When I was 16 and learning to drive, my Aunt Mary and Uncle Ed invited me and my ungovernable older brother Jackie to visit them at their summer camp. Wedged into the triangle formed by the borders of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, the camp was as primitive as an outhouse and, for us, a couple of kids from Long Island who rarely went farther than Manhattan, as remote as the wilds of Australia. We were, as Jackie scoffed throughout our long weekend, “in the middle of nowhere.”
Jackie drove us to the middle of nowhere in his navy blue Volkswagen bug, alternately seesawing the clutch with the gas pedal to avoid rolling down hills and frantically retrieving the joint he continually dropped on the floor, on his lap, and in the skinny space between his seat and the door. I watched this chaos wordlessly, in frozen fear and awe. Somehow, probably because my nun-turned-mother was praying on her French-windowed porch, her hands glued together as she sat, bolt upright I suspect, in the nubby red upholstered chair that faced onto the street, we made it alive.
But here’s the thing about the drive: I hardly ever looked up. I stared at whatever car was in front of us, because I didn’t want Jackie to hit it.
And that’s what I want to talk about today.
Going to the country taught me a few lessons, but the most important, the most memorable, the most useful, came from my Uncle Neil, who Aunt Mary also had invited to camp. One afternoon, Uncle Neil piled us into his car and set out onto a highway, pointing out the this n’ that of country vacations, the farms, cows, horses and cornstalks swaying in the breeze, the family-style restaurants whose horizon-stealing signage promised all-you-can eat smorgasbords, the deer families that gathered by the sides of the highway as if they hadn’t noticed that, 10 feet away, road-killer 18-wheelers whizzed by.
As we gawked at the wildlife, Uncle Neil told us a trick he’d learned driving on country highways. “Keep the car in front of you in your line of vision, but look at the entire roadway,” he said. “You’ll see so much more that way.”
Even then, in my bubble-headed youth, I knew it was a metaphor.
Last week, after snow the consistency of confectioner’s sugar coated my town, I found myself driving on a small highway near my house. In that moment, for no good reason, I thought of Uncle Neil, and I looked up.
Among the cool green pines and the russet warmth of surviving leaves on deciduous trees, a silvery incandescence glistened. The limbs of the trees shimmered and shimmied, strutting their newfound, bejeweled glory. It was an ethereal, ghostly, gorgeous scene, one that on any ordinary day I would have missed in my hurry to get home.
Except I heard the echo of Uncle Neil’s words from long ago.
And I listened.
Here is what I ask you to do this week: take a walk, and look up. Notice the cloud of warm air that condenses into tiny drops of water and ice directly in front of your face. Then look beyond that cloud. Notice the black-capped chickadee that flutters among the limbs of your spreading Norway maple. If you live in New England, notice the soaring Eastern white pines, the bounty of them, straining their arms as if to embrace winter.
Notice the sky, what mood it is in. I see now the horizon’s gray darkening as snow stalks us, but you may see a glow of sunshine or smoky clouds of rain. Either way, look up! View the world that lies beyond your usual boundaries.
Then write a little paragraph about it. Share your thoughts with a family member, a trusted friend, your cat or your mirror. If you are or have been a participant in any of the Candlelight Writing Workshops, send it to me. I’d love to read it.