I’m racing for the light. The flashing orange hand counts down. On the other side of the street waits the supermarket where I’ll load up on almond milk and broccoli before hurrying back across to pick up my son at school. Still twenty yards away, my legs groan in resistance. The backpack chafes my shoulders. I curse under my breath.
When did reaching the other side of the street rise to such prominence in the pantheon of meaning? What is it I hope will happen when I achieve this singular purpose? In all likelihood, the produce section will revert to its simple functionality. Cinderella’s pumpkin at the twelfth stroke. I’ll grab what I need and try to outrun the lady with the full cart who’s headed for the short checkout line. The purchases will turn into a hasty dinner and an even hastier breakfast. At the office tomorrow, I’ll hustle through tasks, trying to stay a step ahead of the next item on the list. Then I’ll dash out to catch the metro in time to catch the bus in time to make it to my son’s school in time to pick him up at after care in time to go home and have dinner and do it all over again.
Under all this forward motion pulses a vague but unremitting urgency. If I just catch up, I’ll be able to focus on that work project in limbo, our nascent vision for lay ministry, the looming holidays. On goals so much more important than the daily catalogue of trivialities. Unfinished business pummels like a hard rain, propelling me into a half jog. It snaps at me that the valuable things won’t happen if we’re late getting home and dinner takes too long as the kiddo dawdles over an old Calvin & Hobbes treasury while his bath grows cold and the clock tick tick ticks past his bedtime, eating into the only hour in the day left for the things that are truly meaningful.
If I don’t catch this light.
But I don’t catch the light. I get to the corner just as the cars surge across and so I curse the drivers too. Then I catch my breath. In that tipping-back moment, the intersection shifts into something else entirely. Under my feet, weeds push up through cracks in the concrete. They are trying to take root, to find sky, to flourish here. They are not trying to leave this place. They belong here in the fullness of their green and determined life.
How different it is for this harried human whose vision of then-and-there shimmers with so much more meaning than here-and-now. Even after years of racing forward and never alighting, the illusion endures. The destination, that imagined place of rightness, still magically matches aspiration with achievement. It is where right relationships and good work give birth to our deepest hopes. Yet setting that orientation can also mean inadvertently trampling the very ground where those hopes take root. I wonder what might happen if I let the here-and-now take on as much meaning as whatever is ahead. Would the jury-rigged scaffolding of my family’s days collapse? Or would the new approach yield something else entirely?
Swift and single-minded drive certainly has its advantages. It serves us well in situations of urgency. When we take on critical work of putting our values into action, it spurs us to follow through. The danger lies in letting temporary exigency turn into a way of life. Racing forward scrubs what surrounds us bare of color and depth, diminishing every moment into a mere corridor for traveling forward. Most tragically, it blurs the features of people who are passing through this place and time alongside us. It turns our neighbors into impediments.
My pulse starts to even out as I stand at the light on the corner. The drivers passing by are not so different from me. Just humans crossing over this patch of earth we share. Each of us with a purpose. With a little cameo in one another’s story.
The light changes and I try walking across the street. I mean, really walking – that simple, unremarkable, and somehow strangely complex practice of putting one foot in front of the other. As I cross, I consider the possibility that possible the fullness I seek does not need me clawing my way towards it. It may already be reaching for me. What if all of us belong exactly where are right now? What if all we need to be doing is exactly this? What if “saving time” is as absurd as wrapping a box of air?
Later at the kitchen table, I don’t remind my son that his broccoli is getting cold. We giggle together over Calvin and Hobbes. We run the bath only after we’ve finished dinner. Untying the knots around the illusion of time sets urgency free. It flits away and we are left here with the night, with each other.
Image: Jacek Yerka, “Clock”