7am, dusty road. I'm going to drive until it burns my bones.
7am is symbolic for 11am, because please.
On Friday night, I fell into a familiar abyss of existential boredom and despair. It begins with, "What should I do today?", which becomes "I have nothing to do today", which quickly morphs into, "I have nothing to do in life, and there is no point to my existence."
Life is distraction from death. When you find yourself incapable of being distracted, it becomes a problem. I ran through a list of things to do in my head—eat, sleep, read, drink, watch television, talk to people, brush my hair, get off the couch, stay on the couch. Nothing. I not only did not want to do any of those things, but I decided categorically that all of those things were just the worst things in the whole world and everything was stupid.
This happens to me not infrequently, and I find it's usually a consequence of some external event. A manifestation of anxiety or depression or whatever a doctor-like person might call it. This week, I think it was the roller-coaster of once again not knowing how to be a woman and not despair. Which is basically the story of my entire life, but it was particularly in focus for me in the aftermath of the Texas filibuster and the decision on the Voting Rights Act. Forget the focused passion, and dedication, and rage—all the governor has to do is call another special session, because he sees the raucous cheering of his people as a symptom of disease rather than its cure. Also, racism is over. Thanks, Justice Roberts.
Once ennui sets in, it's unshakeable for at least a couple of weeks, if I'm lucky. It's a horribly clingy, ill-mannered hitchhiker that gives you no say in where it gets off and also wants you to feed it. I was already beginning to resign myself to its effects, because when you are ontologically incapable of caring about anything, dignified resignation is pretty much all you have.
This time, though, the world saw fit to bequeath me a tiny spark of inspiration. I moved to North Carolina a couple weeks ago, and having lived my whole life in northern cities (and Korea), it's been quite a change. I also have a car, which I did not usually need in New York or Seoul. It suddenly dawned on me that I could go anywhere. I had no obligations to anyone—I live alone (with my dog)—and I had nowhere to be until Monday.
I'm normally one for meticulous planning and execution. I mean meticulous. This is a direct result of (a) having a tiger mom and (b) having come from a job in which my CEO wouldn't even entertain the thought of looking at my work unless he knew I had exhaustively researched and planned for every alternative outcome, adverse or otherwise. This time, though, I got as far as finding out how to get to the Blue Ridge Parkway and then going to sleep.
In the morning, I grabbed my purse, my phone and my dog and started driving. I didn't even bring water, or coffee, or a change of clothes, which is something I regretted later when my dog sprayed lake water all over me. It took me 3 hours just to get to the Parkway entrance, but it was so worth it. If you've never been to the Blue Ridge Parkway, it's basically one road from Virginia down through North Carolina and possibly to Tennessee. It winds through the mountains, and it's one lane in each direction so you can't pass the car in front of you. The speed limit is 45mph, and I think that might even be too high, because the road gets pretty twisty. Every few miles there are overlooks where you can stop your car and stare at the mountains and the farms and the lakes all around you. Sometimes, there are moocows and ponies fenced in along the road. It's extraordinary, both in beauty and in how wonderfully the government has set up and maintained the park system. Do you ever wonder how roads get made? I don't. But after driving hundreds of miles through mountain passes, you begin to marvel at how bureaucracy sometimes can create something worthwhile.
If you look really closely, you can see me not caring about not caring.
For the first time in my life, I drove way below the speed limit and didn't mind. I think I got out at 80% of the lookout points, which means it took me about 7 hours to get to Asheville, NC when it's really like a 3-hour drive. No matter. I had all the time in the world, and I could do whatever I wanted. I stopped at a lake to let my dog swim. (She has recently discovered that bodies of water might be her friends and not Scary Monsters, but if I don't go in with her, she'll swim out about 5 feet and then immediately turn around to come back on land just in case I'm thinking about abandoning her. Also, she of course shakes out all the water right next to me so I get soaked, and then rolls around in dirt, because it's fun to make me clean mud out of my car.) Climbed some rocks. Saw a bunch of big birds that I thought were maybe wild turkeys? Except they weren't ugly. Almost got hit by a deer.
