As someone who's chosen small-town life, I prep mentally for days just to drive into Minneapolis -- I dislike congested freeways as a matter of course.
Interstate 70 through Missouri, though, is worthy of singling out. Vehicles have a habit of careening across its pencil-thin median and taking out the unsuspecting in the opposite lanes. Unfortunately, Highway 70 is the gauntlet between my in-laws and my sister in St. Louis.
Last June, I braved it. I had a new niece, and I was going to see her, come hell or come flood. After days of sun, the morning of the trip dawned predictably, monsoonal rain, thunder, lightning. I caught a shuttle in Kingdom City, near my husband's brother's. Each passing vehicle turned the van windshield to milk. Semis transformed us into a dinghy on a foggy sea. At the height of the storm, a little Sunfire rooster-plumed past. Through the spray, its rear plate flashed, "RTS4GOD."
What I haven't told you yet is that I'm a poet. My brain read "WRITES FOR GOD." As that idea registered and began simmering, another part of my mind was thinking, "Sunfire. Sun Fire. SON Fire." At that moment, an RV lumbered past on the right. The word "Imperial" emblazoned on its side laterally bisected the window, followed by a bumper sticker that said something to the effect of "Christ is Lord."
Now, the word "God" on a vanity plate strikes me as interesting, and doctrinal bumper stickers will never be my personal style. But the intersection of the two on that rainy highway went a long way toward calming me. I finished the trip only half as afraid.
Three days later -- under blessedly bright sunshine -- my brother-in-law drove me to the Greyhound depot in downtown St. Louis. I was hooking up with my husband in Columbia, which added the bus as an attractive option. I went for it. Bigger vehicle, I thought -- more space between me and the windshield.
Picture it. Middle-aged college professor, clutching a biography of Emily Dickinson, steps into another world. I was keenly aware as I jostled with the milling midday crowd that I was wearing a ring worth more than some of my fellow travelers made in a year.
Don't misunderstand. I wasn't fearful that someone (someone poor, someone streetwise, someone with skin tone different from mine) would take it. No, believe me -- what was foremost in my mind was the prospect of two hours on Highway 70. But as I waited and watched the crowd, it was clear to me that there are people in places I don't often think about who live a tarnished version of the American dream.
My bus was called. I boarded and as luck would have it claimed a pair of unoccupied seats. "Ah, space," I breathed, settling into the window seat.
It was a thought too soon.
A young man, noticeably Semitic-looking, boarded. Empty seats stretched hither and yon, some next to attractive women his own age. Surely he'd pick one. But, no. He brooded his way down the aisle and slung into the seat next to me.
The young man was, well, he was unsettling. Wearing combat boots and camouflage-fatigue pants over civilian clothes, he radiated silence. To my considerable surprise, he pulled an age-darkened paperback out of his backpack and settled into a read. Occasionally, he chuckled out loud.
Now, I was observing all this from the safety of the pages of Emily. Soon the bus was moving, nearing the interstate. My blood pressure was elevating. I thought, "Who is this person and why did he sit with me?" As I thought it, I lifted my eyes to look out the bus window, lifted them squarely onto a giant billboard. Five block letters stared back: J E S U S. Need I say what a startling juxtaposition of thought and landscape that was?
Jesus? Reading his way across Missouri on a Greyhound bus? The academic in me said, "Yeah, right." But the poet, the mystic, tapped the other shoulder and said, "Not so quick to dismiss what you don't understand."
As my seat mate napped, I stole a look at what he was reading: CAKES AND ALE by Somerset Maugham. I didn't know the book but knew the writer -- pretty literary stuff. My mysterious seat mate seemed oblivious to me. The only overt notice he took was to stare intently at a portrait of Emily in my book -- the famous one doctored to give her ruffles and curls. "That's right," I sent telepathically. "They had to try to change her."
Our one mutual moment came as we pulled into Columbia. Two homeless men were approaching the drivers of cars at a red light, and together we watched them. "Jesus --" I said in my head, " -- if you are Jesus, what are you thinking?" It occurred to me later I'd become so engrossed in my traveling companion, I'd forgotten to be afraid.
I'm convinced the road through life is strewn with messages. You can bet I ordered CAKES AND ALE as soon as I got home. The book turned out to be written for me -- a hilarious look at the life of a writer and the jockeying for position that goes on in the literary world. As a writer yet to publish a book, I know it only too well. Maugham's take on it was buoying.
The fit between me and the book was so right, I had to wonder again about my seat mate on the bus. At the least he was Providential Distraction. But I could almost buy that he was Jesus. The stumbling block was the combat boots and fatigues. They didn't fit any picture of Jesus I'd come across.
Then came the events of the fall. Suicide flights. The Twin Towers. The Pentagon. Anthrax. War and rumors of war. In the face of it, I had to wonder if the experience of the bus trip hadn't been to prepare me, to alter my thinking about the nature and nurture of God.
I obviously can't say who the man on the bus was. Maybe just a college student -- maybe someone more sinister. When the pictures of the terrorists were published in The Dispatch, my husband spread the paper on the dining room table and said, "Any of these the guy on the bus?" I admit. The thought gives me pause.
But why am I -- why are we -- so reluctant, this week after Easter, to entertain the thought that the Divine (intuited, sought after, honored in various forms across the globe) may move among us? Since September, I've had to conclude that if God as Good Shepherd travels this earth, He's in the middle of some heavy stuff. Boots and camouflage would be smart.
Only for brief and longing moments do I imagine that the ride ahead as world leaders decipher and engage terrorism is going to be easy. In fact, I expect we'll yet see moments surprising and dreadful. But take it from me. If you can get your focus on whatever celestial seat mate travels beside you -- whatever happens, you won't be so afraid.
"Whoa," I hear you thinking. "Here's another wacky poet, too much time on her hands."
I'll grant it -- you may be right.
And you may be wrong.
(Donna Salli is a Brainerd resident and instructor at Central Lakes College.)
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