Join 1,392 other subscribers
UNRAVELING THE KNOT
ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG
Getting to the Other Side
Friday, April 3, 2015Posted by on
I was driving home when I saw the deer lying in the middle of the road. I turned on the flashers and stopped the car so that others would have to go around.
When I got out I could see it was a fawn. She was trying to lift her head. I bent down and spoke to her in a soft voice. I didn’t want her to be afraid, although I don’t know how she could not. A few cars came by, some drivers shooting me a look, wanting to know what was so important they should have to go around, then noticing something in the road before turning their eyes back to where they were going.
Someone stopped and to ask if they could help. I said if they had a cell phone they could call the police.
Most people went on by, like I imagined the driver of the car that killed the deer, which is what this was turning out to be. She wasn’t lifting her head anymore. In a little while, as far as I could tell, she was gone. The police arrived and then a pickup and they lifted her into the back and drove away.
As I got back into the car, I wondered how many had come by before me. I wondered why the driver didn’t stop, what went through their mind, were they frightened or just in a hurry or some mix of the two. It could have been just an accident, the fawn running into the road as they will do. A possum once ran into the side of my car. Still, how do you not pull over to see what you can do, if only to make it so the fawn doesn’t die alone?
Before driving away, I looked around the woods on either side of the road for signs of other deer, the mother perhaps, but there was nothing that I could see. They’re very good at hiding when they don’t want to be seen. To her I would be just another of that species with its big machines that come barreling down the road.
Whoever it was, the most likely reason the fawn is dead is they were going too fast. There is a lot of that around here. The roads are narrow and winding and the woods come down to the edge so you really can’t see what’s standing there until you’re almost on top of it. The only thing to do is slow down, which most people do not. There is one stretch on my way home that goes up a long hill, and I can look in the mirror before starting the climb and see no one behind me for a quarter mile and by the time I’m halfway to the top, there are four cars close behind. And I can tell from how they ride my bumper that they’re wanting to know just why am I going only five miles above the limit.
You’d think they were driving ambulances with someone dying in the back.
On that day, the face of the deer still fresh in my mind, the way she tried to lift her head, it was hard not to feel angry, asking myself what is the matter with people, one of those questions that doesn’t include me, of course, except when it does.
I haven’t killed many animals with a car—a few squirrels, a bright yellow bird that crashed into the windshield on a highway in northern Mexico. Nora and I grazed a moose that suddenly ran across the road in Maine, but no harm was done on either side. I could tell myself it’s because I’m a better driver or that I’m not in such a hurry, but that would be only part of the story. The fact is, I have also been lucky. They’ve been lucky.
All it takes to bring me down to earth is to recall the school bus on that morning when the rain was coming down in sheets and I was on my way to meet a friend for coffee. I was running late and hadn’t slept much the night before. It was another of those narrow country roads, the school bus stopped in front of me, red lights flashing, stop sign coming out. I waited while the kids hurried across the road from where their mother stood in the driveway. Then the red lights turned off and the stop sign folded out of sight, but the bus just sat there with rain coming down in buckets and me wanting to get going. And then I figured the driver must be speaking to the mother standing in the driveway and suddenly I just turned the wheel and put my foot on the gas and went out alongside the bus.
Those next few seconds haunted me for the rest of the day. It wasn’t that I had broken the law or hit someone—I had not. What haunted me was my reckless state of mind in that instant when I decided I shouldn’t have to wait, as if an extra thirty seconds was more important than whatever might happen on the far side of the bus. It was how a part of my mind just switched off, impervious to the possibility of something unforseen, not supposed to happen, beyond my control—a child getting back off the bus to retrieve a lunch box and the driver not turning on the flashers soon enough—that’s all it would have taken. A life literally might have hung in the balance while my mind was somewhere else for the second or two that it takes to kill someone with a car.
What I couldn’t shake was the memory of my impatience, the anger at having to wait, at the mercy of ‘those people’ holding me up. If I had put words to how I felt sitting in the car, it would have been, “You’re in my way.” And I realized that’s just what other drivers are expressing when they ride my bumper, get out of my way, because they are in a hurry, because what they have to do is more important than whatever someone else might have in mind, including—especially a deer or a squirrel or a turtle—just living your life for one more day.
And then I ask myself, what could be so important that it’s worth taking a life for no other reason than my not wanting to slow down? Who do I think I am?
