Sunday, September 30, 2007

Varoom Varoom

The Escape is going to be six years old next month. Together we’ve traveled over 90,000 miles. Last week I took her in for a check-up. I’d called ahead and reserved a rental car so that I wouldn’t have to sit in the customer service lounge reading out-of-date magazines and listening to other customers either talk loudly on their cell phones or snore for the several hours I’d been told the check-up would take.

When I got there, however, there had been a mistake in the scheduling and it appeared for a moment that I would, in fact, be consigned to wait. I must have sounded pretty pitiful when I asked, "Do you have anything at all available?" because the older of the two gentlemen at the rental desk looked at the other and said, "Well, we could let her have the little red car."

The first image that came to mind was a loaner Mama got once when her van was in the shop after hitting or having been hit by (depending on one’s interpretation of events) a deer. It was a Dodge Colt and sounded like a sewing machine mounted on a wheel barrow. Beggars, of course, can’t be choosers so I just smiled and walked outside to await the arrival of my transportation.

As anyone who has ever read a fairy tale or a John Grisham novel knows, life is full of surprises and I couldn’t help laughing out loud when the rental desk man came wheeling around the corner in a candy-apple red Mazda RX-3. (I know the make and model only because I read it on the flashing digital dashboard display as I was trying to figure out how to turn on the radio. Before that moment I would have simply called it a sports car.)

The rental desk man smilingly explained to me that I did not need a key to crank this beautiful piece of machinery – only a very thin computer card which had only to be somewhere inside the vehicle when I turned the knob that looked for all the world like an ordinary ignition switch into which someone on the assembly line had forgotten to cut the keyhole.

Correctly identifying the bewildered expression on my face as that of a person who suspects that she has just been given far too much power, he went on to say, "You’re going to be fine." This man had clearly not been present during my first driving lesson some 35 years ago when I nearly hit a fire hydrant, burst into tears and promised Daddy that I would never get behind the wheel of a car again.

Taking a deep breath, I adjusted the seat by pressing three separate levers, turned on the windshield wipers (the only thing in the entire car that looked like and was located in the same place as the corresponding item on the Escape) and eased slowly into traffic. I must say that I felt a bit conspicuous – almost as though I was wearing a skirt that was little too short – but by the time I got back to the interstate and accelerated down the ramp, that feeling was long gone.

It had been replaced by a feeling I couldn’t have identified even if I’d tried, but I wasn’t trying. I flashed down that highway, moving from lane to lane with a unnaturally languid grace. I settled into a pulsing rhythm that was at the same time comfortable and exhilarating. I watched light glint off the glossy-like-nail-polish paint job and heard myself singing along with the radio so loudly that, had the sun roof been open, the Mack truck in the other lane could have heard me.
And at that moment I understood.

There is something about a car that is fast and flirty and shiny and more engine than anything else that turns a utilitarian object, a means of getting from one place to another, into a symbol and that makes the driver of that object an archetype – man or, in this case, woman searching for freedom.

People drive expensive sports cars for lots of reasons, but I know now that for at least some of them, it has nothing to do with showing off or gaining attention (though I did find that attention can be thusly gained). For those people, it has nothing to do with the response of others, but the response of oneself.

In that little red sports car I did not think about the files on my desk, the numbers in my checkbook, the to-do list on my calendar. For a short while, I was totally, absolutely, decisively unencumbered.

And it was fun.

The Escape and I are still together. As far as I’m concerned, we’ll be together for another 90,000 miles. But, to be honest, I’m hoping that the next time we go in for a check-up and I need temporary transportation, I’ll be lucky enough to get that little red car. And next time, I’ll be ready.

Copyright 2007

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sunrise Sunset

My preference for the ocean does not keep me from appreciating other bodies of water, so earlier this summer when my friends Tim and Lori asked if I’d like to visit them at their lake house, my only response was, "When?"

A couple of Saturdays later I was headed north following directions by which only a girl raised in the country would not be intimidated. The sun was high and white making the two-lane asphalt roads glimmer like a mirror ball in a disco. The drought had not yet leeched all the color from the grass along the rights-of-way and the tall green blades swayed back and forth in the breeze of the passing cars.

In Wadley I got detoured by road construction and pulled into a church parking lot interrupting the conversation of two parishioners to ask directions. "Just follow me, honey," one of the ladies said. "I’m going that way."

She got into her car and said, "Now, when I turn right you just keep going straight." And when she turned right, waving wildly out the window, I kept going straight, back on track.

I drove through Sparta and Greensboro, towns where the streets downtown are still busy on a Saturday morning, now paying closer attention to that part of the directions that said things like, "Be on the look-out for a faded wooden sign." Before long the tires on the Escape were crunching over gravel strewn on red clay and I knew I’d arrived.

It is, as I suspected it would be, a beautiful spot. The house looks as though it were built by the trees themselves, as though they had simply leaned themselves against each other in perfect symmetry and balance and melded into each other to keep out the elements. The land slopes gently down to the water where wide shallow waves made by passing boats lick the spit of sand that Tim and Lori’s girls call the beach.

