Friday, August 22, 2008

Chopin on the Road

When I crossed the border from Georgia into Tennessee, one side of the road was still slumbering in a long dark shadow; but on the other side the morning sun was spreading a thin layer of gold on the pine trees, and those needles at the top were sparkling in response.

My mind was as calm and contented as the landscape was still and bright. These long drives could be tiring, but they also helped me to unwind. My past few months had been stressful with frustration and anger accumulated but undealt with for lack of time. Just three days ago, when I had started this trip and my car had just reached the countryside outside Washington, pent-up emotions had suddenly broken loose and created such a storm inside my mind that a whole CD had finished playing on the car stereo without me hearing anything. As the miles had rolled by one after another, the commotion in my head had subsided and finally died down, and I had realized with shock how tense I had been.

Stress therapy aside, I was still a sucker for road trips. I supposed they appeased the restlessness and the curiosity in me, or maybe it was simply my kind of fun. As a child I had accompanied my parents on road trips occasionally; and I still remembered the rush of excitement at the appearance of the blue shape of a mountain faintly visible in the horizon, and at the thought that before long I would reach that distant, unfamiliar place. Since then I had passed beyond a great deal of blue mountains, but the excitement had not diminished, for which I considered myself a fortunate man.

I was not so fortunate in one particular aspect. Since leaving my childhood behind, the more I had learned about humanity, the dimmer my view of it had become. Sometimes while mulling over my own existence, I felt as helpless as a seabird trapped in the body of an earthworm. Thinking too much was certainly a bad idea and made my life terribly lonely, but it was in my disposition and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

I shook my head to dispel the gloomy thoughts, then popped a CD into the player. The brisk, bright, and exquisite piano sound of Chopin enlivened my mood. Outside, the sun was cheering up the lush but quiet landscape. White farmhouses and red barns, green meadows with black-and-white cows grazing or just lying around, then a river full to the brim with a big country house half-hidden behind a bend. This part of Tennessee was less developed, and there was no strip mall or big box in sight.

Presently I hit Interstate 40. My first trip on this highway had been on a Greyhound bus before starting graduate school nearly thirteen years ago. To the west and across an area of spectacular rugged mountains was Nashville, where I had changed to another bus to Memphis and had sat between a drunk and a cowboy carrying a guitar. The memory brought me a grin and a chuckle, but I had to turn east to get back to my current place in life. No time for wandering now.

Chopin was still playing, the sun was still shining, and my mind was drifting from one small thought to another until I noticed that lining the roadsides were cypresses instead of pines. I was approaching Bristol, where thirteen years ago a Canadian journalist had got out of that Greyhound bus after giving me a long talk on the corruption of the wealthy and politically influential. I had changed from an earnest greenhorn who would have swallowed any story back then into the hardened skeptical man of today, and I wondered if it was really for the better. Naiveté could hurt, but without trust life would be just a desert of dead rock.

I left Bristol behind and crossed the border into southwestern Virginia. The hilly countryside here was picturesque, basking in light and covered in green grass. Farmhouses, cows and horses attested to a slow pace of life. I turned on the radio and caught some country singer telling the world that he was a common man driving a common van, and something about highbrow people losing their sanity which made me burst out laughing.

I supposed it was possible for me to live a normal, happy life. I could cast aside my weltschmerz, get a good woman, and occupy myself with whatever husbands and fathers normally did. Suddenly I found myself yearning for a suburban home filled with light and affection. There would be a couple of kids playing around, orchids in the kitchen, and the sunlit sound of Chopin.

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