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  • Jan Flynn

Life is a Road Trip

Thinking of it that way is my key to sanity

This week, I confess I have fallen into error

It’s a mistake I have made, alas, many times over. It has to do with taking myself seriously. That leads to brooding about my life purpose, which prompts a lot of bother: setting goals against which to measure myself; pondering the state of the world (awful) and what I can do about it (little); feeling vaguely anxious at the end of each day, worried that I haven’t done enough with it.

I haven’t slept well. That’s partly due to the smoke detectors in this house. We’ve recently moved back into it after seven years of renting it out and living elsewhere, so a few things have escaped our management. It turns out that smoke detectors have a life span of about ten years, at the end of which they are given to going off at random, earsplitting intervals. They are designed, sadistically but effectively, so that they do this between the hours of two and five in the morning. There has been a lot of bleary ladder-climbing in the wee hours while we changed all their batteries, but until we replace the whole system, we go to bed in a certain amount of suspense.

But I can’t blame my insomnia entirely on aging wiring, unless it’s my own. Once I get too serious about myself, the botheration doesn’t stop when the lights go out. My ego, always happy to take the wheel, refuses to let my mind’s engine idle and instead steers it down every distressing side road it happens upon. How much am I contributing to climate change, and did I forget to buy carbon offsets for our last flights? What’s happening to women in Afghanistan this very moment, and will the donation I sent to that NGO make any difference at all? Are the midterm elections really going to be a disaster, and if so what should I do about it? If I have people over for dinner during the holidays, do I have enough plates? Where would they all sit? Did I make a haircut appointment for my husband for next week, or was it this week and he forgot?

Next to the term “unproductive” in the dictionary, there is a picture of me lying in bed at 3 AM with my eyes wide open. Wherever my ego-driven brain takes me, the one place it avoids is the here and now.

You’d think after all this time on Earth I’d have figured this out. But habit is a sticky thing, especially when it can cling to the strained scaffolding of a society obsessed with doing rather than being.

A shift in thinking snapped me out of it

I was sitting at a sidewalk table with my husband, outside of one of our favorite coffee houses, between sips of my 3/4 decaf Americano with cream. The morning was lovely, the sidewalk trees at their late-summer apex, the traffic languid. I regarded my husband, contentedly drinking his coffee and smiling at the occupant of a passing stroller, and I thought, this feels just like when we’re on a road trip.

And then it came to me, in one of those rare washes of illumination that break through when the ego relaxes its guard. We are on a road trip. All of us, all the time, every day, whether or not we’re in the car. As I allowed this realization to sink in, my crust of tension crumbled away. I was right here, right now, with no concern about evaluating or managing or controlling or doing anything at all with the moment besides living in it. That’s what you do on a road trip.

Life is commonly referred to as a journey, but a journey feels much heavier to me than a road trip. Journeys have goals, destinations, even missions, no matter how much we protest otherwise. Road trips are purposely unpurposeful. With a literal road trip, there is usually a faster or more efficient way to reach whatever the end or turnaround point is. The reason to load up the car or the RV with fuel and snacks is to simply head out, see what you see, meet who you meet along the way. Some of it will be great, some of it won’t, some of it will make a good story.

I’m on a road trip, I remembered. Just passing through, taking in the experience as I go, and appreciating it just as it is. My whole body changed. I felt like I’d just shuffled off a backpack loaded with pointy rocks. I mentioned my quiet revelation to my husband.

“Yep,” he said. “It’s best to approach life as a vacation. Lets you see things better. That’s pretty much what I do, walk around, saying hi to the trees and birds and buildings, thanking them for being there.”

Who knew I’ve been living with my spiritual teacher all this time?

On the way home, I didn’t waste a thought on planning the rest of my week or day or hour. I looked out the window, and saw things. People, young, old, in between, all on their own trips through this humdrum, astonishing world. Dogs, squirrels, fancy houses, neglected houses, the river gliding alongside the road at its unhurried, late-August pace.

There was the sign on a café I’ve passed a hundred times before. With my road-trip vision restored, I took in its message afresh: DOG FRIENDLY PATIO ALL POSITIONS WANTED. Such a refreshing lack of concern for punctuation, and such fodder for amusing mental images. It’s easy to miss this kind of thing when you forget that you’re on a road trip.

Road trips don’t last forever, which is another good thing to keep in mind. At this point in my life, more of my personal path is in the rear view mirror than ahead of me. But that’s nothing to worry about. Some of my dearest fellow travelers have long since come to the end of their roads. Every day that I get to keep rolling along is an experience to savor, even when the weather is lousy or the engine light goes on. Until my vehicle breaks down completely, I plan to appreciate the ride.

I expect I’ll sleep better now

Unlike a literal road trip, tonight I’ll get to curl up in my own familiar bed, with my husband and the dog gently snoring nearby. If my ego starts sputtering sometime before dawn, I’ll remind it that it doesn’t have to protect me from the future. Nothing is such a big deal: we’re just on a road trip. It’s okay to relax and drift down the highway toward dreamland.

Until the smoke alarms go off.

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