Last week I drove solo from North Carolina to western Pennsylvania for a family funeral. This meant contending with a hellacious rainstorm and then steering through fog so thick it almost made the 18-wheelers in front of me invisible – and that was just the first 90 minutes of the trip.
Another seven hours passed before I arrived at the hotel, met up with my parents and went to the viewing. The next day I attended the funeral Mass and a luncheon afterward, got into the car, drove five hours and stopped overnight in West Virginia. I woke up early the next morning, was on the road at 6:30 a.m. and made it back to my office by 9:30. For those keeping score, that’s 1,000 miles covered in 48 hours.
“You must be exhausted!” my wife said when I got home.
Oddly, though, I was not. In fact, I felt surprisingly centered. And not because I completed the whole trip without once hearing “I have to go potty so bad!” or “Why can’t I have another snack!”
It took a couple days to realize what had happened: I’d given my brain an unintentional break from the endless swirl of thoughts and worries and lists about kids and work deadlines and groceries and writing projects and laundry and fantasy football matchups that consume almost all of my waking, and dreaming, hours.
There were, I can see now, four key contributing factors to this mental vacation:
1) Silence: apart from occasionally playing a few old R.E.M. albums, I made the vast majority of this drive with nothing but the sound of the road for company. I didn’t realize how welcome this quiet was until it presented itself. And it’s not as if I did much deep contemplation either. Sometimes it’s just nice to get in a car and drive for a long time and think about nothing. We need that space, free of pinging texts and ringing phones and shouting TVs, a lot more than we think.
2) Perspective: losing an uncle whose family is very important to me made a lot of the obsessions in my own little world seem pretty trivial. Death has a way of doing that, at least for a little while. I don’t get to visit my relatives often enough and was determined to focus every available minute on them.
3) Attention: with my mind finally slowed down a little by silence and perspective, I was able to do something else pretty unusual: really pay attention. During the short burial rite high up in the cemetery, I admired the beautiful fall colors in the woods below and the way the leaves spiraled to the ground. I felt the surprisingly warm October sun on my back and listened closely to the town bell tolling and every single word of the prayers said on my uncle’s behalf. At no time did I think of being somewhere else, or want to be somewhere else, and that is very out of character.
4) Suddenness: Because my uncle died on a Sunday and the viewing was on a Tuesday night there wasn’t really any time to anticipate the trip or plan for it. Circumstances jolted me out of my normal routine of work and family and that somehow seemed to give my brain permission to think a little differently too. I’m all for structure and schedules and actually love the work-family routine, but sometimes shaking things up a bit can do us some good.
Quite honestly, it shouldn’t take a funeral to make a little room in my life for these four basic principles. Still, I have no doubt that my uncle, who was pretty much incapable of ever slowing down, would get a chuckle out of this.