I’ve been thinking about abundance, and generosity, and about our modernized skewing of both. About how often our culture preaches self control, self examination, self care – misguided attempts at mastering the art of simple living. (Guilty.)
Mostly, I’ve been thinking about 4-lane highways.
Have you ever been to Ojai? It’s been called the happiest town on earth; the most blissed out place to visit (then move to, then stay forever). Prophets and bike rides, mud spas and chili fries, black jeeps and indie bookstores – something for everyone, everything for someone. And then there’s the long-lauded “pink moment” where the evening sky becomes airbrushed with the colors we donned in gym class in ’94. It is life-changing, they say. Completely dumbfounding.
Last week, I stumbled upon this essay where Ojai’s mayor spoke of her love for the town, for the people, for the healing energy and peaceful lifestyle the area’s known for. She spoke of dreams and development in a town where, purposefully, not much has changed. She spoke of fighting the 4-lane highway, of making sure the town can support the traffic. And then she says this:
“If you want to save your town, don’t widen the road.”
Save your town.
Don’t widen the road.
When I first read this, I thought it wise. Yes, that’s it. Don’t widen the road. Don’t overcommit. Keep it small and simple. Tidy. Surely that’s the secret to a happy life? To consider the cost; be smart about what you can handle? Luke 14:28?
But then, Luke everything else.
I was raised with a fairly conservative world view (this is not about politics). I was taught that resources are limited, that we must choose wisely. Our days are numbered, as is our bank account, as are our talents/schedules/bodies/towns.
This view served me well. Thinking conservatively taught me to never live beyond my means, to never bite off more than I can chew. It’s one way I’ve learned to reject more for the sake of more; that our job here is not to amass things in need of dusting. It’s one way I have managed a wholly debt-free life, creating a work schedule dictated less by need and more by want.
I say one way on purpose.
The other ways were the other ways: Luck. Chance. Community. Owning a nice blazer for a job interview. Being born in the United States, raised by able-bodied, hard-working parents who never once forgot my birthday. Pop Tarts in the pantry, bike helmets in the garage. How much can I attribute the life I lead to my own hard work, and how much exists as a doled-out blessing at random or stacked on the back of someone else?
If you want to save the town, don’t widen the road.
But what if it’s not our town that needs saving?
What if it’s not about our town, our family, our comfort/security/Pop Tarts? What if it’s about access to opportunity, about those locked outside the town, ignored and refused, walking through wrong-way traffic to witness one small sliver of the airbrushed sunsets we bask under daily?
Are they undeserving of the happy valley, born on the wrong side of the highway?
I find that I’m growing weary of preserving. Of amassing, of protecting, of thinking in terms of our town and not, of our highway and not, of our pink moment and not. Of shutting the gates, locking the doors, free and clear of outsiders in the name of traffic, of all things.
It’s everyone’s sky, after all.
It’s no one’s sky, after all.
We call the saving of our town wise, of course. We call it being responsible, smart. Planning ahead! Setting boundaries! Showing restraint, holding back, saving the town!
Some might even call it a fruit of the spirit; this practicing of self control.
And yet: when you’re making decisions for other people – whether under your own roof or your corner cubicle or the blissed out town of Ojai – what to make of the consequences?
Where does our version of self control bleed into others control? When does our own willpower become a power to wield? When does our own restraint strain someone else?
How does one protect what’s inside without keeping away what’s outside? When does our margin become someone’s hedge? What’s the difference between a boundary and a fence?
Is there one?
Don’t widen the road, we say.
It’s not sustainable, we say.
Save the town, we say.
And no, this isn’t about politics at all.
It’s about a mind in the midst of being changed. It’s about me, padding out to the dining room at 2am to sit down and write something that I remembered to be important, only to find that it’s important for an entirely opposite reason.
It’s about realizing how many times I’ve put myself in the center of the story and tipped the plot toward a place it wasn’t intended.
I remember the moment I began to identify with the experience of being an adult, rather than a kid. I was watching reruns of My So-Called Life with a newborn, a nursing Bee on my chest, two dogs at my feet, the open bag of pecans on an end table. It was the episode where Angela’s mother Patty is feeling lonely and unsure in her marriage so she cuts her hair off and everyone’s reaction is terrible. And Angela makes that stinging, self-absorbed comment: “Mom, just because I changed my hair doesn’t mean you should.”
And all I could think about was Patty – not Angela’s almost-kiss from Jordan that day, not flannel shirts or algebra homework, but Patty and the shears and the hope and the red dress and the sadness. And I couldn’t bring myself to watch the show anymore, to sit down and wrap myself up in the comfortable angst of a teenager without wondering how all of it might negatively affect her mother.
That’s what this feels like. It feels like I’ve been listening to the heartbroken Angelas in the center of our town – and slowly, surely, my ears are turning toward the unheard Pattys on the edge of the highway.
I suppose what I’m learning is what I’ve already learned: that life must be held with a shaking, loose grip.
And I thought I understood. I thought I’d already mastered the need to release control and surrender to the unknown. I married a man with a brain tumor, after all. Letting go was something I offered on the regular.
And yet: there is always something we cling to. Our kids, our time. Our goals, our own small visions. Our future. Our “security.” Our wants and needs.
Our own personal Ojais.
Save the town!
My justifications are many, of course: I’m an introvert! I have small children! I need to maintain my energy; to offer my family my best!
(There it is again. My family. My best. Our town.)
Don’t widen the road!
I’m trying to be less selfish, is all. I’m holding my calendar loosely – saying Yes more than No. I’m opening the screen door to my neighbor’s granddaughter, sending her home with an armful of watermelon. Visiting neighbors, delivering muffins. Staying up late to help Ken with his project, waking up early to work on my own.
I’m sleeping less, but better.
I am realizing that I have spent years successfully whittling down my life in the name of simplicity that I had forgotten to add back in a few essentials: the element of surprise, sweat on your brow, a good old-fashioned inconvenience for the sake of another.
And now, slowly, with much debris – the road is beginning to widen.
Turns out, there was room all along.