When I drive by myself, even when I drive very long distances, I often don’t turn on the radio or listen to music. Even when I drove the fifteen or whatever hours from central Texas to central Kentucky, following behind the Penske in our little car, most of the time I just sat there, thinking. (I also took the time to memorize the Nicene Creed because I happened to have a church bulletin nearby and thought it was about time I’d done so.)
So last Sunday, a few short hours after posting a sabbath meditation about community memory and after drinking more hot tea than I should have, I hopped into our hatchback and drove down to Nashville to surprise a dear friend celebrating her birthday.
It’s a relatively easy 4-hour drive because it only involves two roads: the Bluegrass Parkway and I-65. Here’s the problem I encountered: I really had to go to the bathroom pretty soon after getting onto the parkway. For quite a long time I held out hope that there would be a rest area; this is, after all, a major artery across Kentucky. No such luck. At the point where I was finally willing to stop ANYWHERE–any shady-looking gas station even–there were no more exits with amenities. One of the last exits had one of the blue “food” and “fuel” signs but it was completely blank, as if to taunt me.
Needless to say, I was in dire straights. After merging onto I-65, I took the very first exit I came to and miraculously made it to the restroom. Emergency averted. I decided to go ahead and get gas at this station before getting back on the road.
As someone I know and love says, “I told you that story, so I could tell you this story.”
On my way into this gas station, I saw a pile of duffle bags sitting out by the pay phones at the edge of the parking lot. Propped on those duffle bags was a cardboard sign, “Headed to TN.” My bladder was controlling my emotions at that point, so this all barely registered with me. But as I got gas, I looked over at the bags again, saw the sign again, and felt a tinge inside my chest. I was headed to Tennessee. (I honestly don’t remember if there was an actual person near these bags or not–maybe he or she was on the phone? I can’t remember, and it doesn’t really matter to the story.)
So I felt this odd feeling inside me, and I quickly shoved it to the side. I’m a single woman driving alone for many hours. A hitchhiker might be a murderer or a rapist. My husband was sitting in church at that very moment, and if there was an emergency, I’d have nobody to contact. The person I was driving to meet didn’t know I was coming, since it was a surprise. It wasn’t a good time, I was in a hurry, and I’m not irresponsible. What kind of a person hitchhikes these days anyway, right? Right. I paid for my gas and then followed the signs to get me back onto I-65.
Almost immediately after I got back on the highway–remember that I tend to just sit and think when I’m driving alone–I started thinking about my sabbath meditation of the day, the Wendell Berry quote that ended with these two lines: “If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they know whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another.”
Moreover, they fear one another.
I don’t want to sound like I’m being dramatic about this, and it’s really pretty hard for me even to write about it at a week’s distance, but as I drove down I-65, my eyes filled with tears, my throat tightened, and I couldn’t help but cry. Right there in my car, driving down the highway.
It is hard to be the people we want to be.
It is hard to be community to perfect strangers.
It is hard to admit when you’ve been a hypocrite.
Now I know what you’re thinking. “E,” you’re thinking, “you weren’t being hypocritical. You were being sensible. I wouldn’t have wanted you to stop and pick up a perfect stranger. It’s just not safe.”
Well, for one, Jesus didn’t call us to be safe, not one of us.
For two, being community can mean a lot of things. Saying hello, offering a cup of coffee, just not pretending that someone doesn’t exist. That’s what we usually do with hitchhikers or people asking us for money. And we make excuses about how unsafe it would be to help someone, how the money would just go to alcohol or other bad habits, how they’re probably making tons of money on the side and choosing to pretend to be poor.
Well, maybe so. Maybe so.
But If [we] do not know one another’s stories, how can [we] know whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another.