Driving in a Car on Fire

By Andrea Scarpino 

Stop-and-go traffic: smoke rose from the hood of the car, pouring into the open windows every time the car moved forward a few feet, then gathering again under the hood when the car stood still. The occupants must have known the car was on fire—the passenger fanned herself with a magazine when the smoke overwhelmed, and the smoke was thickly white, impossible to ignore—but they drove on stoically, enveloped in smoke, intermittently shooing it out the window. 

So American, I thought, to continue driving even as our vehicle burns, to pretend not to notice the smell of smoke and engine and burning oil. Maybe also, so human, to try to make the best of even the most terrible situation—or if the best can’t be made, to at least pretend like nothing is going wrong, whistling over the sputtering engine, fanning smoke from our face. 

After my father died, a dear friend said of his bedroom, filled with breathing machine and tracheotomy cleaning equipment, rehabilitation devices, medication, “This looks like the room of someone who’s been sick for a long time.” And in the obituary, my step-mother chose the words, “after a long illness.” I was utterly surprised by both statements. I understood my father wasn’t as strong as he once was, I had made a plethora of hospital visits at all hours of the day and night, had driven the two hour stretch between Columbus and Cincinnati dozens of times because of new health crises. But I still didn’t truly understand my father as ill, as dying. Living with disability, yes, growing older, yes. Not dying. I fanned myself with a magazine when the smoke got into my eyes. 

And that’s just one example—I’ve averted my attention as relationships clearly deteriorated, breathed great billows of smoke in ill-fitting work environments, refused to admit even to myself how badly I’ve felt physically. It can be healthy, of course, to carry on, to focus, not on the smoke, but on the sunny day, on the way the sun illuminates the smokiness. But there’s a limit, too—isn’t there?—on how much we should stay the course when it’s clear the course is actively combusting all around us. And I’ve also been on the other end, becoming consumed by things over which I have very little control, screaming bloody murder about the smoke all around us, ridiculously stressed over political elections, global warming, people I’ll never even meet. 

So what I’m trying to figure out these days is how to live clearly attuned to the smoke—not in ignorance or avoidance—but also well, also happily. To acknowledge that the car is on fire, to actively work to put out the flames, but not to let that knowledge consume my every waking thought—and my every sleeping dream. To be fully aware—and to live the best life I can anyway.  

 

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