Road Trip

“Reflections on a Road Trip,” Bob Ryder

“No one says, at the end of their life, “If only I’d spent more time at the office.”

Muhammad Ali “A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.”

Acts 9:1-19  Saul was still breathing threats of murder against the disciples of the Lord. He went to the high priest and asked for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way he could bring them bound to Jerusalem. As he was approaching Damascus, a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying, ‘Saul, why do you persecute me?’ Saul asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ Saul got up, but though his eyes were open he could see nothing.  So his fellow travelers led him into Damascus, and for three days he was blind, and he neither ate nor drank.

There was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord told him in a vision, ‘Get up and look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. He has seen you in a vision coming to lay your hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind any who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel; I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake.’ So Ananias went and found the house where Saul was. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

Can you think of something that happened to you once that you understand differently than when it first happened?  Maybe you experienced an illness or injury, maybe a break through or victory, maybe the nature of a relationship means something different to you now than when it began; maybe the reason it began or ended isn’t what you once thought.  That story of Saul’s conversion is a perfect example of someone coming to see old things in a new way.  Saul’s view about Jesus and his followers at first was that they were traitors to the Jewish faith and deserved to die.  Later in life he rejected the primary importance of Jewish law and became an eloquent proponent for Christian grace.  Fortunately, in my opinion, spiritual transformations almost never happens that suddenly or dramatically, but Paul is still a model for how healthy faith changes us just as much as it sustains us.  You could even argue that growth, development, maturation – in other words “change” – is the essence of faith.

Some of you attended “The Beyond Normal Story Slam” last Friday evening.  The theme was “Road Trip!” and I told a story about a driving adventure I shared with Susan’s mom Phyllis 16 years ago.  Phyllis was in the process of reinventing her life after her husband died the previous fall, and part of that new life was going to be with us.  Susan and I encouraged Phyllis to come and live with us in Normal whenever she liked for as long as she liked, and part of making herself at home included moving one of her cars here so she could have her independence.  The story I told at the slam was about Phyllis’ and my experience transporting her car together back here from California. There’s a link to the WGLT recording of that story on NCC’s FB page, and you can find it on the WGLT website as well, so I won’t retell it now.

The gist is that we scheduled a quick trip where I’d fly to southern California, get in the car with Phyllis pretty much as soon as I got there, and we’d start the drive home so I could get back to Normal quickly.  I’d had a meeting on the calendar for later that same week, thus we planned our itinerary to be an efficient, no frills trip so I could get back in time for it.  The main point of the story revolves around a moment where Phyllis hinted at a side-trip she wanted to take to visit Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.  She found herself torn between the understanding we had about the necessarily brief and efficient agenda for the trip enabling me to keep my appointment, and her irrepressible instinct to pursue adventures.

Part of my story harkened back to a family vacation Phyllis took with us a few years earlier along with our niece Laura, where she had experienced the same sort of conflict and become increasingly insistent on rearranging the trip as we went along to indulge some of her own spontaneous inclinations.  As the saying goes, if we don’t learn from history, we’re doomed to repeat it, so I approached this trip with my radar on.  Sure enough, my priority of keeping on schedule came up against Phyllis’ inclination to pursue adventure on a stretch of interstate where billboards advertising the Petrified Forest became a siren song luring her away from our carefully planned timeline.  She fought it as best as she could, but temptation got the better of her as we approached the exit leading to the park and she summoned the courage to hint at her desire.  “Bobby, have you ever seen the Petrified Forest?”  Having seen this coming for more than a hundred miles, I’d steeled my resolve and blew past the exit, treating her question as passing conversation rather than as the thinly veiled mutiny it actually was.  “Yes,” I said casually as we speed past the off-ramp.  “I was there once when I was a kid.  It was just okay.”

