Submitted to a summer writing contest with Toasted Cheese Writer’s Forum in 2012. I believe the theme was “Escape and Renew”. By Kathy G. Rupcic
I had been searching for the term ever since I hit the highway. In our family, it’s the word used to describe those random early spring days that can feel more like summer. Today is freakishly warm.
I’m giving my best effort towards relaxing every overly tense muscle and sinew in my neck. There’s a safe way to do a neck roll and a dangerous way. I devoutly practice this stretch many times a day, and I visualize my therapist’s demonstration as I resist rolling a full 360 degrees, keeping my eyes on the road.
The stress and exertion of today’s job was a clear indicator of a project that was headed way off course. It was yet another in a string of non-stop days where one hardly finds a free moment to go to the bathroom or eat, but ironically finds time to contemplate whether this is really the work they were meant to do. The grind was beginning to take an obvious toll on everyone. Words, actions and attitudes were now threading together in a sadly negative weave.
But, when we’d finally loaded up and headed to the parking lot, what was left of the glorious weather embraced us with a sudden warm kiss and open arms as if to say, “tough one, huh? Well, I waited for you. Come here and get a hug.” We’d missed out on most of it, but forecaster’s predictions for the season’s first day with above average temperatures had been spot on. Each of us had then dropped our collective armors of self-pity; popping on sunglasses, shedding jackets, milling about smiling and chatting – it had been nice. This small celebration had lasted maybe 5 minutes before we’d ducked into cars, turning attention to personal lives and concerns waiting miles away.
Two hours of commuter traffic later, the pre-summer vibe that had offered hope of soothing my chronic edginess is rapidly evaporating. Yes, it feels amazingly good to have my arm propped outside the window, an intense sun painting a patch of heat on exposed skin. Yes, this weather has a good smell; “like jellybeans”, my daughter likes to say. No, no matter where I scan, I don’t see a single cloud in the crystal blue sky.
Yet despite this sensual onslaught, my thoughts and this traffic have really gained the higher ground. Snatches of toxic conversation from the day, tension from desperate scrambling and irrational timelines, and a persistent fretting about a multitude of draining factors on the home front; it’s all plopping into place and beginning to fester in that area right behind my brow bone.
The bend in the highway changes my co-ordinates and I’m smacked in the face by a brilliant sun. I flip the visor down too abruptly. Sighing, I let out an apology. “Sorry sun. It’s not you. It’s me.”
Why can’t I ever let a good feeling simply linger, whether it’s a two-hour commute, half-hour grocery grab or 5-minute coffee break? What have I allowed to get such a grip that adherence to duty, agenda, deadlines and tasks determine my plumb line of happiness, looming and leaving me in a state of either panic or deep-set lethargy? Is joyfulness really only for the young? Or is it me? Have I missed something obvious that everyone else just gets? Have I somehow managed to make just the “right” wrong choices and decisions in my life course? Why can’t I get a handle on that mindfulness practice the self-help gurus keep touting?
I glance quickly at the driver and passenger next to me. They’re engaged in an animated conversation that causes the driver to toss his head back in laughter. Maybe I need to seriously consider sharing my commute.
Whether I’ve overthought myself to the edge or desperately crave mental comfort, I’m compelled to take the Beach Road exit. Before I can change my mind, I glide away from the tense mass of surrounding vehicles. There’s great relief in finally being able to pick up some speed, even if it’s only for the length of the off ramp.
I’m reminded that I’ve pulled the escape hatch again. It’s a habit I’ve had ever since my first job fresh out of college. Driving home after a bad day, I’d instinctively pull off my regular route, in favour of another one, preferably more scenic. It was always an attempt to tweak my senses to a more beautiful world around me. I was young and fiercely intentional about self-preservation and back then this antidote would kick in instantly. Breathing would regulate, shoulders would drop, and my face would soften as I absorbed the affirmation that I do indeed have a life. A life that was sacrosanct from any pressure and competition threatening to invade my pending adulthood.
But this kind of move isn’t so effective these days. More often, I get all the way home, only to find I have scant recollection of driving through any pretty countryside and all I’ve really done is allowed my anxieties time to percolate and become more acute. I still maintain a habit, but one that seems to have lost it’s power.
Is this the case again today? I shift in my seat, and earnestly try taking one or two deep breaths.
Leaving the ramp behind me, I’ve dropped from 100 km to 50km, and I clearly detect just how warm it really is. Homeowners on the beach ritually mark the seasons by flying colourful porch flags and the strip is becoming dotted with vividly coloured nautical symbols, flower bouquets and family monograms. I decide on one and study it as I pass by, trying to read the direction of the wind. It’s blowing off the land today, not the lake. That explains why it isn’t laced with that twinge of watery coolness that can make the difference between balmy and clammy at this time of year. I lower the passenger window, which is landside, and a breeze instantly floods through the car and over my body like lukewarm bathwater.
