A Flash of Light
On humans, machines, and traveling kindnesses.
I wanted to stop L.A.traffic and give someone a hug. Right there in the middle of the 5, southbound. I wanted to use superpowers to bring all the machines safely and agreeably to a stop, get out of my car, walk to the eighteen wheeler in front of me, wait for the driver to step out of his truck — and give him a big, fat hug. But I’ll never know that man. Hell, it could have been a woman. Let’s call the truck driver Charlie. Before dawn, in the heart of L.A. traffic, I wanted to give Charlie a hug. But Charlie veered left onto the 60 East, and I kept traveling south on the 5, with everyone else. I didn’t notice anyone besides Charlie drive off into the sunrise. I wonder where Charlie is now.
Traveling by car is strange. Enter big metal machine. Sit down. Adjust your body so it fits machine just right. (Isn’t life just a long series of standing, sitting, and lying down?) Place metal key, attached to your hand, into ignition and start machine. Proceed to move from one place to another, through a series of movements with your hands and feet attaching themselves to different parts of machine, as you pass other big metal machines on the road, with other beings with their human bodies who are fitted just right into their big metal machines. Yes, there are people inside those machines. How easy it is to forget. Sometimes our evolving eyes only let us see machines.
Those fine moments, though, when you remember. When your human eyes work within the machine. By some radical grace, you see a trucker with his left hand blinker on. You’re driving in line with his 16th wheel and you have room to slow down and let him in. The better part of you wins, you gently press the brakes, and you flash your brights three times to say, “Go ahead, Charlie.” Charlie gets over and acknowledges you back. He flashes his tail lights twice to say, “Thank you kindly.” Two strangers in their big metal machines, somehow communicating. Somehow human.
And then, tears.
When Charlie flashes his tail lights in the pre-dawn L.A. traffic, you suddenly begin to weep. I know I’m tired, you think, but that can’t be all there is to this. You think of your dad who drove trucks for years. You think of your trip through the Western Cape of South Africa when you learned to drive on the other side of the car, and road. And there was that trick with the headlights people did, just to say hi. And you remember how warm that made you feel. And then you think of Juba. And then more tears.
You remember how people communicated with their headlights. Even in a place so wickedly chaotic, there was order in headlight communication. If someone needed to turn, they would flash once. If the person in oncoming traffic could slow down, they would flash twice to say, “Go ahead.” Then, the person who was turning would flash once again, to say thank you. More tears as you remember how this made you feel. What do all of these moments have in common?
A flash of light.
Some signal someone was willing to send saying, “I’m in here, in this big metal machine, a human. Want to talk? We can still talk. Here, I’ll flash my light for you. Won’t you flash your light for me?” Already once removed, if we refuse to flash our light in return, humanity suffers just a bit more in that moment. The machine, in all of its big, metal, divisive vainglory, wins. Should we choose to flash our light in return? We could put a smile on someone’s human face, or make their heart well up with so much joy, they weep. We might just change someone’s life.
I hope I made Charlie smile. I hope he felt acknowledged. A person in a tiny stationwagon can still have a sense of the stress a truck driver might feel, traveling one of the busiest freeways in the world. I realized that was part of it. Maybe it was my dad or my experience driving in unfamiliar and chaotic ways and places. Probably that mixed with the mysterious, radical grace. Whatever it was, I was able to signal to Charlie I was human, and ask if he wanted to talk.
And then Charlie changed my life. That’s why I wanted to stop L.A. traffic and give him a hug. With his one small kindness, Charlie altered the course of my day, the course of my heart, and the course of my life. Charlie chose to acknowledge my presence in his life, and respond. He chose to communicate. Even though separated by big metal machines, in that moment, we were connected. With a flash of light, we were human, together.