I was content. Happy. Solidly in the present, rather than the usual absent-minded dreaminess or zombie-like boredom that defines me. (I'm not kidding about absent-minded. I sometimes forget to do things like rinse the shampoo out of my hair, until I step out and realize I'm hearing bubbles.) I love driving, but I almost never do it for fun. At last, I used my car for something other than getting from Point A to Point B without sweating too much.
A motorcyclist, clad completely in black leather with the exception of a bright yellow helmet, was behind me for part of the way, for at least about an hour of the drive. Whenever I slowed down to look at the scenery to my left or right, I saw his head turn in the rearview mirror, an echo of my own reaction. Each time we saw the blue ridges—the rolling hills and trees layered against each other like paper cutouts—we could not help but look. You would think that after a while, seeing the same mountains over and over again would lose its novelty, but it wasn't so. Each expanse of space and air and water and tree was a fresh, glimmering backdrop of green and blue.
When I was growing up, my dad would sometimes wake us up at the crack of dawn (the actual crack of dawn by Earth time, and not by my time which is around 11am) and yell at us to get in the car. He would rush us out of the house, not tell us what we were doing or where we were going, and be in a foul mood until about 2 hours later when we found ourselves in New Hampshire on the way to Maine or avoiding DC traffic as we drove down to West Virginia. I still remember being crammed into a mini-van with all of my cousins, and a huge icebox of kimchi in the middle of the car, on a family road-trip to Niagara Falls. (I am not sure you can fully understand the smell of fermented cabbage permeating your entire existence for 10 hours. It is the worst. Dad, you can survive 3 days without kimchi. I promise.)
My dad almost never had a concrete plan, and gave us almost no advance warning. He didn't even seem to enjoy most of the trips a lot of the time. But now, I understand why driving in America is such a big deal for my dad. You can drive from Seoul to the bottom of the country and back in a day. This past weekend, it took me 8 hours just to make my way across part of one state. He wanted us to grow up and take for granted the American experience he worked so hard to attain. He also wanted to show his mother—my grandmother and the bedrock of our family—the fruit of her sacrifice and the new future that she had established for us by making that long journey from North Korea to South Korea to New York City.
It's not just the vastness of the country, or its beauty. It's the liberty of it, this fundamental essence of freedom. It's not a grand concept. It isn't a trite one, either. It's a particular and unparalleled feeling, to be unfettered. I had no plan. I just looked at the compass on my rearview window and decided to drive southwest towards Asheville. I could have gone north to Virginia, or east to the ocean. I had nobody to meet, no schedule to keep. For my dad, who was providing for his mother and his sisters from the time he was 19 years old—throughout which he went to college and business school at night, and from which he became a powerful CEO—driving through America probably means a thousand times more even than it does to me. This was how he knew he had made it out of the slums of Queens, where he and my grandmother and my aunts first arrived with literally 20 dollars and their clothes. I don't even know what that would be like.
I've inherited from my parents a life of incredible privilege. Money has never been a concern for me. I've taken my education and my comfort for granted. I have a degree, and a car, and a dog, and I never have to worry about the everyday things that make life difficult. So instead, I am distracted by the abstract. The difficulty of being, because everything else was made easy for me.
It was intoxicating, the feeling that I was absolutely free, that I owed nothing to anybody. This is not true, of course. I owe my parents everything. I am not free in the life others want for me—other politicians, other harassers, other villains. I am reminded of this any time I open a newspaper or step outside into the street. But I can manage. We sing merrily from the time we are children that life is but a dream. This country, despite its endless array of problems and problem people, is at its core about the boundless, unshaped potential of what you can do if you are given the freedom to do it. A big if, I know, and the very basis of why we are here. Because there are those who would deny this freedom, and they run contrary to the whole point of this grand experiment. So we fight on. It's the offui to my ennui—transforming rage into something productive, something better. Sometimes, though, I need a little reminder of why I care, and why I care about this country in particular. And that's what I found today.
On the way back, I drove into a lightning storm. I saw what I first thought were fireworks lighting up the dark clouds on the horizon, though the sky was perfectly clear where I was.