Whether I’m driving or walking, I don’t like to take the same route twice in a row. So, if I’m going to the store, even if it’s just down the block, I’ll probably take the direct route there but then head around the block and take a back way home. I also don’t like toll roads very much; so, if I can avoid them without going hours out of the way, I will do so. We took an unexpectedly scenic and snowy route through the mountains of Pennsylvania on our way to Gettysburg to stay with Melissa’s family for the night (a stop on our joint way to Boston for the new year). On the way back from Boston (after one of my favorite reunions ever—even in spite of a body and soul draining illness on New Years Eve…I wouldn’t have felt any worse if someone had come up and whacked me on the back of the head), we followed the smart phone app—I call mine “Goo” or “Boo” or “GooBoo” if I’m feeling extra affectionate—which gave us directions through Massachusetts, then Connecticut, through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and finally back home to Indiana. I could write a bunch about the relative merits of the various map systems that we had at our disposal (for example, TomTom—aka, “ThereThere”—gave the speed limit for each road we were on, while Goo showed us traffic and weather patterns and adjusted our ETA accordingly), but that’s not what this little post is about; instead, it’s about the serendipity of stubbornness.
It took us just about 18 hours to get from Boston to Indianapolis, which is a long time to drive at a stretch, for sure. It would have been shorter by at least an hour to take the toll roads back home (at least, according to Goo, who knows such things—I mean, obviously, who knows what actually would have happened had we made a different choice, right?), but we would have missed the opportunity to drive through two small towns that have come to make a big impact on both Laura and I.
The first town was Shrewsbury, MA, the childhood stomping grounds of one Mike Birbiglia. I won’t spend too many minutes or words saying why this is an important place for me; instead, I’ll let the jokester tell a joke: “A couple years ago, I performed for the U.S. troops and signed autographs for people who had been gone from America so long they didn’t realize I’m not famous. They’d be like, “Where do I know you from? And I’d be like, “Are you from Shrewsbury? Because I played backup right field for Economy Paint Supply, I don’t know if that rings a bell.” I can’t actually say why or how Birbigs struck such a chord in me, but he’s by far, my favorite comedian. I can tell you when I first started listening to him and maybe that will give a clue to some of the other questions: I picked up What I Should Have Said Was Nothing, in early 2009 with some Christmas money; I was unhappy, in limbo, and unhappy to be in limbo, looking forward into fog–finishing up grad school before I was “supposed” to, waiting to hear back on the verdict from Peace Corps, unable to nail down anything solid in the meantime (especially in terms of employment or relationships). So, any way, I could always count on Mike’s comedy to give me some solid laughs, no matter how many times I would listen to the same jokes. Comedy tracks aren’t often like rock songs because once you’ve heard the punch line to a joke, it can never really hold the same weight as it did when it was new; plus, words sp0ken into a microphone don’t usually have the same tie to memory as guitar riffs and vocal melodies…but regardless of the usual, I could listen to Mike’s albums over and over without getting too tired of them. I loved to slip references into everyday conversation, and I especially loved to share his work with others. SO, yes, Shrewsbury was a great surprise, especially since we listened to about 8 hours worth of stand-up on Pandora throughout that day. Laura and I were bickering back a forth a bit at that point—as couple’s on road trips are wont to do—but it all stopped as we smiled for the few minutes that we drove through Mike’s town.
The second town would not have drawn our notice if we’d been on that trip two weeks ago, but the notice and feeling was inescapable when we saw the sign for Newtown, CT approaching. We had fallen silent in Shrewsbury, but it was an amused silence as if we were on the verge of breaking out into a panda joke; in Newtown, the silence was weighty. There was one handmade sign hung on an overpass that said “Pray for Newtown”, but other than that there was no sign that anything had happened there recently (or ever). If we had noticed anything in the quiet white hills at all, I think we would called it “peaceful”; we might have noticed icicles hanging from the trees or imagined how very green it would have been in the winter sun had become its summer self. Laura suggested after we had passed through, that we might have stopped off in town to lay flowers (if we’d had any), or at the very least to pray. I think, though, that we both did pray for Newtown in that moment, for the loving lives left behind in sorrow, but we didn’t stop. I said we should just let Newtown rest and regain its name; they need our thoughts but not our (touristy) bodies clogging up the streets.
I should say that in neither town (with the exception of the few words scrawled and hung in Newtown, so easily missed) was there anything that would indicate that they were any different than the hundreds of other towns that we had driven past or through in the course of the trip. But, just being in these towns—or rather, being in a car in these towns—felt like important life experiences on one level or another. Both of them were unexpected; each time the town sign met us with surprise. I don’t want to equate the two towns or the two experiences—one was a very pleasant surprise, and the other a very solemn one. But both encounters were made possible through the stubborn serendipity of saying “No tolls!” and following through on that, no matter what. Sometimes that’s all you need…
When we love, when we love the least of these, then they will be brave and free…