Whenever I push down a pedal on my bike and glide freely, I smile. I salute the breeze brushing my cheek, bounce over pebbled dirt, swirl around lines of ants and soak in sun and sky. No barrier lies between me and the world.
I prefer to walk barefoot. Strolling through my neighborhood, I step on edges of lawns, discreetly, to saturate my soles with the pulse and ply of the earth rather than the inert block of concrete.
When I drive down rural roads, long tracts of undisturbed pines and saw grass lighten my breath. My back muscles relax. If houses or stores line the way, I scan for untrimmed bushes and trees to admire their free patterns of growth. I drink in life around me.
When I drive my car down busy, developed streets, however, I’m distracted. My mind meanders through what I need to do next. I revisit a conversation with a friend, probe through a radio show with Terry Gross or Ralph Nader. Finding no provisions on the road, I divert and ramble. I am rarely present.
Today, however, I stay on the street. Sitting behind my windshield, vibrating with the hum of the engine, I meditate on the metal frame separating me from folks driving by. I’m fidgety framed in mechanization, longing for life. As my car idles and sits at a light, I turn my head to the right to glance through the closed double pane of glass insulating a fellow traveler in the next car and me. Who is she? I wonder. What’s she thinking?
I gaze at the side of her head and shoulder bobbing in beat to music, I suppose and laugh. Her eyes dart towards me, sensing my grin. We smile. A horn honks from behind. Our eyes jerk ahead. We pull from the intersection. She drives away first.
I continue observing who is riding down this six lane road with me, until I break a mental-barrier, becoming more aware of people around me than the dashboard and wheel of my sedan. Connected with what’s alive, I’m engaged.
A few weeks back, I sit isolated in my office air tight in four walls. I wrestle with a to-do list bigger than my day: e-mail parents about tuition, order workbooks, write lesson plans and organize finances. I’m trying to access my online bank account to determine my balance. My shoulders tense as I type and retype answers to security questions. Who did I put as my favorite pet — the miniature schnauzer, Arnie, who hid under the couch when thunder struck or the black lab, Josey, I wore gloves to pet because I was allergic? How did I spell the name of my first grade teacher? Was it White with an “i” or “y”? Red lettered text repeatedly reports my answers are wrong. I grimace and turn to my cell phone to press numbers on the screen, listen to recorded voices and leave words in empty space. I have no time for this, I gasp. Then search online for an e-mail address to which I type my plea on the keyboard. I receive an e-mail directing me to a website. Exasperated, I give up.
The next day, frustrated, I walk into my bank to speak to a receptionist. I am taken aback by my realization that people work at my bank. I had forgotten. The pinkness of the woman’s cheek and wrinkles on her hand stir me. Her twinkling eyes and tale of her grandson’s wedding soften my heart. Light reflects from her pearl necklace, as she eagerly turns her computer screen to face me. Her ivory, oval-shaped fingernail points to the screen, as she talks me through steps to reset my security questions. Gratitude streams through my limbs. I am rescued from a deserted island.
With a lilt in my step, I hold the bank door for a young man entering. Our eyes meet. I breathe in his dutiful demeanor and exhale my relief. I am connected to humanity and long to stay situated in its midst.
The next morning, I sit around a wooden table on the porch of the Quaker Meetinghouse in Sarasota. Live Oak and pines rustle behind Friends sitting across from me. We are musing about how to rally members of our meeting to live more sustainably. After an hour and a half dialogue, the chairperson of our committee asks us to send him an email about our thoughts on a statement about climate change. My neck tightens at the idea of booting up my computer and typing an e-mail. I want to blurt out my thoughts now, but our meeting has gone on too long. The chairperson wants to go home. I sigh and realize I crave a technology-free diet. I need to cut out the excess distancing me from others.
I text my friend Jessie to make plans to walk at Celery Fields and talk. I call Joel to set up a time to sit at his patio table and chat about community housing. When I need to type a question on my laptop to Casey in California or press the screen on my phone to speak to Hannah across town, I picture waves and wires delivering my text and voice to folks over miles I can’t tread. I keep in mind the people with whom I can relate because technology links us. And I’m grateful.
I’ve started writing letters to my two nephews and niece. They reside in Berkeley, CA, New Paltz, NY and Berlin, Germany. I have never lived close to them and want to nurture a bond. I treasure reading the swirly loops of my nephew Cali’s letter “a’s” and slanted crosses of his “t’s”, sensing his enthusiasm pressed into paper.
My niece, Elsa, who lived in a Buddhist monastery several years only communicating by letter, welcomes the exchange. She says when she first reentered mainstream life she immediately got sucked back into social media. She has since weaned herself off Facebook and Twitter. We share about how we both monitor our intake of information through cell phone and e-mail, checking messages only once or twice daily, stopping the crazy back and forth compulsion of moment to moment replies. Having felt like a cog in a machine, pushed and pulled by its rapid pace, we now set our own rhythms.
This afternoon, I sit next to seven-year old Steven. I am helping him prepare for the Florida Standards Assessment in Reading. This is his first standardized test. He hasn’t been initiated. He is unaccustomed to its demands. He sits beside me relaxed, breathing deep. I suggest he read the questions first and underline key words. I point to the first question and read, Which sentence from the passage contains a simile? What words are most important here? I ask. He rereads the question, sounding out a few words, syllable by syllable, pauses then lifts his pencil and underlines the whole sentence. I direct him to the next two questions and he does the same. We then look at the passage. He reads in a pondering pace, stopping after words to consider their meaning, relating them to his world. I am anxious for him, knowing we have much to cover, concerned he will move too slowly and fail the test. I admire his presence, though, grounded and unhurried. Is this something I want to change?
The next hour, Shirley, a high school junior, shows up texting, face down to her phone as she plops her College Board Official SATI Study Guide on the table, wraps up her reply and clicks off her phone. She stuffs it in her oversized purse and turns to me with an agitated grin. She angles herself onto the chair and flips open her book, ready for business. I really had problems with this section, she reports, glaring at a reading passage.
How have you been, I ask?
Five tests and a term paper this week, she reports. Not much time for our homework, but squeezed it in during lunch.
I point to the first question and ask her to underline key words.
Her eyes jump to the first paragraph and she explains, It says here the woman didn’t pay for her ride. I don’t get why the answer’s not “C”.
I trace my finger along the question and ask, Did you read all the words in the question?
Her hand races to another question, And this type of question really gets to me.
I nod and think to myself, Years of schooling have taught her to cut to the chase, making it hard to settle down and take stock. How do I help her find grounding? Is this what the goal is, I wonder, to subdue natural sensibilities and responsiveness and rewire students to pass multiple choice tests?
That evening, I lie in bed. Starlight streams through my window soothing and inspiring me. Relaxed, I close my eyelids. I picture neighbors, lying in their beds too, in solace. I drop the walls of our homes and see us dotting the landscape. We retreat from our laden bodies leaving behind the frenzy and mazes we’ve set and drift in a dream state, mingling with the heavens.
Dare we awaken in the morning, renewed with resolve, and returned to our separate bodies, homes and cars to build bridges that link us?