Last week on the freeway, a car did a 360 and crashed into the shoulder, right in front of me. I pulled over and called 911, then got out of my car and walked back along the road to make sure the driver was okay. No one else had stopped.
A woman in her late 20s with dust all over her face was standing by her car, crying and shaking. I led her to my Honda, gave her a Handi Wipe for her face, and listened as a torrent of panicked words flowed from her mouth—she was unemployed, she didn't have insurance, she shouldn't have been driving at all, people were so crazy on the freeway. I agreed that people were crazy. I told her that I'd seen the guy in the pickup cut right into her lane. I told her that it wasn't her fault, that she was lucky she wasn't hurt, that the cops would come and fine her, not arrest her, for driving without insurance. When the tow truck arrived, I handed her my number in case she needed a witness. I gave her a hug and told her "Good luck."
The next day, when she found my number in her wallet, she would remember me as the lady who stopped and remained calm at the scene of the accident. To her, I would be the woman with the two kids' car seats in back, the kind of mature adult who stays clearheaded and calls 911 and offers hugs and empathizes and has a travel pack of Handi Wipes in her glove compartment.
What the hell has happened to me?
Right before the accident, I was listening to Eckhart Tolle on my car stereo. He's the guy who tells you to live in the now—sort of like the guru Ram Dass but more clean-cut, and with a German accent. "Please pay attention not just to the words, but to the silent spaces between the words," he was telling me as I hurtled down the freeway at 70 miles an hour. "That's where the shift happens." I was trying to focus on the silent spaces between the words as a means of putting my worries and neurotic thoughts aside. I wanted to shake off the frustrations of my workday before I picked up my daughter from daycare. I wanted to be relaxed and present, not harried and distracted and bossy. I wanted to be living in the now.
I've never exactly been an expert at now-living. In fact, I had Eckhart Tolle on in my car to begin with because five years earlier, when I was trying to gather the will to dump the last of a string of freewheeling, noncommittal stoner boyfriends, I was given the CD by a Reiki healer recommended by a friend who was having so much trouble living in the now that she could barely sleep at night. I was skeptical, but the Reiki healer, despite having a job title that sounds like an exotic dog breed, was a very good listener. Sure, she would conjure the spirits of the universe occasionally, rallying them to aid me in my quest to find myself and, if necessary, ditch the man whose childlike sense of wonder seemed to require him to remain unemployed indefinitely. But the universe did appear to be on my side more often during that time, plus the healer gave very pragmatic advice: Exercise. Get more sleep. Read this book. Stop thinking that way. Mostly she encouraged me to open myself up to the unknown, to stop hiding from the world. She quickly recognized that I was a creature of habit, interested in safety above all else, and she could see how it compromised my enjoyment of life. She told me to try new things for a change, drive to new places, stop and eat at random Chinese restaurants and taco trucks, wander through the world with open eyes, dare to be vulnerable in the face of life's unpredictable twists and turns. I ate some really bad Chinese food during that time, but something shifted inside me. I became more courageous. I listened to the Eckhart Tolle CD she gave me only twice before I resolved to dump the stoner and move on.