My parents live on Washington’s Olympic peninsula, and the journey from my house to theirs is framed by bridges. It is only after I leave Oregon by crossing the Columbia River on the I-205 bridge that I feel I’m really on the road, and it is only when I hit the peninsula’s Hood Canal Bridge (shown above) that I feel I’ve arrived.
When I’m crossing it, I can feel the thrumming inside me quiet. My body lightens and my breathing deepens. I am back in the landscape my life started from–home, in every sense of that word.
Every time, I wish that I could stop on that bridge and capture the water that surrounds it with my camera. But there’s no place to stop on the bridge. Once on it, you have to keep going.
Unless, of course, the bridge is up to let passing ships through. A few times, I’ve been stopped on the highway that approaches it. I’ve always found this to be a frustrating inconvenience, especially if it happens when we’re heading east to catch a ferry. Last Saturday, though, for the first time ever, I got stopped on the bridge.
At first, I muttered to myself and cursed the delay. I was on the way to a ferry. And, it felt unsettling to be stopped on the bridge:
What if one of the ships hits it?
What if an earthquake strikes?
I am trapped here, far from safe land.
Miraculously, though, for once I’d left with plenty of time to spare. It took only a moment for me to realize that this wasn’t an inconvenience or a deathtrap, but a gift. I was finally getting what I’d always wanted: A chance to take photos from the bridge.
This trip to my parents’, it was a bittersweet one. My parents moved to the peninsula after my children were born, and it was my first trip there without them. Ever.
For much of the week, I felt the ghost of visits past all around me. I saw and heard all the different versions of my children that I took to this place, the setting for some of our best memories.
Saturday, I took off on my own to see an old friend–and that’s when I got stopped on the bridge.
Sitting in my car, waiting for the ships to clear, alone for the first time in days, I realized that for the past few months, I have been racing across a bridge from the life I used to live with Cane and the kids to a new one that is (from this distance) shrouded in fog. I’ve been spinning my wheels through the prospects of new jobs and new houses and new towns to live in, changing lanes over and over to position myself to be in the right one (whatever that is) when I exit the bridge. I have wanted that next place to look and feel and be as different from the old one as possible, so that I won’t feel haunted by the ghosts of the people and times that have passed.
That old friend I visited came into my life more than 30 years ago, when I was a student in a poetry workshop and he was an editor just starting a literary journal. He was the first publisher of my poetry, the one who told me that I had written a book before I knew it myself.
“If you could do anything with your life right now, what would it be?” he asked.
I looked around the park we were sitting in, thinking of all that’s happened in the past few years. Thinking of all I once wanted to do. Thinking of what’s now possible and what no longer is.
“I don’t know, ” I said. The truest words to come out of me in months. Years, probably.
The truth is, I have never known. Watching my children taking their first steps into a life largely independent of mine, I can look back at myself at their age and see that I took off running and never stopped. College, job, marriage, house, kids–all the destinations I thought we all needed to arrive at. Sure, I took some major detours (hello, divorce), but even those were navigated at high speed, my way to outrun fear, discomfort, grief, boredom, pain; all taken without ever fully stopping to look at them and see them for what they really were.
Life doesn’t give us much opportunity for truly full stops, and I’m not wishing for one of those (as they tend to accompany disaster). But I’m OK with looking at the coming weeks–where so much is suspended, waiting for what will come next–as my own little stop on the bridge.
My time last Saturday helped me see that, sometimes, the best thing we can do on a bridge is to stop moving and take in our surroundings. Take a breath. Take notice. Pay attention to where we are.
I’m putting a temporary end to moving forward, changing lanes, plotting destinations. I’m giving myself permission (and time) to stop, get out of the car, stretch my legs, see the ponderous beauty of the clouds above, notice how truly far the road stretches ahead, know that where I am, right now, is home, in every sense of the word.
Image of Hood Canal Bridge at top of post comes from prune picker: