Careful what you wish for

prune picker bridge

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Image of Hood Canal Bridge at top of post comes from prune picker:
http://prunepicker.blogspot.com/2012/07/hood-canal-bridge.html

7 thoughts on “Careful what you wish for

  1. Leilani says:

    So good. What relief to give ourselves permission to say “I don’t know.” Those words make me very uncomfortable. They make me impatient. I hope to remember your bridge when I need to take everything in. Thank you for being so wonderfully you, knowing or not. 🙂

    • Rita says:

      Oh, those words make me very uncomfortable, too! I am trying to find some comfort with discomfort. I pretty much suck at that! And there’s a real cognitive dissonance in the idea that the only way to move forward is to stop moving. But I’m trying to embrace it. I know (with my head, at least) that there are times in which we need to take action, and times in which we need to be still. Discerning when it’s which is the tricky part, isn’t it?

  2. Marian says:

    This post resonates SO strongly with me, Rita. I too, have lived most of my life running to destinations with little thought as to whether the destinations were where I needed or wanted to be. Thinking on all this has put me in mind of Michael Rosen’s and Helen Oxenbury’s We’re Going On a Bear Hunt, and the words ,”we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we’ve got to go through it” are now running through my brain. I think life is a mix of things you MUST go through, and things you don’t necessarily have to go through, and the trick must be figuring out how to separate the two, how to get through the former with dignity and grace and good humour, and how to avoid being drawn along against your will into the latter. I have to admit I have been extremely bad at figuring this out — I have on numerous occasions, even after much *supposed* careful thought and consideration, *somehow* found myself on (metaphorical) bridges I did not want to cross, and then having to make decisions to either reverse (at great cost/upheaval to myself and others) or to go on (also, sadly, at great cost). For me, it’s been devilishly hard to discern who and what I truly am and what I am capable of versus who and what I WISH I was. I feel that we probably just know, instinctually, whether things fit or not, but I think our instincts get muddied by outside messages. We’re (seemingly) always told that growth comes when we leave our comfort zones, when we stretch ourselves and test our limits … but I confess that my times of deepest unhappiness have come after convincing myself I HAD to stretch beyond my comfort zone in order to do something 🙁 .
    I wish you well in this time of contemplation, Rita, and I hope you find a path that truly fits..

    • Rita says:

      Well, have you been spending time inside my head? 🙂

      I think you’ve hit on what might be the most essential thing in these kinds of dilemmas–knowing who and what we truly are. I think that when we have a strong sense of that, the outside messages can’t muddy things as much. And I guess I’m thinking that sometimes, we have to get still to re-orient ourselves to who and what we are. I’m also thinking that we need to have times of relative stillness to do that because who we and what we are changes over time. (We must. Change is the only constant I’ve been able to see in life.)

      For me, for the last 20 years, being a parent has been the most important thing defining who I am. All decisions got filtered first through that role. That was my highest priority. It’s still very important, but I am seeing that it will no longer be the highest. It can’t, if I’m going to give my children what is best for them. I’m doing my best not to find myself out on some bridge where I have to make the kind of choice you describe here. Been there, done that–and don’t want to go there again!

      Thank you for taking the time to help me think through this more, and for letting me know I’m not the only one who struggles with these things. (I mean, I know that. I’m no special snowflake. But it’s nice to struggle with company.)

  3. Kate says:

    As a goal maker, list writer, go-get-em-check-it-off-er, the times in my life where there hasn’t been a clear path moving forward have been some of the hardest in my life. It’s HARD to be still in a world that glorifies movers and shakers and being busy. I hope that this time of waiting and watching allows you to find your best path when the time comes for you to start moving forward again. I hope you’ll feel rested and ready.
    Kate recently posted…This Last Week, Part TwoMy Profile

  4. May says:

    My chest constricted as I read this. You are such a good person that I believe truly good things lie ahead. But I won’t pretend that it is easy or not at all lonely getting from here to there. I am glad you have given yourself permission to move slowly. Be gentle with yourself–be as good to yourself as you would be to others. And if at times you feel alone on the journey, may it help to know there is far worse company you could be keeping! Peace and love to you.
    May recently posted…Modern Day Mulberry BushMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      It is always helpful for me to read the words of those who have gone before me (on just about any journey). I appreciate the honesty about the difficulty–makes it easier to believe your words about the promise are true, too. 🙂

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