This Is What Growth Looks Like
You can’t make radical changes in the pattern of your life until you begin to see yourself exactly as you are now. As soon as you do that, changes flow naturally. You don’t have to force or struggle or obey rules dictated to you by some authority. You just change. It is automatic. But arriving at that initial insight is quite a task.—Venerable Henepola Gunaratana, Mindfulness In Plain English
On Tuesday, January 8, 2013 at approximately 9:27a, I was pulled over while driving my two charges to their 9:30a dance class. According to Officer Not-Terrible-Looking, I was doing 61 in a 35mph zone (while crossing a relatively new bridge into the town, I went with the flow of traffic and never noticed the itty bitty speed limit sign at the very bottom of a steep decline because I am basically blind: please don’t tell the NJMVC. Thanks!). I calmly and respectfully told him where I was going when he asked; as requested, I handed him the appropriate documents, which were already gathered. A few minutes later, he returned to the window, handed back the documents, and sent me on my way by saying: “I see you have a good driving record, so you can go. Just watch your speed on that bridge, okay?”
* * *
Some “fun” facts:
__ In May 2008, I was pulled over for going 76mph in a 55 zone. The trooper claimed I’d been going so fast, he’d driven through two towns before catching up to me. I was already in a bad mood because I’d left the house late for work and a one hour and forty-five minute drive provides plenty of opportunity for a bad mood to become an evil (and stupid—don’t forget stupid. STUPID) mood. Stankly, I asked him if he was even sure it was me he’d clocked.
__ Late one evening/early one morningi in December 2006, I was driving to an inappropriate destination (read: an ex-boyfriend’s house) when—yep—I was pulled over for doing 61 in a 45ii. I was tired, cranky, and in one of those pesky man-hateymoods: unfortunately for me, I directed a tiiiiny little bit of all that crazy at the wrong man.
__ In April 2003, I was on my way to work when—no, you didn’t guess it—I was pulled over for running a red lightiii. This time the attitude I caught was, yes, stupid BUT it was also rife with self-righteous indignation because I knew for a FACT that I had not run a red since I had been staring at the yellow light for the entire duration of time that it took me to speed—STFU—through it.
This would be *really* demoralizing if there wasn’t a point to all this ego carnage.
So, what is that point? No, it’s not that my license should be taken away (though I havepondered my luck in that regard for some years now); it’s that for many, many years, whenever I felt ashamed and embarrassed, (in many, many situations) I responded with nastiness, projecting, condescension, acerbic and untimely “wit”, and good old-fashioned crazy. This was not only car-related (those just happened to be some handy examples), this was in almost every facet of my shitty-by-my-own-design life—and it was making said life rather difficult, totally unnecessarily. Luckily for me, I got aloooooot of help “arriving at that initial insight”. One helper’s name was (is? I sure hope she’s not dead: she was IS a super lady!) Nikki.
And, yes, this story involves a car too. Two cars, actually.
By June of 2008 it had been about five months since I got a promotion, and I hated my new job even more than the old one: I commuted 105 minutes each way (if I was lucky enough to avoid traffic) to one of the most economically and socially blighted communities in NJ; my manager was a year younger than me and still very much trying to find her own way in that position; the staff we managed was comprised almost entirely of nineteen, twenty, and twenty-one year old males (she and I were 24 and 25) who had previously only worked for middle-aged men; we were a very high volume sales location without enough employees, so there were more than a few days that I worked an eight-hour shift without so much as a bathroom break; and after about three weeks of being on the job, I realized I had to sacrifice all semblance of a social life in order to get adequate rest because one evening I woke up justintime to prevent an imminent head-on collision. Yes, I had fallen asleep at the wheel on my way home.
My store was located in the middle of a small strip mall that offered infuriatingly few parking spaces. One day I was actually able to sneak out for some food and a moment of semi-private respite. When I returned, the only available parking spaces were the one right in front of the store (bad form in retail: it’s inconsiderate to knowingly inconvenience a customer) and one in a lot two blocks away. Since I wouldn’t be getting back in the car until after dark, and since there had already been severalinstances of disgruntled customers threatening to come back and kill me after closing, the spot right in front of my store felt like the lesser of two evils. Decision reached, I had to approach the space from a direction that forced me to maneuver around the large SUV to the right. I’m still not entirely sure what happened (other than my being so stressed and unhappy that I was literally blind to anything but my own misery), but I barely got the nose of my car into the spot before a horrible—terrible—tragic scraping, scratching, and catching occurred: in the middle of a busy sales afternoon, in plain view of all of my staff and our customers, I mauled a parked car.
