Keeping My Foot on the Gas


Saturday morning, before the kids and I left for an overnight trip to visit family on Long Island, I drove over to Trader Joe’s to go for a short run and pick up a few groceries. When I pulled into the parking lot around 7:45am, there was not a single other car there. I wondered where the employees park. I kept my jacket on — it was in the mid 30s — zipped my keys and phone into a side pocket and jogged over to the bike path. The air felt good in my lungs as I steadied my breath during those first five or so minutes of running.

On one side of the bike path, the sun rising over the small hills surrounding this valley. On the other side, the mall. Crows, sparrows, cardinals, and starlings all waking up; squirrels and chipmunks scurrying amidst the still-bare bushes; the branches of trees reminding me of bedhead.

At one point, I heard an almost preternatural sound. As I ran, I trained my left ear on this sound, even as I wasn’t sure what it was. Then it got closer and louder and I paused, only to see what must have been not dozens but hundreds of starlings up in the trees above some frozen wetland. The noise was otherworldly. I couldn’t come up with a way to describe it and considered recording it for a minute on Instagram stories, but decided to keep running. Perhaps I’d do this on the return trip.

All of five minutes later, after I had turned around — silence. Where did they all go? A murder of crows convened in the high branches near the barren cornfields to the south, unfazed by my presence below. But the starlings? Gone.

I thought of impermanence and how much I love the mornings, especially this time of year when life feels like it’s waking back up. I thought about how much I like having my feet on the ground.

Back at Trader Joe’s, I counted 30 cars in the lot. With an endorphin high and a canvas bag, I walked through the store, humming along with “Come on Eileen” on the speakers. The day seemed possible. I sipped a tiny sample size of coffee with milk and paid for my groceries, then headed home to shower and get ready for our road trip.

* * *

The drive to Port Washington took nearly five hours instead of the three it would have been without construction on the Hutch. Pearl and I did some Mad Libs, then he took a rest while Aviva and I sang along with a shuffle from Hamilton, In the Heights, Dear Evan Hanson, Chicago, and Rent. We stopped once to pee, and arrived at my cousin’s house around 4:00pm, surprising my cousin’s youngest, who had his 7th birthday last week. We had a sweet visit with them, went out to breakfast yesterday morning with my uncle, who is 80 and as lovely as ever, and then put V on the Long Island Railroad to meet up with a camp friend in the city.

I grabbed an iced latte for the road and Pearl got out his little binder of travel activities (he’d printed out several “I, Spy” types of games from Pinterest). It was another clear and sunny morning. I started the GPS on my phone, and we were off.

As we approached the Throg’s Neck Bridge, I noticed the obvious: Water. On either side of the bridge.

Duh, right?

* * *

“Isn’t it pretty?” I chirped. The East River glimmered below us in the midday light as we headed towards the Bronx. The ramp onto the bridge and 295 East curved to the right, and suddenly what had looked pretty from a slight distance was towering over us. The bridge stands 142′ high (compared to the Golden Gate at 220′). It is less than a mile long. I had driven over it not 24 hours earlier without incident.  In fact, I didn’t even recall crossing it!

Now, though. Whoa. No, thanks. I’m good.

It started in my chest with a burst of heat. The sensation reminded me of an algae bloom in the water, its reach spreading slowly but surely into my limbs and extremities. Before I knew it, my legs felt like they’d been replaced with sandbags and my breathing tightened. I saw what was happening and glanced over at Pearl. We were listening to a This American Life podcast about language, and through the car speakers I heard kids in a Barcelona classroom learning Catalan.

The suspension towers loomed over us while the bridge seemed to stretch out forever. It dawned on me that I had no choice but to keep driving. I had a child in the passenger seat! And even if I’d been alone, there was no alternative but to cross the damn bridge.

“OK, Jena. You have to do this,” I said to myself in my head. Keep breathing, keep breathing. You cannot freeze up or panic, because you have to drive this car over this bridge. I started humming quietly to myself as a way of maintaining the flow of in breath and out breath, amazed at the severity of my response and its sudden onset, to boot.

* * *

When I was 17, I was in a pretty serious car accident in Southern California. I wrote about it a few years ago. It took quite a long time after that to release my fear of driving on the freeway, merging with high-speed traffic, and making sure I knew exactly where I was going. But at this point, I am a pretty calm and confident driver, so this wave of panic really surprised me.

All I can tell you is that it was not fun. Not fun at all.

I made it across, obviously. My whole body tense, willing myself to breathe steadily, not too deeply and not shallowly either. You can do this, you can do this. The tune to a Jewish song I love — The Whole World Is a Very Narrow Bridge — a song that has inspired other writing for me in the past, not to mention carried me through many a narrow passage — spontaneously entered my mind.

Later, back home safe and sound and on solid ground, I mentioned this episode on Facebook. The comments astounded me. We are never the only ones, though we are the only ones ultimately who can carry ourselves through difficult passages. We learn tools and tricks, or just lie down in the backseat and sometimes let someone else do the driving, as one friend mentioned. We can either go through life suffering and not letting anyone know about it, or we can choose to share the scary parts and learn that many, many others have crossed that bridge themselves. In this case, literally.

My friend Tia wrote, “Wondering what emotional bridge might be causing the fear.”

I pondered this, appreciating her tender inquiry.

Pearl’s piano teacher said this had happened to her, and just as suddenly, the fear had passed.

Others chimed in that their son-brother-father-grandmother had feared crossing bridges. Someone posted a photo of an alarming-looking vertical bridge in Japan, the sight of which made me shudder.

* * *

It’s interesting; I am realizing I’ve been writing a lot about fear lately. I think it may be in part because I do not want to feel it. I don’t want to live in fear of the world, of life, of other people, of our government, of change, of my kids’ many transitions as they grow up, of providing for my family, of shootings, of climate change, of antisemitism, of homophobia and transphobia, of being. I do not want to feel it, but feel it I must, lest it creep in while I’m sleeping, slowly overtaking my waking hours, bridge or no bridge.

There is something here for me to learn. Because that song is so very true: The whole world is a very narrow bridge. Having this experience yesterday really gave me more empathy for the courage it takes to go out into the world, to travel, be it near or far, to go to new places, to put oneself in new situations.

Was it brave of me to drive across that bridge? No. I was already on it when the feeling overcame me, and I had to keep driving. I was not in any actual danger, though panicking would surely have created some.

How often is life like this? We have to keep going. We have to get a grip, quite literally, on the steering wheel, keep our eyes on the road ahead, and breathe. We have to stay aware of the traffic on either side of us. Just writing this, I can feel my throat constricting a little.

If I were driving right now — I picture the bridge stretching out before me — I would have to push myself a little to keep my foot on the gas.

Which I do. Because I must.

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