A few weeks before the holidays I was heading to an important production meeting early one morning.
Near the exit for Baltimore Avenue on the Washington Beltway I see flashing lights up ahead. My speed had already slowed below my typical for that area as freezing rain threatened to turn driving from tricky to treacherous. The flashing lights are gathered in a clump. Something must have happened.
It’s the city. Something is always happening. I realize things happen everywhere, all the time, but city dwellers develop a strange resistance to events that might otherwise command town gossip for days somewhere smaller and quieter. Nonetheless, attuned as we all are to shift our attention toward bright lights and loud sounds, I cannot help but turn my head to look at the blinking reds and blues as I pass. Fire trucks and tow trucks and police cars are jammed together along the shoulder, and for a moment I can’t figure out why they’re there. On the edge of a dangerous, icy road it’s as if they’ve gotten together like a group of teenagers on a Friday night, taking selfies.
Then I see why. Big wheels are sticking up in the air, camouflaged by the foliage in the ravine running along the beltway. An eighteen-wheeler has skidded off the road and flipped over, wheels facing the sky like the legs of a dead armadillo baking in Texas sun. The blue fiberglass cowl of the trailer is crumpled like an old beer can, the long boxy body of the beast split and busted open like a swollen whale carcass.
“That's a bad wreck," I mutter to myself, and I keep my eyes on the road in front of me, navigating carefully, aware that the rain is flirting with the concept of ice. But I can’t help myself: I steal a glance behind me in the rear view mirror. Had that wreck happened in the center lane, traffic would be stopped for miles. The DC beltway is notorious for traffic tie-ups that block tens of thousands of people. “Maybe it didn't happen in the right-hand lane”, I wonder. “Maybe the work crews just moved it off to the side of the road to open traffic.”
“No, that’s stupid.” I shake my head to myself. “That can't be. They wouldn't have pushed the truck into the ravine.” It occurs to me that what I see must be exactly what happened, that I’m free-associating a rationalization to make sense of it. Actually, for all the thousands of us drivers passing that wreck on a gray, slick morning, we caught a lucky break with that particular wreck. A gigantic tractor-trailer flipped over catastrophically on the beltway and didn’t snarl traffic in the slightest. That is, traffic continued to move for all but for one hapless driver in the cab of the truck, his life changed irrevocably. Even if I make the optimistic assumption that the driver walked away uninjured, I’m certain that his life changed. A presumable milk run in his truck turned into a day he will never forget, one which will shape him and his associates and family for years. The paperwork, the lost stuff he was hauling, the millions of details and explanations and self recrimination and damage to his reputation will echo and reverberate like a legend. It could not have been a happy holiday season in his home, no matter what the outcome. It could only have fallen somewhere along a wide spectrum of bad.
I make my way around the rainy beltway and reach my destination safely. But the story of that truck, it’s driver, and the fateful moment when for some reason unknown to me he lost control and it plunged to its doom stay with me.
Everybody has a story. At 50 miles an hour in traffic, I pass this particular one and thank my lucky stars that it doesn't hold me up from an important meeting an hour into my own future. If I choose, I can continue on my way and hardly think twice. For most everyone passing that spot on the Beltway, the morning was essentially like every other morning, save for a slightly more dangerous driving surface. But not for everyone. Not for that driver.
If you think about this from a different perspective, that's true of each of us, every second of our lives. Some moments are more dramatic than others, some more visible, some more attractive, desirable, unpleasant, tedious, exhilarating, or simply dull. We all turn to look at flashing lights on the side of the road more readily than we look at a rusted out hatchback limping along in the right lane. We pass both, but one pulls our gaze more easily than the other because it’s more dramatic, more cinematic, further outside our daily lives and experience than the other. The old car with the anonymous driver is practically invisible and we almost never see it or its pilot. The wrecked tractor trailer demands attention because of gigantic mass and dramatic, atypical orientation. But the fact is, everybody has a story and for all we know, the driver of the anonymous econo-car in need of body work has a humdinger to tell.
Artists of all types spend their days telling stories of all types. When you consider that everybody has them, some more dramatic than others, perhaps, we begin to realize how important it is to simply pay attention whenever we can. When we do—when we notice and recognize the pointillistic aspects of a complex world told one story at a time, we gain an ever-so-slightly greater ability to refract and transform our own stories into creative enterprise that relate and resonate.
Did you get a cup of coffee today somewhere? Starbucks, 7-Eleven, the community coffee pot by the mailboxes near the end of the hall? The person beside you bouncing lightly on the balls of her feet waiting for her own cuppa-cuppa had a story in her life today, just like you do, too. You might never have met, and you certainly don’t need to listen to her whole spiel right now. After all, you’ve got somewhere to be, something to do, something else on your mind.
But at least be aware that something is happening for her, right now. Whatever’s going on for her, whatever’s in her head, whatever’s in her life, is a story you don’t know about, and that makes it something worth thinking about.