Artwork by Alex Nodopaka
It’s just another Sunday, except it’s not raining. I’m late, as usual, to pick up my daughter from a sleepover which means I’ll also be late getting her to my ex-husband’s house. As usual. To compensate for my lack of punctuality I’m speeding, but it’s okay because I live out in the boonies and the highway is so empty I could be the protagonist of some dystopian novel. Because my thirteen-year-old isn’t in the car I’m in full goofball mode, singing along to Pat Benatar as I race toward the neighboring town. I’m not thinking about anything in particular, certainly nothing deep. It occurs to me that the lack of rain is nice, since June has been the second wettest ever recorded. As the sunlight glints off the windshield I smile at my sunbelt brother’s recent comment about New England weather, “It’s like Seattle now, only it’s not cool.” Well, not today. I take in the cloudless sky, the bolts of molten blue, and think of Emily Dickinson. Think maybe I’ll write a poem when I get back home. If I have time after grocery shopping. And the gym. Walking the dog, folding laundry, mowing my overgrown lawn. On the radio Bono displaces Pat Benatar, but I don’t know the words to the song so I hum aimlessly and press the gas pedal a little harder. One exit to go.
Even from a distance, the damage to the car is shocking. I’ve been driving a long time and I’ve seen my share of accidents. Cars on fire, cars flung to the opposite side of the road and turned upside down, cars wrapped around trees. This car is melded to a cement abutment, the base of an overpass. The front of the vehicle is more or less gone, crushed, with a deep V indentation whose point reaches far into the metallic body. I can’t tell what make or model it is. From the number of rescue vehicles parked nearby, the accident must have happened fairly recently. Figures in various uniforms are crouched over the wreckage but it’s impossible to know whether someone is still inside. Either way it doesn’t matter, in a way. Because nobody could have survived an impact of that magnitude. The doors to the ambulance are open but there’s a slow-motion quality to the scene. The usual urgency, the stop-watch race against death, is absent. This isn’t about saving a loved one, it’s about recovering the lost, recording details, finding answers.
The scene fades behind me as my Subaru picks up speed. For the moment I’m too shaken to drive faster than the limit. If anything, I’m driving under it. To hell with lateness, timetables, visitations. I just want to see my daughter, to pile her duffel bag into the back seat and fight over radio stations. I might even sing, just to hear her jaded teen-age groans of discontent. And I do. And for a few minutes, the brief space of our trip back, the day seems beautiful and slow and outrageously fragile, a glass prism I can lift and refract until life splits into a spectrum of moments. But then routine asserts itself and 21st-century time coheres again into the familiar blur of my over-packed schedule. I drop off my daughter, throw in a load of laundry, write another 2,000 words of my romantic suspense novel, ignore a couple of texts, answer a few more. In other words, the poetry of life—even the poetry of death—is displaced by the prose of my fast-forward existence. By the end of the day I’m not thinking about the dead. I don’t even bother to try to catch the local news for a mention of the story. I’ve already forgotten.
Last night I dreamt about hurricanes, about a sea with waves so high the spray rained onto my face even though I was safe behind glass. That’s not artistic license or craft or anything like it. It’s true. I can still see the dark water and when I do I still feel afraid. I don’t know if it was the dream that drove me to Google the accident or something entirely different. I only know that I did. Of course the driver died instantly. Of course officials are investigating the cause of death. No explanations were given in the online article and the lack of closure bothered me. How does a car swerve into a concrete abutment on a quiet, sunny morning? Theories presented themselves, but none seemed more plausible than the others. For a few minutes, I sipped my too-strong coffee and wondered why I had never bothered to follow up on the crash. Was I callous? Too obsessed with my own small world? Was my lack of interest the inevitable result of our country’s crisis-mentality? Was it possible for me to hang onto sensitivity in a world of endless school shootings and natural disasters, serial killers and despots, a world that asks too much of our hearts? Most important of all, did I need to change?
Before I could stop myself, I typed the dead man’s name into my search engine. A slew of results appeared in half a millisecond and as I clicked through the links I felt a lot like a funeral crasher. Sure, all of the entries—the Facebook page, the newspaper obituary, even the site about the dog license—were in the public domain, but did I have the right to probe this stranger’s life? Whatever the case, I did. I read that he was 33 years old and had married “the love of his life.” That he had a young child, was passionate about music, had attained the Boy Scout’s Rank of Life Scout. Via the city license site, I even tracked down the name of his dog. I learned from Facebook that one of his favorite books was Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, also a favorite of mine. I’ve even listed it as one of a handful of books on my own Facebook page. For some reason this struck me as uncanny.
Kundera tells us “there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one's own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.” After reading all I had about the dead man, was the emotion I felt—the sensation I couldn’t put a name to—that bread-and-butter word otherwise known as compassion? I’m not sure.
At the beginning of his novel Kundera considers Nietzsche’s theory of eternal return, which posits that every experience recurs ad infinitim. Your best friend’s wedding, the time you spilt tea on your mother-in-law, the moment you realized you were in love. Hitler’s exterminations, Stalin’s gulag. The slow death of your father from cancer. The moment you realized the man you loved wasn’t in love with you. Play. Pause. Repeat….Forever. Clearly, Nietzsche’s crazy-clock world is a mixed bag. Not so bad, to be on your honeymoon till oblivion. But who wants to even contemplate Hitler’s concentration camps echoing out toward the ends of the time-space continuum? Wouldn’t it be better to think of our lives as mere impressions, the ripple of a fingertip traced across clear water? Isn’t it more appealing to weave all existence into one gossamer web of impermanence? Sounds about right, if you ask me.
Kundera wrestles with this question but provides no clear answers. At one point he almost gives a call to arms for lightness: “If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness.” That sounds as if he’s telling us—practically ordering us—to live for the fleeting moment, to embrace the joy of weightlessness. But later on he seems to change sides. Accepting the heaviest of burdens, he states, is “life’s most intense fulfillment.” When I apply this puzzle to my own life, I don’t find any definitive answers either. Is it better to choose lightness, speed, life lived well past the speed limit of indelible? Or do I slow to reality, to grief—but also to love and real beauty, the beauty only Nietzsche’s “weight” can confer? Or is there a third choice, one that insulates us even as it isolates? Does the pace of postmodern life prevent us from truly experiencing either of these alternatives, life now an endless feed of virtual moments we are bound to forget for no reason other than the sheer quantity of information that is perpetually thrust at us?
I waver, unable to decide whether to keep building on Kundera’s philosophical castles in the air or to end this here so you and I can get on with our day. Zumba starts in an hour, my water bill is overdue, and a friend I’ve alienated is, inexplicably, texting. Postmodern Reality will rise. Even so, I think I’ll take a minute—maybe two—to notice how the sunlight slants across my kitchen floor. On the counter, a pot of freshly brewed coffee waits.