Instantly humiliated, terrified, ashamed, and worried about 4,000 interrelated yet distinct issues, I backed my car out, corrected it, and managed to get into the space successfully. Then I got out and inspected the damage to the other car. It was relatively minimal but that made no difference: at that point, any pretense of my being a together grownup (or even an adult at all) was gone. I saw that though there was no one in the driver’s seat, someone was in the passenger seat: a boy who was about twelve or thirteen. I rushed over to his open window.
“Where’s the driver?!” I demanded.
“In there,” he said, startled, and pointed to the shoe store right next to my store.
“And who is the driver?!” I shouted, doubling down on my ridiculousness.
“Um…my mom. She’s in one of the back aisles, I guess. Can’t see her right now.”
I walked away without another word. Fighting back tearsiv, I walked into the shoe store and basically bellowed, “Whoever owns the red ******* ********** needs to come outside. Now!” Not only was I being an asshole because of my own stupidity and horror at the situation I alone had created, I was also making assumptions about the driver I had yet to even lay eyes on: I “reasoned” that if customers I had tried and failed through no fault of my own to help could threaten my life over a billing snafu, what the fuck was some chick whose car I’d just fought with my car gonna wanna do?! In that moment, I decided the best defense was an unwarranted, overtly aggressive, embarrassingly misdirected offense. A few seconds later, a very calm woman responded to my klaxon.
“That’s my car.”
“Okay, well you need to come outside now because I just hit it!”v
Once we were outside looking over the wreckage, I was stunned to discover that not only did the woman not want to box, she wasn’t even angry. On the other hand, I was rapidly approaching meltdown, and she could tell.
“What’s your name?”
I was suspicious but answered anyway. “Cory.”
“Okay, Cory, I’m Nikki. This isn’t a good situation, but you really need to calm down because it’s not that serious. Plus, you hit me, so what’s with the attitude?”
If you are reading this and have never been prone to over-the-top overreactions (even to admittedly stressful stimuli), then the words “calm down” may not have even registered; if, however, you are now or have ever been prone to Tony Soprano-esque paroxysms of semi-psychotic rage, then you know that, in general, the wise suggestion of calming down often causes the exact opposite reaction.
This was the first time it didn’tvi.
As soon as she spoke The Words, I could feel myself starting to react but…something stopped me. Perhaps it was her compassion in spite of my beastly behavior. Perhaps it was the simple-yet-profound-in-that-moment nature of what she’d said. Perhaps I was just too worn down by everything. Perhaps it was the awareness that my staff had almost certainly observed this entire fiasco, and sooner or later I would have to walk back through those doors and finish Assistant Managing them for another four hours. Perhaps I’ll never know for sure. Perhaps it doesn’t even matter. What does matter is that I took a deep breath, looked Nikki directly in the eyes, and spoke: “You’re right, I do. I’m sorry.”
Like I said above, this incident didn’t immediately set me on the path to some serious self-work (that “incident” ended up being a series of incidents that came to a head three summers later—the summer heat and I are definitely not simpatico…), but it was certainly one that I’ve never forgotten: even though I didn’t yet have the tools to do anything with it, the knowledge I gained from this bummer of a situation proved invaluable once I did.
Nearly five years later, my ability to remain calm during a traffic stop feels almost miraculous (well, maybe being accused of having a “good” driving record is the real miracle: perhaps Officer Not-Terrible-Looking isn’t a conscientious reader because there have been further…incidents…): I hate to be late so I was a bit stressed about that; I’d slept very poorly the night before and had been awake since 5:15a; and when he mentioned the posted speed limit, my very first thought was (in all seriousness) “Oh no there was NOT a posted speed limit sign, you lyin’ ass bitch”. Given how much has changed for me since I tried and failed to kill Nikki’s car and she was all “Whatevs!” about it, I’m very curious how much more will change in another mere sixty months. Maybe I won’t have gotten pulled over at all! Or maybe I’ll have given birth to a jewel-encrusted unicorn whose magical piss resurrects the dead AND prevents natural disasters.
Either way, lots to look forward to…
iiNot that anyone is likely to believe me (and can I blame them?), but I swear that I am not the worst driver ever. I can provide documentation, if necessary.