Maybe I feel a bit calmer but it doesn’t help to suddenly realize I’ve driven halfway down Beach Road with the All News station still cranked up. I shake my head in self-accusation feeling like I’ve committed some sort of blasphemous act on this peaceful stretch of road. A jab and a poke on the satellite buttons stabs life out of the incessant, frantic commentary.
Lowering my ear to one shoulder and rolling to the other, the next inhale that follows is just a little deeper. I allow myself a token of a smile recalling there was actually a second escape hatch. Music. Yeah, news and traffic updates didn’t always rule the ride. I select a random button.
Hearing is one thing. Listening is totally another. A human can always decide to actively listen to something. But then there are those rare times where the experience becomes something else; something that starts to encroach on our being with the inescapable power of an approaching tsunami. Gradually swelling and building in strength and potency, too massive to block or flee, it pours forth sucking us up off the beach of our current state into the turbulent swirl of another.
“Sooner or later, love is gonna let ‘cha…sooner or later, love is gonna win. It’s just a matter of time, before you make up your mind…”
It’s not exactly shock, but more like a strong head- clearing surge that rises up somewhere inside, widening my eyes, snapping my body out of it’s slouch. It causes me to let out a sort of guttural, yet ecstatic yell and give the steering wheel a solid two-handed wallop.
All the neck stretching I’ve done is no match for the pull that comes as my mouth spreads into a smile so wide; I feel it in my collarbone. That breeze riffling through this car, the sun, the warmth, my wind-whipped hair, and my skin; my very being is beginning to take on a whole new presence. I’m unexpectedly, miraculously so happy I want to cry.
This particular song is not just music! This particular song is not just any song! Rather, it’s the exceptional compilation of duration, texture, dynamics, pitch and tone color that came together one summer long ago, carving itself into the annals of my recall. It’s the song that promised me it would never leave, and that if I wanted it to, it would instantly take me back to that one moment in time.
I want it to.
I reach up and liberate a sunroof neglected in my prior wallowing. Without hesitation, I faithfully begin belting out lyrics. The more power, the better so I jack up the volume louder, Louder, LOUDER – until I’m there!
Bounding down a desolate Road 64 we’re headed for the cottage in dad’s 1968 ultra-lux turquoise Thunderbird. Gradually each of us emerges from our road-weary malaise like zombies smelling fresh blood.
“It’s The Grass Roots! I LOVE this song! Turn it up Dad, please?!!!
Thank God he does. In an instant the curse of lethargy is broken; it’s like we’ve all been given the gift of new life. Almost on cue, my brother and I reach for the chrome button tabs, fully releasing the large pane electric windows. Dad’s rule about leaving them halfway down while highway driving no longer applies on this regional road. Now it’s clearly time to let this joy ring out. I mean – it’s The Grass Roots!
It’s also 1971, long before the mandatory restraint of seat belts. Instantly, we’ve started to move and groove over the extended curve-cornered back seat. In sync, out of sync, we really don’t care. We’re working on something and it’s building up. We got it now!
Shimmying all over that backseat space, in our minds we become the band with Ric manning the drums, me whacking that tambourine.
From the front, Mom offers up a carefree soprano contribution, like a church lady cutting loose in a choir. I give Dad a cursory check, happy to see he’s joining in, choosing to whistle and conservatively keep time on the wheel. His eyes dart to the rearview mirror, smirking as we bounce around in the back like a couple of Mexican jumping beans.
I get an idea; eagerly tell Ric how cool it will look and we try it. It sure feels cool as we co-ordinate choral moves; pulling away from each other singing, uniting again to shout out at just the right time.
“It’s just a matter of TIME, before you make up your MIND…”
Peak-of-summer sunshine, hot wind, abandoned voices, limbs and grins and the song of the summer of ‘71! It’s all swirling beautifully and magically together, crafting an eternally vivid two-minute and 41-second memory of never-ending youth and hopeful dreams.
The song carries me right into my driveway. It fades away and I’m not the same. I’ve been both blessed and delivered, and I know it. I feel uncommonly light and limber and I’m still humming as I bounce out of the car.
Unloading my gear, I tune in to my daughter’s voice as she comes barreling down the street with her friends on their bikes. “Hey hi Mom! Can I keep riding for a bit?”
I wave back to her and laugh. They’ve all traded leggings and sweaters for summer shorts and tank tops, and I can only imagine the after school frenzy to dig those items out of storage bins and dresser drawers.
I call out my permission as the little flush-faced squadron fly by. Raising her excited voice as she gains distance from me, I hear “Thanks Mom! Hey Mom – it’s freakishly warm, right?!”
“YOU KNOW IT!” I shout, hoping like anything she can catch the genuine happiness in my voice.
Her little blonde ponytail whips around as she looks back and tosses up her arm in a rapid, giddy response, before she disappears around the block in a wave of excited chatter and shouts.