“So how are we to wake up from the trance and dissolve the paradox of the ego? It all comes down to the fundamental anxiety of existence, our inability to embrace uncertainty and reconcile death.”
Maria Popova brainpickings.org
It was a dark night with forbidding clouds hanging low in the sky. I wanted to get to the car wash after work to have my car scrubbed down and thoroughly cleaned because over the weekend, when I was filling the gas tank, the nozzle popped out of the tank and spewed gas all over me and the side of the car. I thought I had read somewhere that gasoline ruins auto paint. I had scrubbed it with soap and water when I got home, but I could still smell the fuel and I wanted to make sure all traces were removed.
The car wash was dark when I pulled in, but the gates were still open. I rolled to a stop near the vacuums and immediately noticed that the hoses were disconnected. A man sat nearby in the shadows wearing all black and with his chin tucked into a coat. He appeared to be sleeping. I sat for a moment, waiting to see if one of the attendants would come out. I lowered my window to listen to see if the machinery was running and realized it was quiet. The man in the shadows spoke to me: “You here for a wash?”
“They’ll be back in five minutes.”
I raised the window and sat in the gloomy darkness. There was no way the attendants would be back in five minutes. The place looked closed for the day. I was startled out of my reverie by a fist knocking on my window. It was an attendant. I lowered the window and saw he was carrying a coat and a small lunch bag. “We’re closed, dude.”
“You’re closed,” I repeated like an idiot.
I raised the window again and backed out of the vacuum area. The man sitting in the shadows remained there, chin once again tucked into his coat.
I drove out onto the boulevard heading to my next stop, my mailbox. The night had a surreal quality, and traffic was heavy. People were jaywalking out of the shadows, and I strained to see them. Cars made illegal lane changes; drivers accelerated dramatically, cut others off, screeched and slid to a stop. Anxiety was a smell in the air.
After picking up a package at my post office box, I went to the supermarket. I had trouble breathing and chest pain, something that had been happening far too often lately. I picked up the items I needed and went to the checkout stand where, after the checker started totaling my order, a man pushed his cart the opposite way through the stand and started unloading his groceries. I grabbed the front of the cart and pulled it through, telling the man, “Why don’t you let me finish since I was here first?” It was more a statement than a question. The man was frantically stuffing his mouth from a deli container, so he said not a word in response and simply followed his cart through and went to another check stand. The checker was also rude, sighing heavily when I caught that he had charged me twice for an item. He threw the receipt at me when the transaction was complete. I took my groceries and left.
Once I got home, I found a battered red van parked crookedly in our driveway, blocking my access. I parked down the street and left my groceries in the car while I went looking for the van’s owner. I could feel the fire of anger and anxiety in my chest, all the tension built up on my long, traffic-clogged commute home. All I wanted was to unload my groceries and get off my feet, but this was turning into an endless series of complications.
I found the guy at the back of the building going through the dumpster. Trash, bottles, cans and plastic bags were spread all over the ground. He stabbed into the green receptacle with a long metal pole, spearing pieces of garbage as if he were fishing in a pond and then shaking them off onto the pavement for examination. I asked if the van was his—it was—and I suggested bluntly that he move it. Now. He was a tall, powerfully built black man about 55 or 60 years old. I wanted to tell him he was trespassing. I was looking to create an issue and vent some of the fire in my chest. But as we walked back to the front of the building, something strange happened. “So how you doing?” he asked me. I told him that I’d been better. “Well, when I feel that way,” he said, “I just give thanks that I can do what I do and get up every day. Every day is a gift, you know, and there are a lot of people have it worse than me.”
Everything flashed in front of my eyes: the new year, the stress of work and traffic and thoughtless people, the pain in my chest reminding me of my own mortality. I could not help thinking of the finite moments we have in this life, and how we waste those moments in traffic, in obligations, in worry and anxiety. My anger drained away with his words. There was something magical in our meeting, some earth-shattering revelation that although obvious, I had missed and was now realizing.
At the end of our walk, I choked out a thank you, and wished him a good evening. He parked his battered red van in another driveway down the block and walked back to the dumpster to finish his work.
My encounter reminded me of a poem by Margaret Walker called “Memory”:
I can remember wind-swept streets of cities
on cold and blustery nights, on rainy days;
heads under shabby felts and parasols
and shoulders hunched against a sharp concern;
seeing hurt bewilderment on poor faces,
smelling a deep and sinister unrest
these brooding people cautiously caress;
hearing ghostly marching on pavement stones
and closing fast around their squares of hate.
I can remember seeing them alone,
at work, and in their tenements at home.
I can remember hearing all they said:
their muttering protests, their whispered oaths,
and all that spells their living in distress
Later that evening, as I sat at my desk writing in my journal, I thought of surrender. We must surrender to our lives. Control is an illusion. We are all living in distress. We do the best that we can, and then we must let go and move on. Most days we rise and do what we can do in the time we are allotted, and for that, we must be grateful and trust that the world is turning as it should, and that the visible darkness of our lives is simply a part of the experience.