It’s one of those questions that stops me in my tracks, because I know the answer already, that whatever I am, it’s a lot less than what I think. But the question is more than that. I would really like to know: Who do I think I am? What do I have to say to the young deer lying in the road that might explain what was so important that she should be knocked down and left to die alone, like countless others before her? Or what could I have said if something truly horrible had happened that morning in the rain? That I was sorry?
I was haunted by the confrontation with my own private arrogant exceptionalism, that my life, my agenda is somehow special, more important than the person in the car in front of me or the animal in the tall grass beside the road. In an instant, everything is reduced to an obstacle in the way of what I want, what I think I deserve, where I think I ‘need’ to be and when. The car only amplifies the effect, insulating me from everything and everyone outside this bubble carrying me swiftly down the road.
I was not only haunted, but humbled to realize that in fact I am not special at all. And only the blink of an eye separates the arrogance of living my life as if it were unconnected to all the life around me and being brought face-to-face with some horror that I have done while I was thinking about something else or in the grip of my impatience.
I was humbled by the reminder that we literally exist only in relation to everything else, that the idea of humanity as something set above and apart, independent, unaccountable, superior, is not only pure fiction, but bizarre and dangerous. Not to mention that I could imagine myself as separate from everything outside the content of my little mind as ‘I’ drive ‘my’ car to where ‘I’ think ‘I’ am supposed to be.
The other day I was driving along when I saw a turtle in the road, trying to get to the marshy water on the other side. I put on the flashers and stopped the car in the middle of the lane and got out and walked over to where it stood and eyed me from the pavement.
I leaned down and grasped the outer edges of its shell just as it tried to reverse its course and scurry back to where it started. A car approached, slowed, and then stopped as I held up my other hand and walked across the road, speaking softly to the turtle which had disappeared inside its shell. I set it down just beyond the sandy shoulder, pointing it toward the marsh a few feet away.
The car went on by, children trying to see the turtle making its way down the slope toward the water. The driver waved, smiling.
I resisted the temptation to think I had just done something virtuous. This small act was far more elemental. It was a simple act of kindness, as in kin and kindred, being naturally well-disposed to my own kind, a being with whom I share important things in common, beginning with wanting nothing more in that moment than to get safely to the other side of the road.
If you liked this post, you also might want to read “The Luxury of Obliviousness.”
Oh Allan, your words crack my heart open. Just yesterday a grand goose walked slowly down the middle of the road in front of my car. He stretched his neck tall, looked over his shoulder, and sauntered on a little way before heading toward a pond.
It is a good way to begin the day, heart cracked open the way Susan describes it in her comment, reminded and thus poignantly aware of our smallness, our connectedness, our kindred-ness – and the vigilance that is required to not be lulled or hurried into forgetting it. Thank you.
A touching story. As I was reading it, a couple of thoughts came to mind. One of them is that we are animals and have all of the instincts of animals. The definition of frustration (a clear animal trait) is the feeling of being blocked from something you want to get to or achieve (like getting to work tiny bit earlier). In an uncrowded environment, like we used to have, frustrations of this type were fewer (or different, anyway), but today we are confined to a crowded room and step on each other’s toes constantly. The pace of life doesn’t grant us the freedom to slow down. If I’m ever guilty of road rage, it will be because I want to drive at 45 and everybody else drives at 70. I’d rather leave the animals alive – by quelling my own animal traits, a human attribute.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my favorite quote from Mother Teresa, who said, “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.” For me, the nearest “person” is sometimes an animal. Thank you, Allan, for reminding me that one of the first duties of being alive on this planet is to take the time to see what’s right in front of me, to value each moment for itself, not for the one I assume is coming after it.
Your self-honesty and willingness to do a deep examination of your own human culpability, and thus our culpability, is rare and necessary.
I remember as a 9-10 year old, maybe younger, killing a tiny green snake an act that I rue, to this day. But I learned from that, the value of life and have committed myself to the path described here and held by many in the animal welfare circles I sometimes am part of. Thank you. Hard to read but necessary to do so.
do you know this poem? It breaks my heart and feels so wrong but using my rational side, I know I would have to do the same.
Traveling through the Dark
BY WILLIAM E. STAFFORD
Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.
By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.
My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.
The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.
I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.
William Stafford, “Traveling Through the Dark” from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems (St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1998). Copyright © 1998 by William Stafford. Reprinted with the permission of the Estate of William Stafford.
Beautiful post, Allan. Thank you for telling a story that needs to be told (even though it made me cry) and thank you for being you.