Friday, September 10, 2010

Driving at Night

There is a feeling you get, laying yourself across the back seat of a car driving at night, looking up, your view of the outside world shrunken, restricted to what you see out the rear window. On the rural highways we used to take, the dark shapes of trees would rise up on either side, leaving a narrow strip of starlit sky, the trees falling away briefly at intersections and habitations.

At certain moments, you cannot tell if you are looking up or down, as you look between the trees, stars glittering just out of reach, hung in a darkness that is not quite as dark and that somehow does not feel quite as empty as the shadows of the trees. It is as if you are being held motionless above a flowing stream, that the stars you see are not really stars, but merely their reflections in dark glass of the moving stream. Lights along the road may appear, gliding across the window, the light bent and deformed by the curved glass of the car window, like a flashlight scanning the interior of the car, giving your body for a moment shape and mass that you forgot about, and will forget again as soon as the light is gone, absorbed into the backseat and the road and the starry river.

The low hum of the engine, the tires on the road, and the soft noises of the radio blend together, seem to come at the same time both from inside and from out there, where all the stars and the void are cradling you, rocking you and reassuring you that, yes, the universe is yours and that this is right, this is perfect, this is how it really is, how it should be, not those things that will happen after the car reaches its destination, slowly coming to a halt, the humming of engine, tires and radio replaced for a moment by a sudden silence. Then the noise of door latches, and adult voices as they reach in to grasp you and lift you up as you are both asleep and awake, carrying you through doors from car to house to bedroom, lifting you and laying you gently on the bed, covering you with blankets, as you drift off, wishing you were still out there, in the car, on the road, still seeing only trees and stars, not wanting this place, or this time, or tomorrow to be here.

Here's a scene
You're in the back seat laying down
The windows wrap around
To sound of the travel and the engine
All you hear is time stand still in travel
And feel such peace and absolute
The stillness still that doesn't end
But slowly drifts into sleep
The stars are the greatest thing you've ever seen
And they're there for you
For you alone you are the everything

- "You Are The Everything", REM

Now I'm the grown-up and the driver, and I steal glances into the backseat, seeing my own kids as we drive back home at night. I love driving, and could continue for hours, taking pleasure in the movement of the car through time and space, regardless of the destination, but we're parents now, and we need to get the kids home and in bed, because that's what responsible parents are supposed to do. They're strapped into carseats now, unable to stretch themselves out to gaze up through the rear window of the car, to have their vision narrowed until they see everything and are connected to the universe, for a brief time existing outside of time. Forced to sit upright, they look at the world straight, seeing too much, perhaps. Seeing too much, are they unable to see everything, to float in that river that can only be seen by lying down, shutting off the view of earth and seeing only treetops and sky?

 Or can they, after all?

Is it a quality not of lying in the backseat looking out, but something that exists in children whatever they see or don't see? Do they still reach that state of asleep-awake, body and mind at rest, one with the car, the road, the sky, ears hearing clearly the hum of engine, tires on the road, voices in the front talking quietly about the things grown-ups are supposed to talk about, saying the things grown-ups say when they think the children are asleep and not listening? When the spell of movement and sound is broken by door latches, and being picked up gently and carried through doors from car to house to bedroom to sleep, are they home too soon, wishing we could keep going, that the driving and the night would go on forever?

Or do they instead truly fall asleep, anticipating their beds and rest and the sun rising, and the world becoming real again tomorrow?