For years since, I’ve enjoyed recounting that moment and Phyllis’ reaction to it for the rest of the trip.  Frustrated that her happy-wanderer essence had been thwarted by my disciplined attack on the miles and hours remaining between me and a scheduled commitment back home, Phyllis began a routine of foot-dragging at our rest stops, maybe to punish me for denying her her explorations, possibly even to sabotage my schedule in the hopes that – were it to become clear getting back in time for my meeting was no longer possible – I might become more receptive to her suggestions for how our trip could be rendered more fun.  And my telling of the story has always been in the key of a playful tease, detailing Phyllis’ passive aggressive tortoise-to-my-hare increasingly slow -roll for the rest of the trip.  Family and friends have heard me go on too many times about the gift shop outside St. Louis where Phyllis took her last best shot at extending our trip by browsing through a souvenir aisle in the convenience store and chatting up an elderly couple in the fast food line as I sat in her car at the gas pump looking at my watch.  Oh, it was a laugh!

Last November Susan and I drove across that same stretch of Interstate 40 through Arizona on our way home from a vacation.  We thought about the story for the first time in a while, and I noticed a pang of regret as I remembered my experience with Phyllis.  I told Susan I felt like I should have taken that exit and indulged Phyllis’ appetite for an adventure.  “Bobby, have you ever seen the Petrified Forest?” she’d ask.  “Not with you I haven’t!” I’d reply as I pulled off to the exit ramp and made a mental note to call ahead and postpone my meeting.  That’s how the story would go now I could relive it.  So when Devon announced the theme for the story slam about a month ago and Susan encouraged me to tell this story, it turns out that while the people and places and timeline are all the same, the story means something different to me now.  It used to be a story about a silly foible of my mother-in-law. Now it’s about my foible.  What strikes me about the story now is that I have absolutely no memory of the meeting I got back for just in the nick of time, yet I’m keenly aware that all my chances to spend time with one of the finest people I’ve ever known are over – white lines on pavement receding in the rear view mirror.  The story used to be about me bringing the trip in on time and a lighthearted jab at Phyllis – a mischievous get-even for railroading that other family vacation if I’m being honest.  Now it’s a cautionary tale about opportunities missed with people I love.

Can you think of an episode in your life that means something different to you now than it did when it first happened?  Our first impression of any experience is prone to misinterpretations and blind spots.  There’s so much more to reality than what we can see at first glance.  For example, my brother Scott and I spent the last several years of our early lives with our parents vacillating between being tense competitors and outright enemies.  I don’t know for certain that Scott would describe it that way, and I regret I can’t ask him anymore since he passed away several years ago, but I think he might agree that each of us felt the other was more of an obstacle to our happiness than an valued family member whom we cared about for his own sake.  Up until sometime in my late 30s or early 40s, my explanation for the poor quality of our relationship was that Scott had just been a bad kid – selfish, irresponsible, lazy.  Whereas I had been a good kid, good at school, held jobs, contributed around the house, and so forth.

Well, at 56 – my god… I can see so clearly that things Scott did that were annoying to me and perhaps “delinquent’ or “antisocial” to an uninformed observer had nothing to do with his character and everything to do family craziness that goes back generations.  No sooner did I marry and move away with Susan than Scott began turning his life around, holding jobs, growing emotionally close with our parents, getting married and becoming an excellent husband and father and business man.  So much for the comforting illusion that all our family problems were Scott’s fault.  And I’m just as aware that the ways I carried myself as kid had almost nothing to do with virtue and everything to do with my own subconscious coping mechanisms.  I was just as capable of being selfish and obnoxious and irresponsible as Scott, and he was every bit as clever and industrious and talented as I in his own ways.  The things we showed to each other and the world and the things we kept hidden from everyone but our most trusted friends were all responses to family demons we couldn’t have recognized – much less understood –  if they’d jumped out of the closet and said “BOO!”  I still have memories that are mostly accurate; names and places and experiences in something like the right chronological order, but I understand them differently now.  They don’t have the same meaning as when they first happened.  The story I tell to understand my life and navigate my journey through the world has changed.

Like Paul, the scales fall from our eyes as we see the world in a new light.  We have faith in a reality greater than we can understand, and we adjust our perceptions as we go learning from our mistakes.  This is the essence of wisdom.  We humans have the capacity not only to take in new information but also to reinterpret it.  Things are not always as they seem, and if it comes to a choice between seeing things as they are or seeing things in a way that makes us comfortable in the moment, well…