again, however this time I couldn’t go anywhere. After the eighth incessant beep, I got so frustrated that I may or may not have flipped the bird in my rear view mirror. I honestly can’t recall because a long day, followed by an even longer commute, combined with the hundred frenetic beeps pushed me to a blind fit of road rage. This time, the honker managed to merge into the lane next to me and we continued to sit side-by-side at the now green light because traffic was as a standstill. I felt his or her presence burning awkwardly as we waited. Our once anonymous vents behind the wheels of our cars had suddenly become personal. I refused to look directly over, but my peripheral glance led me to believe he was a small elderly man with a gray mustache which meant that I may/may not have flipped off someone’s grandpa.
Is this what we have become? As our neighborhoods turn into breeding grounds for condos with no plans for parking, buses are full, and traffic stacks up for miles, people’s patience seems to grow thinner and thinner. We have meetings to get to, kids to drop off, and appointments to make, and yet it is easy to forget that all of these ‘to-dos’ are a privilege. The other day, I was running late for my weekly staff meeting, and after a brief standoff with an SUV, I pulled to the side of the road to let it narrowly pass, only to see that eight cars were hidden behind it. Each of those cars took the opportunity to whisk on by without so much as a cursory wave or a generic head nod.
Even if my kids grow up to be serial killers, if they wave in their rear view mirror to people who let them in when they are trying to merge, or nod to folks who pull over on a street that is lined with parked cars, so they can pass, I will still feel as if I have succeeded as a parent.
As the rain hit my windshield, my futile blinker tried to point me back onto my path, but the click-click-click-click started to sound like a cry for help. I finally arrived at work feeling depleted, stressed, and angry, and all I had done was driven 3.1 miles to my office.
I need to seek refuge. A moment where I can check-out and refuel as I prepare to continue taking on the bustling world for another day. Maybe that’s as grand as a ten-day meditation retreat, or a standing massage appointment. But until I can find ten days off in a row and a pot of gold to fund the massages, I am going to take baby steps. For instance, every time I put down my phone, I want to set it next to a book, and when I feel the urge to swipe the unlock, I will pick up the book instead. I am going to start only doing one load of laundry at time, so I am not staring at and sifting through piles and piles of clean and wrinkled clothes for days on end. I will also try not to tightly grip my steering wheel and flip off fellow drivers, even if they do honk at me repeatedly. Small gestures to cut the chaos. Sometimes the littlest actions can make the biggest collective impact.
My husband and I recently took a trip to Ireland for my job. One of our favorite things to do is walk around the streets of an unknown city armed only with a folded map. Trying to disguise the giant tourist sign on my forehead I generally attempt to play it cool and conceal the map as much as possible while I search for the nearest landmark incognito. In Ireland, however, there was no hiding that map. Any time a friendly local would hear the rustle of the paper, he or she popped over and asked what they could help us find. At first we didn’t know how to react. Genuine unsolicited helpfulness? Friendly eye contact? From a stranger? There had to be some sort of catch. I immediately felt more at ease though, as if I was free to be taken care of by a community.
The other day my three-year-old daughter dropped a clamshell of tomatoes at Trader Joe’s and at least ten people started dancing around them as if they were tiny red land mines, huffing in annoyance as they quickly tip-toed past us. At first, I let their irritation seep into me. I felt my cheeks burn as I watched my little girl freeze before she started to hurriedly pick them up, her little fingers narrowly missing the feet scurrying past her, each with a more important place to be. And that’s when my embarrassment shifted from the spilled tomatoes to the fact that not one person offered to help us pick up them up. This is not the example of community that I want my kids to witness.
I started planning our move to Ireland as I squatted down on the floor. I looked my sweet girl in the eyes and asked if she needed my help. She seemed relieved and we proceeded to giggle as we tossed them back into their plastic vessel. After we finished, she gave me a big hug and I resisted the urge to glare at our fellow shoppers as we rejoined the masses. Instead, I smiled and winked at my daughter as she reached for another carton of tomatoes, and I meant it.
It is my hope that a few changes to my day-to-day habits will provide me with the bandwidth to withstand a few honks, spills, and traffic jams. I know that a smile, a wave, a book, and a friendly head nod is not going to revitalize a sense of place and community. It’s not going to change the world, but in the wise words of Macklemore, it’s a damn good place to start.
Marissa B. Niranjan is trying not to cry over spilled tomatoes and although she continues to work on her etiquette behind the wheel, she will ALWAYS wave if you let her in.