Red lights

*** This piece was one of a slew (I googled "synonyms of slew" so-as not to use that word and what came up was synonyms for slay because slew is past tense for slay? I'm keeping slew.) of posts which I never published, but am coming back to belatedly publish anyway in an effort to "honor my process" ...

Thank you for your honoring of the BLAHG <3



California winters allow for windows-down-driving all year long. It's worth the wind-knots in my hair and occasional ear drum pain while speeding on the 5 South. It's this windows-down-driving window extension which, as I characteristically-last-minute-switch-four-lanes to my exit, has daily prompted the question, "Why can't I seem to keep my car music turned up at a red light?" My therapist would encourage me to rephrase this as instead a mere statement rooted in curiosity: “I wonder why I can’t seem to keep my music turned up at a red light.”


“Huh,” I would say, then. “That’s interesting.” Alas, the inquisition remains.

My foot hitting the brake pedal (to brakes which currently squeal) sets off an instinctive, immediate impulse which my hand answers: lower the volume. I’ve recognized for years that this is a habit I’d like to push against, but to this day no amount of reminder-setting seems to abolish the muscle memory associated with quieting my presence in a line of traffic. So what gives? (*I wonder what gives.)


It’s potentially the same reason I jaywalk to the other side of the street when my speed walking leads me to encroach the space of a sidewalk-walker in front of me (especially now, as my mere breath escaping out from under my mask is a disruption to the fresh air a stranger glides into as they cruise concrete slabs). The same reason I always (always) used to say sorry instead of thank you, or else say thank you 400 times in response to one kind act, or never use my car horn, or seldom get angry.


Likely the reason I can never go back to the Imperial Beach Swap Meet, because one of the vendors promised me she would bring back a bucket of buttons (I’m repurposing a thrift store man’s shirt, again.) the following week and I forgot. I think about the wasted effort she exerted hoisting that bucket of buttons into her cart every single time I drive past the drive-in lot.


It's perhaps the reason I often have trouble letting things be nuanced (isn't it my job to explain everything in detail, lest someone misunderstand?), often feel inclined to smile even when someone says something offensive (ha ha, I love that you just undermined my competency! nice one! *high five*), and feel responsible to take on burdens for which I am not responsible (so the emotional well-being of others isn't mine to manage?).


Is it out of consideration for others (respect) or self-consciousness (fear) that I am so compelled toward such things -- to lower my volume at red lights? And why is quieting such a worthy-seeming compulsion?

I wonder often if I grew up watching my parents do this. I wish these days our relationship was intact just so that I could visit them and watch for these things. Would they, at the Four Corners (our colloquial term for where the two paved roads intersected at one neglected stop light) of our town, turn the radio dial down out of respect or fear?


Raised Southern Baptist in the heart of the Midwest, they were taught integrity and modesty. Entitlement wasn’t a term so used in those days but if it were it likely wouldn’t have been one familiar to them so they weren’t exactly keen on doing what they wanted irregardless of everyone else. There’s a certain allure to this way of living -- so accustomed to others.

I can remember moments growing up when some flashy red clunker would pull up next to us with their music blasting. I always inspected them from behind the barrier of my window frame, wincing at their excruciating decibel of Garth Brooks: how can you be so unaware of others? (And how can you listen to country?)

Contemptible myself, these days I non-silently judge every single asshole who insists on revving their engine as the light goes green or braaap-ing their motorcycles as they pass me and my friends on the highway. We yell “FOR WHAT?” and make fun of what we assume to be compensation. I have a ridiculously unfounded bias against people who drive large, guzzling trucks. And yet, there’s a certain allure to that way of living, too. It takes an admirable amount of ownership to knowingly pollute the air with your tricked-out exhaust system or rumble pavement with the level of your speaker’s base.


I have a friend who sincerely does not notice when people need to walk past her in a walkway. It used to really bother me — I would always think she was unmoving on purpose, as if someone as sweet and generous and thoughtful as her would go out of her way to inconvenience a stranger. After long enough, I got used to this nonverbal quirk of hers and realized that perhaps, standing in the middle of the liquor isle at Target mulling over boxed wine (that was so clever), she was simply so present in our conversation that she did not notice someone needing to pass through while I, mind wandering and wondering at distractions, was more concerned with a stranger needing to walk by than the friend standing in front of me. Neither of us have or will likely overturn our personalities all that much, even when meeting in the middle: her contentedness with that which is before her, my disenchantment with that before me. Could we be so different and still relate?


Our friendship has sincerely respired since I've said yes to that question and begun to unpack the truth that respect for ourselves and respect for others can co-exist. That caring about and paying attention to others is not synonymous with the erasure of self. It's obvious and perhaps trite to state but for myself, somewhere along the way (ahem! Evangelicalism!), this all got jumbled. In a culture of exclusivity and scapegoating, how could differences exist, let alone boldly thrive?


