Friday, January 18, 2013

Stars and Traffic Lights


Outbound, on a new route, I drove under a flashing red warning light just beyond a sign advising me to yield to oncoming trucks at the intersection. As mine was the only vehicle on the road, I didn’t even slow down. In fact, I pressed the accelerator just a bit harder, mistress of my fate in that imprudent moment.

On my next trip outbound, before dawn, in a fog so thick that I feared for my life, I didn’t even see the red glow until I was already too close to yield to anything. I motored on and shivered, wondering how many times I might ignore that light without harm.

On the last return trip, begun sooner than planned in an attempt to beat a sleet storm, I drove faster than I should have, again alone, nothing ahead to slow me, no police presence to deter me. The roads were still dry, the light strong enough to trace the arcs and curves and anticipate hills and valleys. I let my foot off the accelerator as my van reached the peak and picked up speed on the downhill side. I imagined the wind upon my face, bracing, as my stomach turned as giddy as it might on the most frightening roller-coaster runs.

In good light, I followed the white outline that traced the asphalt.  Beyond it, little or no asphalt. Beyond that, nothing but soft dirt, some bright green moss, fallen leaves, and the hillside falling away. At the speeds I drove, I couldn’t let my eyes find the bottom; I couldn’t let my mind pursue the consequences of my actions. My senses were alive in survivor mode, alert to deer and side roads that might breach my momentum, transform my solid van into crumpled steel.

As I pulled against an outside arc calling the van hither like a siren’s song, I saw that warning light, this time dark. No red glow. No flash. It swung in 180-degree awkward arcs, side to side, caught in a crosswind pushing through the open space it occupied. I wondered if and upon whom the light might crash, but pushed under it faster than ever before, only to lose all the exhilaration of that wild ride in that last daring affront to fate and time and physics.

My spirit plummeted down those hills while my thoughts fell behind in that desolate intersection with its spunky red warning light, warning of trucks that never arrive, its fog-bound mornings signaling nothing for no one but the silent deer. Now that light is dead. It swings out of control, blasted by a cruel wind bringing in winter fierce. Steadfast no more, it swings, a heavy weight, strung up by some hand of industry long gone.

I slowed down to the posted speed, set the cruise control, and obeyed, alone on a back road through hills that harbor secrets best left uncovered.

Reading Challenge:

Read John Keats’ sonnet, “Bright Star,” and Robert Frost’s response, “Choose Something Like a Star.” Each is about the effects of celestial lights upon the human psyche.

First, “Bright Star” by John Keats

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art--
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors--
No--yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever--or else swoon to death.

And now to Robert Frost’s “Choose Something Like a Star”

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud --
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says "I burn."
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats' Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

Writing Challenge:

Choose something like a star or a traffic signal. Link it to human emotions. Or, if that task fails to inspire you, reread the poems and write an explanation of the stars' effects upon humans.