Tuesday, June 27, 2006

I Made It!

Hi. I'm back. My travels went well. And the conference was amazing.

Let me post about the travels first, to follow up from my previous posting, in which I confessed to ambivalence and anxiety about car culture and long car journeys.

In that posting, I wrote:

My journey ... [will be] a journey through my own fears and my ambivalence about car culture. I will try to notice the landscape and be aware of my body in motion across the land. But most of my attention will be occupied with negotiating with other vehicles along the highways, doing my share, as best as I can, to keep the roads and highways safe.

It is bizarre and surreal that we engage in this form of transportation where small errors of judgment can yield disastrous consequences in an instant. Why do we accept this? Or maybe I should ask a different question: how do we accept this? Answer: through denial. And so because we can, we do, and we never really get to the “why?” question.

I did try to be aware of the landscape (much of it quite beautiful), and aware of myself in motion across the face of the earth, but my prediction was right: a lot of my attention was occupied with the other traffic. I felt the denial turn on. I felt my attention narrow, and knew that it had to, in order to help me (and others!) survive this. What is the spiritual cost? I can accept that this is sometimes necessary in times of high stress: an effective psychological coping mechanism. But for 8 1/2 hour stretches (which is how long I spent driving each way)?

To console myself, I tried to interpret this as a kind of spiritual meditation. Some of my students have told me that they love long drives and find them meditative. Might there be value in the mental discipline of this, I wondered?

I don't have answers yet.

Much of the trip was fine. At times I was enjoying it.

The only two scary things that happened were:

1. When Rubber Hits the Road. I was behind a big tractor-trailer, leaving space, appreciating the pace this driver was setting. Suddenly, a huge piece of tread went flying off (about 6 feet by 3 feet, and pretty thick!) It flew up at first (good thing I wasn't closer or it would have hit my windshield) and then went dancing on the road in front of me. Quick glances at mirrors revealed that I was hemmed in and had no room to take evasive action. So I aimed to run over this huge flopping thing in a way that I hoped would do the least damage and create the least likelihood that I would lose control of my car. It took a lot of discipline and focus to aim straight for an unexpected obstacle I feared, and to determine to keep as straight a path as I could to protect the other drivers around me, but it worked. I did not lose control, and as far as I could tell, it caused no damage to my car.

All of this happened in a split second. It is afterwards that suddenly you find yourself shaking. I had now two thoughts in my mind: (1) stop following this truck, and (2) pull over at the next rest stop to check for damage. From then on, I gave myself permission to pass any dubious vehicles that looked like things could fall off them.

2. The Impossibly Crowded Highway. As I approached Major City at the end of my journey there, I found myself merging onto an impossibly crowded highway. The cars were going insanely fast and leaving almost no space between vehicles. Meanwhile, cars in two entering lanes were packed tightly around me. While I was leaving space for the car in front of me, the car behind me was right on my tail. I still don't know how I made it onto the highway (not only without hitting anyone, but without anyone honking at me)!

What's more, this was a part of my journey where I hadn't checked about my next transition. With traffic like this, I didn't even dare to glance at the large instructions written out on a pad of paper beside me. I just made my way to the center lane (afraid of the rapidly entering traffic to my right, and the speed demons to my left), hung in there with the traffic ahead of me even though everyone was going much faster than I felt comfortable going, and studied the signs praying that the correct exit would ring a bell! This strategy did work, fortunately.

The trip back was less eventful. It was a Sunday, and the traffic was lighter. There was a lot of heavy rain at first, but it lessened as I drove out of the storm that I later learned caused significant flooding in the region I was now leaving.

Mid-Journey Blues

On both the trip down and the trip up, I reached a State of Despair in the middle of the journey. I could tell I was getting tired, and still had a very long way to go. I remembered that this would happen on my bicycle trips -- I'd be so tired, but afraid to stop out of fear that if I did stop, I would never be able to get going again. But what I learned in those days was that stopping was amazingly restorative. To stop for a half an hour to an hour made all the difference in the world. I would resume with increased physical energy, and revived spirits.

"But surely it's not the same when driving?" I thought to myself. "I'm not physically tired!" But I tried it anyway. I realized that it was my attention that was tired -- tired of staying so focused. I went to a restaurant and let myself just sit and be spacey, not trying to direct my attention at all. I savored the salad I ordered. I savored the stillness and stability of the world around me. After the meal, I walked around a bit and stretched my stiffened muscles. And sure enough, when I got going again, I felt much better. The rest of the trip passed more quickly.

Talking to Myself

The other trick I learned was to start talking to myself when I'd start to feel a little fatigued. Example: I'm feeling fatigued. A sign flashes past: next rest stop 18 miles. How do I stay awake for another 18 miles? Start talking to the world that flashes past! I read signs out loud. I comment to the traffic around me: a car passes me, so I say, "Hi Toyota!" I pass a car, so I say, "Hi good people! You are setting a good pace -- sorry to pass you -- I'm not intending to be critical -- I'm just trying to keep things interesting to keep my own mind awake." A stunning vista opens up before me as I crest a hill, so I say, "Wow, look at that view! Just spectacular!" Then I'd get myself back on track, "What am I looking for?" Etc.

Conclusions

So, I made it there and back again, and learned that I can do it. But it still doesn't seem to be a good idea. I have a feeling that in the long run, this is not how we will do transportation. We will shift to increasing the options for long-distance travel, and people will accept these other options with enormous gratitude.

But for now, this is what some of us sometimes have to do, if we wish to fit certain kinds of meaningful experiences into our crowded lives. The conference I attended was very important for me -- the next important step in the new leading I have started talking about. And somehow it felt important for me to cover the distance, to measure the distance, using my own effort this time instead of flying. Even though I have a lot of ambivalence about car culture, this mode of travel seemed to be a part of the overall leading. It was like hitting that tire tread in the road: sometimes we have to aim right for what we are most afraid of in order to get to the next level in our lives. My leading has a lot to do with confronting more directly the problems of the world. And to do that effectively requires that I move into more direct engagement with the characteristics of the world that I criticize, so that I can be sure to speak from reflected-on experience instead of from evasive fear.

Next time, I'll write about the conference itself.

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