The girls and I played in the water, stuck sycamore leaves in our ponytail holders and called ourselves Indian princesses. We searched for treasures of rocks and twigs and recently-deceased insects. We had hot dogs for lunch and then all went for a ride in the boat, going fast and slow and fast again. We waved at people we knew and people we didn’t. And the day wound down in sentences that got softer and slower as the sun slipped closer to the horizon.

We were sitting on the porch, chairs rocking in unintended rhythm when Tim said, "The sunset. You’ve got to see the sunset from the boat."

Back out on the water, it was then that I identified the mental gnat I’d been swatting all day.

There is another lake house where I’ve spent a lot of time. Another lake. Another set of friends. That house faces east and it is the sunrise that is so exquisitely beautiful, the morning whose quietness drapes around your shoulders and calls you out to see. A mirror image of this place, these friends, this evening.

We are creatures of habit, we humans. We fall into patterns and then assume that those patterns are the only ones. We get used to the sunrise outside our windows and forget that there are windows that frame the sunset. We forget that what we know is not all there is to know.

Later, in the shallow darkness of early summer, we sat in front of a fire listening to crickets and telling stories. The girls came outside smelling like soap and sunshine and convincing their daddy, with little more than a look, that it was a perfect time to roast marshmallows.

His big hands dwarfing the puffy white squares of sugar and egg whites, Tim stuck one on a metal rod and kneeled down in front of the fire. He turned the marshmallow round and round, just barely above the reach of the flames, the color changing from white to yellow to gold to caramel.

"Didn’t you like the sunset?" he asked me without taking his eyes off the marshmallow.

"Yes," I answered him. "Yes, I did."

Copyright 2007

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Entertaining Unawares

By the time Lily and I got started on our walk on Saturday, the sun was already well over halfway up the sky and streaming through whatever is left of the ozone like a wide-angle laser. The wet air settled on my arms and the curls on the nape of my neck the minute I walked out onto the porch. The faint drone of bugs of every sort warned me that I would soon become someone’s lunch.

August in south Georgia. It’s why the sissies move to Atlanta.

About half a mile from the house, headed up the hill toward the crossroad, we came up on one of our neighbors, his truck and those of his companions loaded with deer stands.

"It’s that time of year again," Bruce said in greeting.

"Yeh, and you couldn’t pay me money to be sitting in a tree stand in this kind of weather," I told him, understanding, of course, that this is only one of many reasons why I’d never make much of a hunter.

It was then that I noticed the little girl. Seven or eight years old, I’d guess, she’d stepped out of her daddy’s truck and was looking at Lily. She reached out her hand, palm up, and Lily moved over to sniff. The little girl stood very still while Lily nuzzled her fingertips.

"You know how to make friends with dogs, don’t you?" I asked.

She didn’t say anything, just turned her hand over to rub it across Lily’s black head and my usually manic dog sat down in the road, panting quietly, as the little girl’s gentleness and innocence came pouring out in the light strokes of her fingers.

For a moment, I was oblivious to the heat, the humidity, the hum of the insects around my face. For a moment, all the irritations and uncertainties and sadnesses that had crept onto my shoulders for the last few days seemed weightless. For a moment, the sun and summer and time stood still and all there was was a little girl and a dog looking into each other’s eyes.

I asked and she told me her name was Brin. At least I think that’s what she said. She spoke in a soft voice, almost a whisper, and she didn’t look up at me for more than a second. It was Lily that interested her.

I said my good-byes to Bruce, waved to Brin’s dad in the truck and started back down the road. Lily reluctantly followed.

Earlier in the morning the radio had reminded me that it had been ten years since the nearly simultaneous deaths of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana. Much had been made at the time, and was being made again on this anniversary, of the vast divide between the lives of two women who, in life and in very different ways, had touched the lives of millions and who, in death and surprising similitude, had taught us all lessons about connectedness.

Princess Diana’s gift, a commentator noted, was being able to create a sense of intimacy between herself and whoever else was present – be it a crowd of paparazzi or a single AIDS patient – and it was that ability that endeared her to anyone who ever met her. Mother Teresa did that with the poor and dying with which she chose to be surrounded, offering intimacy to those who had never known the healing power of relationship.

Both of them, like all of us, were haunted by the pain and affliction of a less-than-perfect existence and from that pain and affliction had grown to understand the dependency of all creatures on each other. And both of them had learned the lesson that Mother Teresa articulated in these oft-quoted words: "I have found the paradox that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love."

Something about the encounter with Brin made me think that she had already, somehow, learned that lesson herself and that my own knowledge of that truth would grow, somehow, deeper and truer as a result of that chance meeting.

In the stickiness and sultriness, Lily and I walked almost all the way to the highway. On our way back, we found tire tracks and footprints in the powdery red dust at the top of the hill, the only evidence of our visitation by an angel in blue jeans and a camouflage baseball cap.

Copyright 2007.