When I tell people about moving out to Root and Sky, I talk about the birdsong at dawn (see video above), the glory of the forest in Spring. The first thing they say, after the "green with envy" portion of the conversation when they wish that they, too, could live out in the country, is "wow, that's quite a commute." Happened this morning chatting with a man changing the giant lightbulbs at the office. It's true: 60 minutes from Marengo to Wheaton, straight up. That's 10 hours a week, plus more for field trips and special things. Let's not do the math, ok? Life is a short sentence.
We decided to allow the kids to finish out their school year at their Glen Ellyn districts, packing in every MINUTE of Spanish speaking possible for Beckett and every MINUTE of the best math teacher on the planet for Fiona. That means that we leave at 6:45am every day for the commute. Sometimes, we have an evening event--like last week when we had the orchestra rehearsal one night and the orchestra concert two days later and then soccer practice and soccer games on the other days, and we're gone from 6:45am until after 9pm. Only 26 more school days, I am told. This too shall pass.
What's bad about the commute is never the drive itself, exactly. In fact, we get wheeling, and it's actually one of the better times of the day to be with the kids. First, we listen to some Bible (best performance ever: look at the cast list!) with kids interrupting with questions, comments, interpretations, etc. and then some listening to Suzanne Collins' Underland Chronicles. There isn't much stop and go, and if there were, well, the stories and poems we're listening to help us through. When I'm alone, or when the kids are doing homework, I listen to Herman Melville's Moby- Dick ("Surely all this is not without meaning.") or Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (this too!) or whatever's up next on the Audible list. Marilynne Robinson, probably.*
The drive is allowing us to learn the landscape of the area around us in morning and evening. We give it our story names and learn its outside names. There is the pond where I saw the deer in it. There are the sloping south fields where the mist rises. There's the farm where they were tapping syrup in five gallon coolers this spring. There's Grizzy's Pumpkins, where the wood is stacked so fine that I think to myself that even my most fastidious snow-blower of a brother would tip his hat at the edges. There is Snow Forest, named so by Beckett because it's ALL white flowering pear there (or something we don't know the name of yet) across from the golf course. There is the most perfectly formed tree imaginable. There is the church with the bewildering hand lettered signs (e.g.) "Lent is a time to fill in the pot-holes of life." (I have no idea what this means. I have my suspicions, though they are mollified--as is so much!--by miles clocked.)
One morning, I was heading out at 5ish to get to a field trip to the Tippecanoe Battlefield and the Eiteljorg Museum for Native Art and Lit. Started early, took my...(let's be honest) doughnuts, and was driving east by a pond on Coral Road. Annie was on the radio, and it was just barely dawn--not even rosy red fingers yet--when suddenly I saw a deer, no two deer, no three deer. They were in the pond. They were still, in the pond. They were chiseled in the utter stillness of the still pond. Antlers, there, even. As if antlers themselves were the chisels flaking off bits of chert toward the possibility of a spear point, only the chert was the lake itself, or the grey blue sky. They were those deer with the blue grey of the cloud/sky with light near it, and I was driving by, and then, oh! they were a reflection. But where, I suddenly wondered, were the bodies of the deer that would substantiate reflection? I was driving by, seeing, perhaps, but not able to really look. And then just then, only then, neck craning around, did I get-- not the idea exactly, nor the thing, but through a window what would or might have been the idea, of three still deer--one with large antlers, the flash of the thing's end, in crystal-edged intuition.
This is the commute, see. It modifies the sentence.
On the 90 it hums, but there, too, is the land, the land, the land and wide sky as we race past. The empty Huntley outlet mall, yes, and innumerable companies' headquarters. But we say "Fox River!" as we roll by, and rue the concrete barriers that prevent all but the merest glimpse. I think of Joel Sheesley, whose latest project is painting the Fox--a river, he says, in recovery. I pray for his work when I cross the Fox and wish that I could see the river, wish that I was with his paintings. His painting is a still deer's antlers chiseling the chert of the river.
When we get to Glen Ellyn, I park at Churchill Park and walk Beckett to school between two ponds, through the woods and wetlands. You see things there differently, too, perhaps more, because of the commute there. It's slower. I see now about how the grasses stand up, stay standing, all through the winter winds, like sentinels, or the saints still with us. I see now about the raucousness of redwing blackbirds, and the sort of heart pounding scallop of a gold-finch's flight, and what fleeting bloodroot looks like. For a while this spring, I was seeing a blue heron wing its slow way every day, as if hurry never occurred to it. And I stopped hurrying whenever I saw it. I've seen a muskrat swimming with it's two shining wakes--two roads diverging--TWICE. Who wouldn't reconsider her way, seeing that? Today, I saw a female mallard poop--RIGHT at eye level, because she was standing on a pillar on the bridge as I walked by. She arched her neck, lifted and lowered her wings, and then out it came. (I've seen, ahem, a lot of crap (and more on that when we talk about the houses), but I don't see that every day.) There are two bizarrely leaning trees there. Peter Wohlleben tells me that with crooked trees, "the laws of physics come into play" (when don't they? when don't they?) and "the lever principal will" eventually "exact its tribute. Still," he says, "a shorter life-span with enough light for procreation is better than no life at all." And I have walked there, crookedly, every single week this whole year with Beckett, writing that Park into a poem season by season. There is never enough time, but there is just enough light.
Because what is bad about the commute is what is bad about all of life in time. It's not that you don't have moments of illumination--the rainbow above the wet forest when you've just had a fight with the kids and are 15 minutes behind, the utterly unique morning light on the ice between trees in frozen-over wetlands, the theological connection between Psalms and the crucifixion or between Psalms and the Exodus noted by offspring you thought weren't listening, the sense that that raucous blackbird makes exactly the same sound as your beautiful, beautiful son and it's somehow one of revelation's trumpets saying that even all THIS will be redeemed. You do have those moments on the commute.
No, what is bad about the commute is when you realize what other things you aren't doing because of the trip. All of life is this, of course, which makes it so banal a badness that it wouldn't even be worth noticing except that we just notice it way MORE on a commute. If I choose to do activity x, I will not be able to do activity y. Even English majors can do that math: it's a V, a fork in the road. "Two roads diverged," Robert Frost's most famous poem says, "and sad I could not travel both and be one traveller." Of course, Frost's point is that the roads you choose don't really matter--it's no big deal either way--the point is, you just SAY that that the path choice "made all the difference" when you get old and need to make meaning of your life.** The meaning I read here, though, is a fellow-traveller's fellow feeling of sadness, occasionally.
When I am driving, I am not writing. When I am driving, I am not baking bread. When I am driving, I am not helping with the farm--(actually, I am acting counter to our desire to be for the land--fossil fuels, etc.). But when I am not driving, I am not with my beloved campus in their time of great grief. When I am not driving, I'm not connecting with my Bible Study from Wheaton or my good friends.
Sometimes I don't even think about what I am not doing. I am just driving, see, and there is only one wake behind me. Unlike the muskrat. I can only leave one road behind me, the one I drove this morning and which, Lord willing, I will drive tonight.
I am trying to look. We all are, like Pip in Moby Dick, trying to look as much as we can: "I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look." And trying to make meaning of it. "Surely, [O Lord] all this is not without meaning."
I am committed to the sentence.
*She's coming to Wheaton for the Theology conference in April 2018. #peoplegetready
**Which makes almost all of the graduation speeches ever completely ironic.