Garth Brooks, who I mentioned above (see, telling you that I mentioned it above is me having trouble letting things be nuanced), sang Amazing Grace at today's inauguration. When he walked onto the platform I unthinkingly remarked to my roommates, "Who is THIS Buffalo Bill?" Irreverent or comical as it was (music was one such way the ceremony -- successfully or not -- attempted to communicate unity, with artists from pop to reggaeton to country), my reactiveness at a man in a cowboy hat illuminated one of many examples of culture wars in the U.S.


In the early days of the BLM protests last summer, Chicago was a barking field with the energy of a rescue pittie: fond and volatile at once. One car rally in downtown was five hours of unrelenting honking and chanting as we circled Daley Plaza. Around an hour in, my car horn stopped working. The sensation of pressing a silent horn is excruciating when your voice is shot and sound is your main means of allyship. I remember thinking how ironically symbolic (symbolically ironic?) that was: how our voices can be taken away from us and with them our sense of power.


Generations of people being erased and erasing themselves and erasing each other has led to an intense collective reclamation of all things irreverent and angry and entitled and therefore polarized. When will we listen? Can we even start to listen until we feel heard? Is there space for being heard under circumstances which oppress and continue to silence?


Attuned to ourselves on the highway, we sing along to melodies which ignite and caress our deepest senses through transportive encounters. Velocity pairs nicely with being present in the moment. But as we slow down, approaching red lights, what momentarily transported us in motion fades into awareness of the reality of our present pause: a perhaps quiet space filled with inspecting eyes and perked ears. Is it necessary to quiet ourselves for the sake of others? Is anyone even asking us to?


Muscle memory will -- for now -- continue to ignore my reminders to override this habit of restraining because, in the end, I ask it of myself. And that's on me.


I developed a lot of my learning about how to communicate within a culture which often prioritized groupthink over the feelings of an individual. This meant constant attunement to those outside of ourselves but consequently crippling dissonance within the Self. (Confusingly, it also meant -- despite love and harmony as objectives -- discord with anyone not on the inside: attention given to the lines to live within over the lives lived within those lines.) Women are especially susceptible within that culture to volunteer their selves as an unsolicited sacrifice. To quiet themselves. And for the sake of what? For who? And at what point does our complacency within a rigged system point to a problem within ourselves?


It's disorienting to leave one world and find ourselves in a world all too familiar. (Remember that "can't escape the water" thing?) I forsook racist jokes and anti-political-correctness to find myself all the same insensitive to that which I choose to be insensitive about. (Though, obviously, let's remember I'm a snowflake... AND a Pisces. So really is me seeing myself as insensitive just me being overly sensitive about my level of sensitivity?) Has once religious restraint reincarnated as now guilt filter? Has external conditioning manifested from within? Will it always?


Empathy is a worthy objective, albeit an elusive entity. Conflated with enmeshment, it's less about understanding and more about forfeiting boundaries which are essential to our sense of self. I have yet to meet someone for whom I couldn't rationalize giving the benefit of the doubt. This is to my (and likely the collective) detriment; and in my realizing that, it (slowly) no longer remains inconceivable that someone be held responsible for themselves just as much as I hold myself responsible for myself.


These days I drive more like a Chicagoan than someone from my hometown. On dirt roads, you didn't drive past someone outside working on their lawn without slowing down; without them looking up to wave at you and you waving at them. I want to never forget how phenomenal that is, that strangers would give each other such generous respect like that, without question, without exception. And yet I love to live in my own world as I drive through the city. I love not engaging with other drivers but to throw my hands up at slow ones and honk obnoxiously at obnoxious ones. What if urban vs. rural or car vs. truck or attentive vs. unaware or quiet vs. loud are inconsequential contentions? (They are.) What if some people simply enjoy country music, Camille? (For posterity's sake the deliberation over country music is standing as a metaphor for various things more and less important than radio genre.)


I don't know how to end this because I seem to be making a long-winded argument for individual hedonism and I'm not sure that's the hill I'm dying on today. (Is individual hedonism redundant? I googled this but found no answer so I'm asking you, hypothetical reader.) I suppose the tl;dr is that everyone lives differently and there is acceptance for all of it.


Some mystic on some podcast years back said something that I wrote down on a post-it note and have had stuck on whichever wall is above my bed ever since: "Everything belongs. How could it not belong, if it's here?" I love this sentiment. I love that the question forces us to accept the hard truth that no matter how much we may wish something away, the fact remains that it's here. Maybe in the future it won't be here, but in the present moment we have to deal with it.


There's a lot to purge as a collective and as individuals in the process of healing. There's a lot that as a nation we have to face head on, within society and within ourselves, before ever expecting things to get better. Who knows if we're capable of that but if we aren't, that's something we need to accept so that we can begin to broaden our capacity for change. It starts with us.


You didn't think this would be about politics! Neither did I! But here we are. And it *almost* feels connected. So drive how you want but respect the road. Let your voice represent you and let others be heard. And listen to them. And maybe, on a warm California winter afternoon with your windows down, you will actually enjoy the sound of Springsteen.


Ride on.