Every day I drive the five mile stretch of road to my son’s home, then drive back. I do this seven days a week, every single day, except when I’m away. This stretch of road is an ‘A’ road… no parked cars, few turn-offs, just a couple of quiet junctions and very few bends. I know it well. I have been driving it daily for more than fifteen years. So well do I know it, that I barely have to think about it.
Nevertheless, all roads are alive in their own, particular way and taking notice reveals many surprises. This road passes through the fields and hedgerows of rural Buckinghamshire between the town and my village. Driving back today there were men giving the wide grass verges their annual trim and filling the air with that evocative scent of new-mown grass. Being a hot day, the cut grass dried quickly, blowing green-gold flurries across the road. Dust devils danced in the laybys, whipped into action by passing lorries. A flattened can tumbled across the road in silver sparkles, and, as always, the kites wheeled overhead. Beside the road, the tragedy of road kill; the vivid green and red of a woodpecker and the glossy russet of a sleek young fox… a counterpoint to the badger, curled as if asleep in the gutter.
In the hedgerows the scarlet splashes of field poppies and the yellow of ragwort blaze against the pinks of herb Robert and fireweed, while the porcelain blue of cranesbill calms the shadows. By the road a feather, a very large feather, stands upright in the grass. There is nowhere to stop here, so I regretfully silence my curiosity and head for home, feeling the road beneath me through the wheel of the car, hearing the birds over the engine noise.
I notice the details, observing my own awareness in the moment, feeling very much alive. Because it is such an easy road to drive, I can usually pay attention to the road and focus on the changing seasons of the landscape around me. Yesterday, however, was a different story.
A recent housing development at the edge of town necessitated a new road junction with traffic lights. When it was brand new… an interruption to the steady flow… awareness was a given. Very quickly, however, the junction became part of the accepted nature of the road, just another detail to bear in mind when driving. Going into town yesterday threw this into sharp relief, and illustrated neatly the very mechanicalness of which we speak in the Silent Eye course.
I had a lot on my mind that morning and I was already halfway across the junction before I realised I couldn’t remember looking to see if the lights were red or green. There was a flare of horror as I glanced up at the farthest set of lights to check and saw that, thankfuly, I was fine. Time seems to stop in these moments and I appeared to have several conversations with myself at once, berating and questioning, in that strange state of bifurcated consciousness, while still driving steadily through what was, after all, only a split second and a mere ten yards of the junction.
I had obviously looked at the lights on autopilot, which explains why there was no immediate memory of doing so. And that autopilot is one of the things which can carry us through life blind to the details, retaining only the haziest notion of what has been going on around us… and within us for that matter, focussing entirely on the personal and missing so much of everything…and everyone… else. It is a conveniently effortless state in which to live and very often we are simply unaware that we are operating in that way as habit, routine and our familiar normality hold our attention in a mechanical state. It does make me wonder just how much of our lives we live as automata before we finally hit that junction and have to wake up.