Routes to hap­pi­ness

Maryland Independent - - Classified - Twit­ter: @right­meg

I’m no stranger to the road.

With two work­ing par­ents schlep­ping into the city or ru­ral Vir­ginia each week, I was used to hear­ing about traf­fic-clogged streets and stuffy Metro trains. I com­muted to school in Col­lege Park — a time that feels both fa­mil­iar and dis­tant. Un­til I grad­u­ated and got my news­pa­per job, I thought a te­dious daily com­mute was just part of life. We’re no strangers to Route 5 mad­ness.

And that ex­tends south, too. Since chang­ing jobs this July, my 10-minute drive to work now stretches out to nearly an hour. I’m still lo­cal, but swap­ping suburbia for the am­biance of fields and farms. For eight hours, at least.

This daily drive is prob­a­bly what I’ve been most anx­ious about — though to hear my brother-in-law tell it, I can’t call it a com­mute. Eric makes a trek north of Green­belt each day, so I sim­ply have “a drive.”

The man is tired. I’ll give him that one.

I know I’ve been spoiled by liv­ing and work­ing in my com­mu­nity. Grow­ing up with fre­quent sto­ries of Dad try­ing to cross the Woodrow Wil­son Bridge and Mom es­cap­ing the city meant I never took my lo­cal job for granted. Af­ter my son ar­rived, es­pe­cially, I ap­pre­ci­ated how nice it was to be just down the street.

I’ve never been one to mind driv­ing, though. I used to look for­ward — eh, is “for­ward” the right word? — to my col­lege com­mute, be­cause I felt so­phis­ti­cated head­ing out with hot tea to get to (and sleep through?) an 8 a.m. class.

Have I ever told the story of the Belt­way man on a warm win­ter day? The mem­ory of driv­ing down 495 on that bright af­ter­noon is a fa­vorite. I’d fin­ished classes early and was head­ing home to en­joy the sun­shine. From the cor­ner of my eye, I spot­ted a nearby driver rolling down his win­dow.

That’s not usu­ally a good thing. I once had a milk­shake chucked at my door close to exit 11 — no idea why — and, on a sep­a­rate oc­ca­sion, had an­other driver fran­ti­cally ges­tur­ing along­side me. We were both do­ing at least 65.

As­sum­ing that look­ing over meant invit­ing trou­ble, I tried to ig­nore him. But Spencer even­tu­ally cracked a win­dow. Ex­pect­ing to hear a string of ex­ple­tives, it took me a sec­ond to process what the man was ac­tu­ally say­ing. “You have flat­ter!” . . . What? “You have. A flat. Tire!” he yelled.

A flat tire. On the Belt­way. Some kind soul was try­ing to save our lives — on my birth­day, no less — and I’d been do­ing my best to shut down that guardian an­gel.

In my de­fense, the milk­shake in­ci­dent kind of freaked me out.

On that Fe­bru­ary day, though, I saw a man in busi­ness at­tire stick his arm out the win­dow. He ex­tended and tilted it, fin­gers open so the breeze could run through them like warm wa­ter.

It was so un­ex­pected: win­ter abruptly giv­ing way to bril­liant sun­shine; a well-dressed man loos­en­ing up — lit­er­ally — to sa­vor it. Just months from col­lege grad­u­a­tion, I’d been a mess wor­ry­ing about “the fu­ture.” I saw that ges­ture as . . . hope­ful. Sim­ple, but hope­ful.

Com­mut­ing made me feel like I was a part of some­thing. Yes, it was stress­ful, watch­ing the clock with noth­ing but brake lights ahead . . . but it made me re­spon­si­ble, too. And punc­tual. I learned that if you need to be there in an hour, give your­self two. It can’t hurt. And you can al­ways kill time with cof­fee.

Ten years af­ter grad­u­a­tion and I’m back to the daily grind. Spend­ing two hours in the car each day feels fa­mil­iar. I re­mem­ber lis­ten­ing to Jimmy Eat World and the Killers as loud as I could pass­ing Clin­ton, then Brandy­wine, then Wal­dorf. I drive the same car. With 120,000 ad­di­tional miles on it, sure, but that old girl is still serv­ing me — us — well.

Now two car seats fill up my sec­ond row, leav­ing lit­tle room for the candy wrap­pers and empty wa­ter bot­tles and er­rant um­brel­las that want to col­lect there. My hus­band’s sun­glasses seem to live on my dash­board. My trunk is per­ma­nently cramped with strollers and cases of di­a­pers.

I fig­ured I would dread this new drive — you know, alone with my thoughts and such — but, to my sur­prise, I’m al­ready ap­pre­ci­at­ing that “down time.” Friends told me I would. We’re try­ing to view our com­mutes as ex­ist­ing in a plane beyond the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of work and home. Leather-seated limbo, if you will.

Cer­tainly it’s a chance to catch up on read­ing. Or lis­ten­ing, rather. I have three au­dio books checked out from the li­brary right now: back-ups for my back-ups, in case one story gets dull or wraps up quickly. I typ­i­cally fin­ish a disc in a day, or nearly a book a week.

I try lis­ten­ing to the ra­dio some­times, too, but it feels a lit­tle strange. I’ve started to ac­cept that I’m los­ing my grip on mod­ern mu­sic and pop cul­ture. Most songs and artists are un­fa­mil­iar, though I do have Harry Styles’ “Sign of the Times” on re­peat lately. He was in One Di­rec­tion.

See? I know things. I might even have their CDs around some­where.

Watch out, kids: Mama’s dig­ging through her relics.

They’re prob­a­bly in the back­seat. Any­one want to try spelunk­ing?

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