Today, in a grassy field, with sunlight everywhere and school children running around, another parent told me about a long bridge he had frequently crossed as a young man, and how at times he had been afraid of that bridge. Today was so quintessentially Vermont, with a hike through the woods behind the school, little kids and big kids, just fifty in all. The grass was warm, and my daughter and I ate wild apples we had picked the evening before.
The parent’s description was entirely metaphorical – he had now progressed far enough into his life, over that halfway point, that he felt darn certain if the Subaru went over the bridge, he and the kids would pull through.
Listening, I remembered when my older daughter was one, a baby chewing on a stuffed rabbit, and I was driving down the Vermont interstate to visit my parents in New Hampshire. I was driving a beat-up red Toyota pickup too big for me, and I wasn’t able to fasten the safety belt as I sat so far forward to reach the clutch. At highway speed, I approached a long bridge spanning the White River. By chance, I happened to see the bridge in just a certain way, at great speed, and I saw how enormously high was the bridge over the river far down below in the valley.
I had a sudden fear that I absolutely could not traverse such the narrow path over that abyss. I slowed and saw a highway worker along the shoulder, and I had an abrupt impulse to stop and beg this man – a complete stranger – to drive myself and my baby across that bridge.
I didn’t, of course. Somehow I knew I would have to get myself and my baby from here to there, in whatever rattletrap I was driving. Since then, I’ve driven both daughters over many bridges, through all kinds of snowstorms, and once through a terrible ice storm, and I’ve always ferried them safely home.
But like my parent companion today, I often see that abyss beneath us, an intimation of our own morality, and yet I press on. As I drove over that bridge on my fearful day, however, I slowed more than perhaps was prudent on an interstate, and I steeled myself to peer over the guard rails. Far down, in the same tenor of autumn sunlight I sat in today, the bend of river glowed like gems.
Albert Camus wrote a novel, The Stranger, in which his character, Meursault, is condemned to death. Three days before his execution, he is able for the first time in his life to touch the blue sky. He is in his cell. He is looking at the ceiling. He discovers a square of blue sky appearing through the skylight. Strangely enough, a man forty years of age is able to see the blue sky for the first time. Of course, he had looked at the stars and the blue sky more than once before, but this time it was for real. We might not know how to touch the blue sky in such a profound way. The moment of awareness Camus describes is mindfulness: Suddenly you are able to touch life.
–– Thich Nhat Hanh, True Love