Thursday, August 29, 2013

Meditation: On Traffic

We traveled to Kathmandu in December, 2004 to adopt our daughter, who was then three years old. My husband's videos of the events include many minutes of Kathmandu traffic footage. There were rules to the road, but sometimes that meant driving off the road. The road has edges, but no shoulders; you might find yourself in a car driving on bricks set beside it, or in a gully, or--on occasion--on the other side of the road. Even during a three day strike by Maoists, the traffic piled up, though cab drivers--if they drove at all--blanked their plates. At three, our daughter was talking a blue streak in Nepalese. We put her in day care with a Nepali woman in Honolulu who lived in a walk-up near the university, and spoke to Radhika in her native tongue. Radhika chose instead to operate in English, even before she could say much of anything in it. In the afternoon, when I picked her up and drove her home, we'd  get on the H1 freeway and--as is almost always the case--we'd sit there, millimetering along, boxed in by others (un)like us. Then she would inevitably call out the word "TRAFFICS! TRAFFICS!!" She was not going to be a patient child, I could tell, but her use of the English word did make more sense than mine. Each time I corrected her to "traffic," I suspected that her use of the plural made more sense than my static singular noun. I have no idea when she switched over to "traffic," but it was not for many months and never while we took that particular drive together.

In second year German, the joke was that at the end of Kafka's short story, "The Judgment," the word "Vehrkehr" means both "traffic" and "sexual intercourse." According to that unimpeachable source, Wikipedia: "The sentence can be translated as: 'At this moment an unending stream of traffic was just going over the bridge.' What gives added weight to the obvious double meaning of Verkehr is Kafka's confession to his friend and biographer Max Brod that when he wrote that final line, he was thinking of 'a violent ejaculation.'"

When I sit in Honolulu traffic (today it took 2 1/2 hours to drive my son and daughter to their schools and then to return home, where I meditate on the subject) I see an "unending stream of traffic," but it foretells no climax, no ejaculation, hardly even a trickling.  If my car is a soccer ball, there is an invisible keeper at every turn, dressed in loud and yet dimly seen colors, leaping out to halt my progress, return me to visible traffic. To stuckness, stickiness, and thus to all that meditation seeks to ease.

Someone posted on Facebook (another form of traffic) an article that compared adoption to child-trafficking. When we adopted our children, we devoted hours to contemplating the issues of where they came from, how they were relinquished, who was getting our money, if there were (other) ethical issues involved. Our meditations were busy, like a freeway just before rush-hour, pushing forward with the frantic pace of worry, dreading slower traffic. (During my meditations, I want slow traffic; in traffic, I want quicker traffic.) As we climbed a mountain just outside Katmandhu, we passed an enormous billboard with images of women, children, and huge print.  Our driver told us the billboard warned against the trafficking of women.

Such postings cause me a form of road rage on my internal streets, the crooked ones that cannot yet find out how to become straight. Yesterday, a woman in traffic on H3 called her family, reported the locations of a motorcyclist who had cut her off. Family members drove out, confronted the motorcyclist, who shot a gun at the ground. It was in the "breaking news."

Not too long after we adopted our daughter, a writer came to our house with a friend we didn't know. The friend was quite intense, a writer too, we were told. Also a doctor. With our daughter in the room, he turned to me and asked, "is she a real orphan?" What was it made him think he could traffic in our business, our intimate family life?! Traffic is intrusive, it busies the moral mind, it asks questions it has no business--but traffic is what makes business happen. I sputtered, still unsure how to handle intimate adoption questions, even as they kept coming in all their complicated patterns off poorly constructed exit ramps and into our home. Later, I wrote to him and said, "I gather you've been following media coverage of adoption issues [which is never good, whether positive or negative]." I told him that was not a question to be asked, especially not when my daughter was in the room.

In French, the word is "circulation," as if traffic moved in circles, leaving a fixed point and returning to it. If John Donne had known H1, he might have written not about the compass but about the cars. Fixed marks, indeed!

My job is to traffic in words, to exchange them (if never for profit), propel them across state boundaries, international ones. My classes circulate; my students remain young, while I grow older, my cataracting eye on their halting syntax at once more jaded and more kind. Isn't life itself a halting syntax, phrase in search of a comma to slow its trajectory?

When I put a micro-version of the "traffics" story up on Facebook the other day and told my daughter, she said, "mom, you're always having that memory!" But it's never the same memory, I want to say; it has its own traffic patterns depending on the time of day, the year, the weather. I am not Funes, whose memory is so perfect it can never alter. He died of congestion, like many a drive home.

We traffic. That word, like so many, bears no moral or ethical charge until it's modified. But we insist on dipping it in the lye of our conversation, or the traffic words make of us. Traffic is dead adrenaline, but not so the words that pierce us. I yearn for the contra-flow, the zipper lane, the HOV lane, the traffic cop, the off-peak drive.


Andgod said...

I loved the numerous interchanges in your mental traffic. Cars captured by a gigantic keeper and then punted back to the starting line sounds a lot like traffic. (It could also be a great board game...) Keep trafficking in words.

Anonymous said...

you are such a beautiful, wondrous writer, some sentences will remain etched within me... i am one lucky gal to know a person like you - meditative, piercing, knowledgable about quantum life.